Supporting the Health of Your Senior Pet
Author: DVM cVMA Dana Hogg
The gift of the human-animal bond is unmeasurable. Our pets provide us with so much companionship and support, sometimes in ways, we didn’t even think possible. Their love is unconditional, to say the least. For me, one of the hardest parts of pet ownership is watching them get older and learning how to help them navigate through their senior years.
How old, is old?
You may ask, at what age is your dog or cat considered a senior pet? The answer is, it really depends – small dogs and cats are considered senior at age seven while larger breed dogs may be considered senior around five years of age. (1) While all animals can face a variety of health challenges, there are some we commonly see in our senior pet population.
Some of the more commonly senior diseases we encounter are arthritis, kidney disease, cognitive dysfunction, cardiac disease, and cancer. According to the AVMA, approximately half of the deaths in the pet population over 10 years of age are due to cancer. (1) As we navigate through this blog, it is important to remember age is not a disease. What are some general clinical signs your pet may be aging? They may be slowing down which you may notice in their general activities such as walking or getting up after lying down. They may be sleeping more or appear less interested in activities they used to enjoy. Weight loss or loss of muscle mass may occur in certain areas of their bodies. Behavioral changes such as increased anxiety, pacing, and self-isolation may also occur. These changes can be due to a variety of causes such as pain/discomfort, reduction in vision/hearing, or general cognitive decline.
Observe the Signs of Aging
Knowing your pet and having a strong bond with them helps you detect subtle changes at home and in turn allows you to be the greatest advocate for their health. While these diseases may not be reversible, there are ways to manage them. The course of action which is best for your pet will ultimately depend on the diagnosis and severity of that particular disease. We have many ways to help our senior pet population, ranging from supplements and medications to diet changes to physical therapy and other integrative therapies. In addition to these, maintaining a healthy weight and routine exercise go a long way for all pets.
The Role of The Microbiome
The microbiome plays a powerful role in both human and animal health. Factors such as age, diet, genetics, immune status, and environment all influence the microbiome. (2) The microbiome helps maintain gastrointestinal health, modulates the immune system, influences nerve/brain health, and is thought to influence most tissues in the body. In fact, “studies have shown associations between the intestinal microbiome and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, autism, schizophrenia, and a variety of other diseases in humans and animals.” (3) When an animal is sick, it is therefore not a surprise that the microbiome may be altered, but how much does this alteration affect the disease and its progression? This is still a relatively new area that needs further exploration. Studies in mice reveal the microbiome can influence memory and performance. (4)
One professional paper examined whether the microbiome influences cognitive performance in dogs and determined that there is a correlation between microbiome composition and better memory performance in dogs. It also discussed the theory that the microbiome composition appears to change in older dogs. Another study determined that there are significant differences in the microbiome of dogs with gastrointestinal cancer compared to healthy dogs. What is unknown is whether these changes occurred as a result of cancer, or if they contributed to its development. (2) In dogs of all ages, but especially the senior population, it was determined that probiotic supplements improved overall health by increasing the beneficial intestinal bacteria while reducing certain harmful ones. (2)
There are so many ways we can help support our senior pets through their golden years. While further research on the microbiome and its influence on “senior diseases” is still needed, it is important to consider the microbiome and gastrointestinal support when managing our furry family members.
- Senior pets. (n.d.). American Veterinary Medical Association. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/senior-pets
- Epiphanio, T. M. F. , & Santos, A. (2021). Small Animals Gut Microbiome and Its Relationship with Cancer. In (Ed.), Canine Genetics, Health and Medicine. IntechOpen. https://doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.95780
- The Benefits of Pets’ Bacterial Microbiome. (2018, February 11). Veterinary Medicine at Illinois. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from https://vetmed.illinois.edu/pet-health-columns/pets-microbiome/
- Kubinyi, E. (2020). Gut Microbiome Composition is Associated with Age and Memory Performance in Pet Dogs. Animals, 10(9), 1488. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/9/1488
Dr. Dana Hogg graduated in 2015 from North Carolina State University. She grew up in Wilson, North Carolina. Growing up with several animals, Dr. Hogg was drawn to the field of veterinary medicine at a young age. She completed her undergraduate degree at NCSU in 2009 and her master's degree in 2011.
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