Expert Q&A: Advice on caring for older cats and dogs, keeping them healthy and when to seek help

Find out how to spot the early signs of illness – and book a free senior health check
Find out how to spot the early signs of illness – and book a free senior health check

If love could keep our pets alive, they’d be with us forever. Sadly, as we know all too well, it’s impossible to prevent the inevitable – but there are lots of ways to help prolong your pet’s quality of life. Woodgreen’s community outreach officer, Serena Moore, has some advice to keep pets happy and healthy into their twilight years.

What steps can I take to prepare my pet for their senior years?

It might sound early, but we recommend that people switch their pet onto a senior diet at around 6-7 years old. These are lower in calories, meaning your pet won’t put on weight as their mobility decreases, and have tailored nutrients specifically for older pets.

What steps can you take to prepare your pet for their senior years?

You may also want to consider using joint supplements, even before the sign of any stiffness or discomfort, especially if you have a larger breed that’s prone to arthritis and mobility problems. Regularly health check your pets so you can spot any medical concerns early on, which very often makes treatment easier and less expensive.

How can I health check my pet?

It’s a good idea to check over your pet from ‘nose to tail’ once a month. Look inside their mouth to make sure their teeth are clean, their gums are pink and there’s no strong smell. Their ears should be clean and free from wax, their nose shouldn’t be too runny and their eyes should be bright and free from cloudiness or discharge.

Gently feel over their body for any lumps and bumps, and part their fur to check for fleas, sore skin, matted hair or debris like grass seeds. Lift up their feet to check the length of their claws and the condition of their paw pads, and keep an eye on their grooming habits in case of worms or digestive issues. Having regular ‘accidents’ indoors can also be a sign of illness.

Fun games to help fight doggy dementia

Cats are prone to thyroid problems, so if you notice that they’re eating and drinking more but losing weight, it’s best to speak with a vet to seek early treatment.

What changes can I make to my pet’s lifestyle as they get older?

It really depends on your pet, but it’s very likely that they’ll be sleeping more and won’t be able to do as much exercise as they get older. Reduce any vigorous activity like ball throwing – even if your dog still loves to chase, it could be causing pain or damage. Check for any stiffness and time your dog walks. For example, it might be that they can only comfortably manage 20 minutes rather than the usual hour. Take the time to slow down, choose different routes and allow your dog to just sniff and potter around.

Don’t forget about enrichment too, as five minutes of mental stimulation a day can dramatically reduce doggy dementia! You can practice tricks they know (or even introduce some new ones), give them their meals using Kongs or puzzle feeders, or hide some treats in a snuffle mat for them to search out.

How can I health check my pet?

Should I be making any changes to my home?

A common problem we see in older pets is separation issues when they can’t get upstairs/onto furniture any more, after spending their life sleeping comfortably in bed next to their owner. Consider what you could do in your house should your pet’s mobility be affected, so it doesn’t come as a sudden shock. We recommend encouraging dogs not to jump at all as they get older, as hard impacts can damage their joints.

You can use ramps or steps to help your pets get on/off of furniture, or in/out of the car. If you have hard floors, which can be slippery and difficult to grip, consider laying rugs or mats.

Is it normal for my pet to have smelly breath?

Although it’s very common for older pets to have smelly breath, it isn’t something that should be expected as it’s a sign of dental disease – usually a build-up of bacteria over many years. As well as causing pain and tooth decay, oral health problems can also cause heart disease, so it’s worth the time and effort to look after your pet’s teeth.

The best way is to brush your dog’s teeth regularly with pet-friendly toothpaste, alongside dental chews that are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. You can get your dog used to a toothbrush by letting them lick off yummy meaty toothpaste, then gradually progress to brushing.

If your dog is already showing signs of dental disease, introducing a brush at this stage might irritate the gums further, so speak to your vet about having plaque and tartar removed.

How often should I take my pet to see a vet?

We recommend at least an annual check-up, as well as responding to any symptoms early-on. When you see your pet every day, you might not notice small changes, but your vet will be able to spot and monitor any issues. Some practices have senior pet clubs that include things like weight monitoring, blood tests, regular check-ups and discounts on medication too.

If you are prescribed any medication for your pet, speak to your vet as you may be able to purchase it online, which is usually much cheaper. You can also chat to them about ongoing pain management, meaning you can give your pet some relief just on the days they need it.

For more advice from Woodgreen’s friendly team, the charity is running a FREE Senior Pet Health & Wellbeing Check at its Godmanchester Center on Wednesday 7th December. To find out more or to book, visit www.woodgreen.org.uk/events.

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