Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Geriatric Pets


Pet Column for the week of October 27, 1997


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist

"Old age is not a disease," says Dr. Karen Campbell, veterinarian and professor of small
animal medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. "Old age is a
stage of life which is accompanied by a slowing of all physiologic processes and a gradual
loss of body functions and adaptability." Dogs and cats are considered old after 8 to 12
years of age. Cats and small dogs generally live longer and age later than large dogs.
Owners may notice a decline in activity level and mental alertness, hearing and/or sight loss,
and a loss of fastidiousness in excretory habits" as their pet ages.

"There are some predictable changes that accompany aging," said Dr. Campbell. Metabolic
rate decreases and caloric needs decrease by 30 to 40 percent in the last one third of the
life span. Body fat increases and lean body tissues decrease. Respiratory capacity and
oxygen availability also decrease. All of these things limit the physical activity level of older
pets. The body's ability to regulate its own temperature is decreased, and older animals will
often seek warm places to rest. They are also more subject to intermittent sleep. Older pets
may have increased blood pressure and increased cholesterol levels. Their immune system
also becomes less responsive, and they are less able to ward off infection. The incidence
and malignancy of tumors increases with age. The signs of age are more evident when the
pet is in a poor nutritional state or when the level of stress is increased.

There are several things owners can do to keep their older pet in good condition. Providing
a high-quality diet formulated for older pets will ensure balanced nutrition without extra
calories. Moderate exercise helps maintain healthy heart and lungs and muscle tone. Proper
diet and moderate exercise will also help keep off extra pounds that could contribute to
other health problems. Older pets have become creatures of habit and enjoy predictable
days. Stress can be prevented by not making changes in your pet's environment or daily
schedule. If changes are necessary, make them gradually and maintain as much of the usual
routine as possible.

Dr. Campbell emphasizes that aging is a gradual process. Sudden changes in an animal's
condition, behavior, stamina, or appetite indicate a health problem and not simply aging.
Daily grooming will help locate bumps, changes in the color or texture of the skin, and hair
loss, which can indicate a problem. When describing any changes to their veterinarians, Dr.
Campbell suggests owners note the character of the change, when it first appeared, and
how it has changed over time since it was first noticed.

Finally, Dr. Campbell recommends regular checkups for older pets. A complete physical
examination can detect many problems, such as with the heart or liver or lungs, in the early
stages when treatment is most successful. Your veterinarian can offer options to help
increase the length and quality of your pet's life.

For more information on the care of aging pets, contact your local veterinarian.