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T.L.C. For Your Aging Pet

Today's cats and dogs are living longer than ever, with an average life span of about 13 years for dogs and 14 for cats, depending on breed--and today, some 30 million US dogs and cats are considered seniors. While this means one great thing--you get to spend more quality time with your four-legged soul mate--it also means that pet owners now face the challenge of keeping a dog or cat healthy well into old age.

While older animals are more prone to developing a range of problems--musculoskeletal issues, arthritis, thyroid or kidney disorders, and cancer, to name a few--even generally healthy pets undergo changes. "Pets become less energetic and attentive," says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, of Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the editor of Good Old Dog. "They'll sleep a little more and be generally more quiet and composed."

But there are things you can do to help your animals live long, happy, and comfortable lives while they're with you. Read on.

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Amp Up Your Vet Visits

An animal starts to hit middle to old age around 7 years, on average--for big dogs of 80 pounds or more, this comes a year or two sooner, and for cats and smaller dogs, slightly later in life.

At this point, you should see your vet once every 6 months instead of every year. While this may feel frequent, remember that animals age 6 to 10 times faster than humans, so a biannual appointment for your pooch is akin to you visiting the doc every 3 to 4 years.

At these visits, your vet should do a more thorough physical, examining the eyes, hearing, mouth, ears, color of gums and membranes, and lymph nodes; listening to the heart and lungs; and feeling the whole body for unusual lumps or bumps, which could all reveal early problems, Dr. Dodman says. Pair this assessment with a full blood scan and urine analysis, and consider checks for thyroid function--all tests that your animal may or may not have had recently, depending on his health and your vet's preferences. "With these types of diagnostics, you can catch and treat issues before they become full-blown," he says.


Make New Food Rules

As in humans, pets' metabolisms, digestive tracts, and nutritional requirements change as they age. When activity levels decline, decrease your pet's calorie intake. While being overweight is never healthy, it's especially hard on joints and organs in senior pets. Look for food that's higher in protein and fiber and lower in fat--senior formulas that fit these requirements are available at pet stores. If your cat or dog has a specific problem such as arthritis or renal failure, you can get prescription food from your vet.

Also consider switching to food that's been supplemented with antioxidants or fatty acids, which are thought to aid everything from the skin to the heart and brain in both dogs and cats. If your pet is overweight or creaky, look for glucosamine chondroitin, which is often added for joint health. Or talk with your vet about supplementing food yourself.

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Set Up Safer Surroundings

As your dog or cat naturally slows down, make sure he's able to continue with normal activities--even if he needs help. Aging pets still know their place in the home, says Amy Shojai, an animal behavior consultant and the author of Complete Care for Your Aging Cat and Complete Care for Your Aging Dog. Step stools and ramps offer a great way to help cats and dogs access their favorite windowsill or couch, carpets help older paws walk steadily on slippery hardwood or linoleum floors, a litter box with low sides allows cats an easier in and out, and elevating food and water bowls can help if a dog's neck can't reach down as easily.


Buy Better Bedding

A plush, supportive, and comfortable bed helps an older animal feel spry when he's up and around--good styles range from mattresslike cushions to egg-crate-style foam inserts. The best are supportive enough that his body doesn't rest anywhere on the floor when he's lying down but are easy to climb into. Place his new digs in a warm, easily accessible location.

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Adjust Exercise

While it's natural that your pooch begs you less often to come play, he should still be willing and able to exercise when you prompt him (which you need to do!), according to Molly Cassandra, DVM, of the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. Now is the time to cut back on the distance and speed of your walks. Taking several short strolls instead of a single long one is easier on joints. For the severely achy, switching to swimming or walking on sand, when possible, can help.

Cats should also be able to maintain their usual bursts of play throughout the day--if they seem sluggish, encourage them with new toys. And for both cats and dogs, continue to teach new tricks and introduce them to new animals. Not only will this interaction help them maintain their activity levels, but stimulating their brains will energize them to stay sharp and alert later in life.

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