by Heather Loenser, DVM, Staff Veterinary Advisor, Professional and Public Affairs for the American Animal Hospital Association
If we had the choice, our pets would live as long as we do, but sadly, that’s not the case. All members of the animal kingdom age at different rates. Hamsters rarely live past 3 years of age, yet tortoises and parrots can live to more than 50 years. King Tut, the salmon-crested cockatoo who greeted visitors to the San Diego Zoo for decades, lived to the ripe old age of 67. Many pet owners actually include these long-lived companions in their wills.
When it comes to dogs and cats, each breed, or breed mix, ages differently, both mentally and physically. In general, the larger the breed or size, the shorter the lifespan. A Pekingese is considered a senior at 8 years old while a Great Dane hits the senior mark at age 5.
We at the American Animal Hospital Association maintain that a dog’s and cat’s senior years are the last quarter of its life, but these pets still can have many years to enjoy a rich life. So, if you’re thinking of adopting a pet, think “senior,” and now’s the time: November is “Adopt a Senior Pet Month.”
WHY ADOPT A SENIOR? HE HAS A LEG UP ON A YOUNGER PUP OR KITTY
Senior cats and dogs have been around the block a few times, and that gives them a leg up, as they come with a lot of perks:
- They’re predictable roommates. Many already know what it’s like to share a home with kids or other furry friends and are less likely to chew your shoes, swallow your socks or leave “accidents” on the floor.
- Most seniors are familiar with basic obedience commands.
- Seniors are a lot calmer since the antics of youth are far behind them.
- They really appreciate you! These “second- hand” dogs and cats may have just lost their family or have never known love, so they seem more grateful for your love and attention than their younger counterparts.
BEFORE YOU SAY YES TO A NEW DOG OR CAT, CHOOSE THE BREED THAT BEST SUITS YOUR LIFESTYLE
It’s important to do a little “homework,” before you choose your new pet. Think long and hard about what you really want.
If you’re looking for an active dog who will spend time with you swimming, hiking, and chasing balls, choose a 6-12 year old breed or mixed-breed like a Labrador, Pointer, Hound or Pit Bull.
If you’d prefer a companion who’d rather lounge on the sofa keeping you warm and showering you with love, a Greyhound is a great bet! Believe it or not, retired racing Greyhounds are huge couch potatoes!
If you’d like your pet to accompany you when you grab a coffee, go to the bank…or sit next to you on a plane, opt for a tiny dog, like a Chihuahua or Poodle mix. These breeds can be content traveling in a comfy carrier.
And if you’re thinking small, maybe a cat is the way to go. What’s great about adopting an older cat is that his behavior remains relatively the same throughout his life. Cats are famous for hiding the signs of aging. Plus…many cat breeds, like Burmese, Abyssinian and Manx have similar personality traits to dogs. You can find these breeds in breed-specific rescues. Some may be harder than others to locate, but breed rescue organizations are eager to help you find what you’re looking for.
And finally, if you’re a caregiver at heart, consider rescuing a dog or cat who needs special attention. There are many rescue organizations that specialize in finding homes for special needs pets.
ANOTHER REASON TO ADOPT A SENIOR? ADVANCEMENTS IN VETERINARY MEDICINE HELP THEM LIVE LONGER, HEALTHIER LIVES
Veterinary medicine has reached a golden age, especially in our ability to treat pets in their golden years. This is especially good news since our pets are living well past what used to be considered a normal life span.
Many prospective pet parents seek my advice, voicing concern about caring for an older pet’s health, but truthfully, many seniors simply need love, exercise and preventive care from a veterinarian. Your veterinarian may follow the American Animal Hospital Association’s Senior Health Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats which specifies the kind of care and testing older pets typically need. Veterinarians now have access to cutting-edge treatments including pain management, MRIs and chemotherapy, kidney transplants, acupuncture and herbal therapies.
Once you bring your new senior home, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. He or she can identify pre-existing diseases and diseases that could have been transmitted within the shelter. Depending on the age of the pet, the vet may recommend repeating a physical exam and laboratory testing every year if the pet is middle aged, or every six months if he’s a senior. There are well-established guidelines for the veterinary care for dogs and cats depending on their life-stage.
SENIOR PETS AND SENIOR PEOPLE DEVELOP MANY OF THE SAME DISEASES
As pets age, they can develop health problems similar to those in elderly people. These include cancer, heart disease, kidney/urinary tract disease, liver disease, diabetes, joint or bone disease, senility, and weakness.
Keep a watchful eye on your pet to see if he exhibits any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty climbing stairs or shows limited mobility
- Refusing to eat for more than 18-24 hours
- Acting confused or “spacey”
- Panting or coughing when exercising
- Showing a reluctance to exercise
- Exhibiting a swollen abdomen, or appearing “suddenly” overweight
- Drinking more than usual
Schedule an appointment with your vet if you notice any of these symptoms. Many of these diseases, if identified early, can be treated simply and in a cost-effective manner. To find a hospital accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association near you, use this hospital locator.
Investing time and energy to enrich the life of an adoptable senior will bring joy to your life as well…and may even make you pause and ask, “Who Rescued Whom?”
For resources on dog and cat care from the American Animal Hospital Association, check out:
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) is the only organization that accredits veterinary practices in the United States and Canada. Not all animal hospitals are accredited. In fact, only about 3,500 (12-15%) animal hospitals in the United States and Canada are accredited. Find out if your pet’s veterinary hospital is accredited. If they are non-accredited? Ask them to consider accreditation!