Americans will do anything for their pets. But many pet owners don't realize the things they do for their pets must change as their four-legged friends get older.
Kansas State University veterinarian Susan Nelson says there are many simple things pet owners can do to ease the aging process for their beloved cats and dogs.
So, what constitutes "old age" in cats and dogs? Turns out, it's not as simple as the old "add seven years" equation we grew up using.
The average ages vary for cats and dogs to be considered a senior pet, said Nelson, who is also an assistant professor of clinical services at K-State.
According to an age analogy chart by Fortney and Goldston, cats are considered senior from the ages of 8 to 11 years old -- the equivalent of 48 to 60 human years. When cats reach age 12 -- equal to 64 human years -- they are considered geriatric.
The aging process for dogs varies according to weight. Dogs between 0 and 20 pounds are considered senior at 8 years old -- or 50 years old in human years -- and geriatric at 11 years old -- 62 in human years. Dogs that weigh more than 120 pounds are senior at age 4 -- 49 human years -- and geriatric at 6 years old -- equal to 69 human years. Dogs whose weights lie between the two ends of the chart are adjusted accordingly.
"Aging pets are a lot like aging people with respect to diseases and senility issues," Nelson said, citing diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, periodontal disease and heart disease as some of the conditions that can afflict aging pets.
"Like people, routine exams and tests can help detect some of these problems earlier and make treatment more successful," Nelson said. "It's also important to work closely with your veterinarian, as many pets are on more than one type of medication as they age, just like humans."
Owners can prevent disease or increase longevity by helping their pets exercise, maintain a healthy weight and stay current on vaccines and heartworm prevention.
"Such actions obviously can't prevent all diseases, but when caught early, many diseases can be managed and extended good quality of life can be achieved," Nelson said.
"It is important to take pets in for a semiannual health exam and lab tests for early detection of problems," Nelson said. "Diseases such as systemic hypertension and Diabetes Mellitus are just a few that can occur at a relatively young age and often take owners by surprise. Urinary or fecal incontinence are other issues that may occur as your pet matures."
As pets age, their behavior can also change, Nelson said. They may have changes in appetite or activity, tend to sleep more, become easily disoriented or interact less with the family.
Pet owners may not expect some of their pets' behavioral changes, such as senility, phobias of thunderstorms or separation anxiety. Because senior pets can develop anxieties -- such as fear of loud noises, crowds and children -- pet owners should try to avoid those situations when possible and talk to their veterinarians about behavior modification and the possibility of behavior modifying medications if indicated.
To ease the aging process, avoid having pets run and jump because such activities are stressful on their joints. Walking or swimming are better alternatives for pets with osteoarthritis. Many joint supplements, pain medications and joint health diets are available to help osteoarthritis.
Owners also can provide a warm, quiet, soft place to sleep, soften food if painful teeth are a problem and change a pet's diet for specific diseases when prescribed by their veterinarian, Nelson said. Owners also can do simple helpful tasks, such as flipping yard lights on at night if a pet is having vision problems or moving a litter box for easier access if stairs are a problem.
Nelson said owners should visit with their veterinarian when they have any questions or concerns about their aging pets so they can learn the best ways to care for them. With some extra preventative care and awareness of their pets' needs, owners can provide a healthy and comfortable life for their aging friends.
"Lastly, give your senior pets lots of TLC -- tender, loving care," Nelson said.