News Item | PAWS Chicago

Ask the Vet

by Alison Martin | Jul 27, 2016

Tips for keeping elderly pets happy and healthy

Good health is possible at any time of life, according to Dr. Barbara Royal, PAWS Chicago Board member and owner of the Royal Treatment Veterinary Center.“Old age doesn’t have to equal ill health, and with the right care and supplements, senior pets don’t have to ‘act their age.’”

Royal says some of the more common health issues senior pets face include arthritis, loss of vision or hearing, obesity and dental, heart, liver or kidney problems. Adopters, however, shouldn’t feel intimidated by these potential issues. Working with senior pets can be a joy. And with a sensible approach to health, age will be just a number: “Age is not a disease. It is a measure of success,” Royal says. “People often explain problems as signs of age and will say ‘She’s just getting old.’ But ‘old’ is not a diagnosis: It is just an assessment of how long the pet has been here.”

The approach of fusing Western and Eastern medicine, promoting fresh, high protein diets, plenty of exercise, daily supplements and massage therapy is effective for keeping pets young. “We have a lot more that we can do to help them keep their youth so a geriatric animal of maybe 15 years can still have a lot of vigor because we have effective nutrition and supplements,” she says. Above all, she encourages her patients to keep their pets active and moving. “If they aren’t challenged, their brains and bodies will deteriorate.”

When Royal’s own dog, Tundra, was 11, she worked on a strategy that she now applies to all aging pets: “I was thrilled that Tundra lived another six years—playing on the beach and living a wonderful life. Supporting animals as they age is something I look forward to, because my clients and I consider aging an asset rather than a disease,” Royal wrote in her book The Royal Treatment. “We can’t make our pets live forever, or extend their lifespan to match ours,” Royal notes, but there are some common-sense actions we can take to “mitigate the effects of old age.”

Like humans, as a dog or cat ages, they may not be able to see, smell or hear as well. Royal has a number of suggestions for helping them deal with these changes.

  • SMELL: If your pet seems uninterested in food and other medical issues have been ruled out, it could be because they have lost some of their sense of smell, which is an important appetite stimulant. To enhance the smell of food, you can warm it up or mix in hot water or chicken broth.
  • SOUND:  Try using hand clapping or high-pitch tones to get the attention of your dog or cat. You also can gently massage small circles around the base of the ear to improve circulation. Finally, acupuncture can be considered for hearing loss in some cases.
  • SIGHT: Many older animals have hazy vision that can obscure depth perception. If your animal is suffering from vision problems, you can add light fixtures to key areas like stairwells. Another tip Royal offers it to avoid rearranging furniture, litter boxes, and food and water bowls if you pet has vision problems.

Exercise plays a role in increasing a pet’s health and longevity. Royal offers the following suggestions for keeping older pets active.


  • WALKS: Take your dog beyond the sidewalk onto more challenging terrain. Vary the surfaces your dog gets to walk on and include stepping up and down curbs or going on inclines. Dog walks should include a variety of experiences, interesting smells and sights to keep your dog’s mind active.
  • MASSAGE: Cats and dogs can benefit from paw massages on a daily basis, if they are not sensitive about having these areas of their bodies touched. The massage can include gently squeezing the paw and pulling slowly down on the toes, which will improve mobility and placement.
  • GAMES: Toys and play time are not just for kittens and puppies. Older animals can be engaged in play and may even shed some unwanted weight in the process. You can make your dog or cat play a bit to get their toys or treats. Instead of placing an item right in front of them, challenge your animal to do some exercise, like climbing some stairs, to get to that special item.
  • SLIPPERY SURFACES: Help your animal navigate slippery surfaces so they can move around with more confidence. Place carpets, non-skid tape or mats in areas that may cause problems for elderly pets.

The kind of diet that works best for seniors includes high protein, moderately high fat and low-carb fresh foods, Royal says.

  • FOOD: Fresh commercially prepared frozen raw food doesn’t have to be cooked, and is typically prepared to be complete and balanced. It’s also not as expensive anymore. Look at ingredients lists, Royal advises: “If you look at the list on your pet food and it looks like a chemical store, it’s going to be harder for a senior pet to digest.
  • SUPPLEMENTS: A number of herbal supplements can be particularly beneficial for geriatric pets as part of a treatment program. These include Omega-3 for free-radical scavenging, milk thistle as a liver protection or tonic, ginseng for cognitive support, arnica as a blood mover, turmeric for inflammation and glucosamine for joint support.
  • TREATS: Be picky about treats and chews for older pets. Choose treats that are natural, with no chemicals or sugar. Avoid treats with significant carbohydrates or unnatural substances. Many of Royal’s clients use raw bones as chews to help with dental tartar and for enjoyment. Cooked bones may be more likely to splinter and pose a significant health risk if ingested

Royal says that “pet incontinence can be the bane of many pet owners’ existence.” But there are some solutions, which can be tried after underlying medical problems have been ruled out.

  • FECAL INCONTINENCE: Take your dog for a “double walk.” After you finish walking your dog, go inside for a minute and then go right back out for a second walk. This walk will be less interesting and your dog may be more focused on the task at hand.
  • FILLERS: Your pet can make smaller, firmer and less frequent poops if you decrease the amount of filler being consumed. Generally, canned, home-cooked or pre-prepared raw foods have less fillers and fewer carbs.
  • URINARY INCONTINENCE: Once medical reasons for urinary incontinence are ruled out, there are some changes you can make to help manage this issue, including feeding a diet with the correct moisture content so you animal does not over drink.

Royal advises watching the animal in the 24 hours after their workout to see how they behave. If they are too tired or stiff after a 20-minute walk or playtime, cut the time in half and try 10 minutes the next day. You can increase the time back up slowly each day. In particular, look for changes in breathing and water consumption, and adjust the exercise routine accordingly.