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Sharing your life with an animal companion can be tremendously rewarding. Most pet owners will happily describe the many qualities that makes their pet a unique individual. But one thing all pets have in common is that they grow old long before their human family members.

As your pet's guardian, it's important to remember that aging is a natural and unavoidable process. With a little help and understanding, that graying muzzle will be resting contentedly in your lap for a long time to come.

What to Expect

In general, aging in animals isn't a whole lot different from aging in humans. Vision, hearing, mental agility and physical stamina gradually begin to decline. Appetites and sleeping habits may change. Activities that were once routine may become difficult or exhausting.

These changes don't mean that quality of life is deteriorating. Old age is simply a different stage of life, one which may call for some adjustments and adaptation, but which can be just as enjoyable as the the preceding years.

How Old is Old?

It's difficult to give an exact age at which a pet should be considered elderly. There's a lot of variance between species, breeds and individuals. As a general rule, the last third of an animal's lifespan can be considered his or her senior years.

Most cats, with a lifespan of 12 to 15 years, are considered elderly around age 8. Large dogs tend to age quicker than small, lightweight dogs; symptoms may begin around age 6. Tiny dogs such as chihuahuas may not start slowing down until 8 or 10.

Caring for Your Elderly Friend

There are a number of things any pet owner can do to ensure an elderly pet is as comfortable and secure as possible:
Exercise - exercise is important, but an elderly dog will benefit more from multiple short walks than one or two long walks each day. Multiple walks will also provide additional bathroom opportunities -- helpful as bladder control becomes more difficult with age.Mobility - both cats and dogs will benefit from ramps as it becomes increasingly difficult to jump or navigate stairs. If your pet is losing vision, avoid rearranging furniture. Likewise don't relocate food, water, or litter boxes.Pain Management - arthritis is very common in both dogs and cats. Fortunately there are many options available to help with pain management and restore mobility. Stiffness, difficulty standing or walking, or reluctance to jump or use stairs are symptoms of arthritis.Diet - speak with your veterinarian about the ideal diet for your pet's changing nutritional needs. Soft, moist foods may be more appealing to reluctant eaters.Grooming - for an aging companion regular grooming will stimulate blood circulation, which improves overall health and aids with temperature regulation.Comfort - laying on hard floors is uncomfortable for older joints and bones. Provide a soft, warm bed -- you may even want to consider orthopedic foam for arthritic animals. Heated beds may help ease arthritis symptoms.Dental Care - good dental care is important at any stage of life. Painful teeth and infected gums can cause a myriad of health complications which an aging body is ill-equipped to handle.Stress - if possible, avoid introducing new pets into homes with elderly animals. A new addition can be very stressful. If leaving town, try to find a pet sitter who will come to your home rather than boarding your furry friend in an unfamiliar location. Likewise, a vet willing to make house calls will prevent the stress of an office visit. Aging or Illness?

Often the symptoms of aging are very similar to manifestations of illness; never assume any physical or behavioral changes are normal and don't need attention. If your mature pet is acting out of character, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

General check ups are also important. At Advanced Pet Care of Northern Nevada we recommend elderly pets be examined twice a year. Our
Senior Wellness Exam is designed to evaluate the overall health of mature pets as well as screen for illness or disease:
Complete physical examinationSenior panel comprehensive bloodworkUrine and fecal analysisArterial blood pressure testThyroid testComprehensive eye examCancer screeningHeartworm testing This thorough examination will also provide early detection of age-related symptoms, such as failing vision or arthritis. Though aging is unavoidable, the severity of symptoms can often be reduced with simple medications or procedures.

Aging Gracefully

Sharing your home with an elderly companion can be every bit as rewarding as it was in more youthful days. With care and attention an elderly pet can spend his or her golden years with dignity, surrounded by loved ones in the comfort of home.