Aging Cats and Dogs: Is It Age, Injury, or Disease?

Older dog lying down on the floor

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One of the most common questions veterinarians hear is whether or not a pet's symptoms or behavior are due to old age. Owners attribute a wide range of symptoms to old age. Whether it be sleeping all the time or drinking more water, many owners overlook the possibility of other causes. Even weight gain and weight loss are excused away as caused by the aging process. It's true that changes do happen as pets age; sight and hearing may be diminished, and pets may sleep more. These are expected changes. But other changes ought not to be discounted.

Owners often miss potentially serious signs of illness in their pets, when in fact a veterinary exam is in order for your dog or cat. Even though changes are inevitable, there are many signs that are never considered normal at any age. Have them checked out by your veterinarian to rule out underlying disease, injury, or illness. Even as your pet enters the senior years, assume that most conditions that arise are indeed treatable.

What Age Is Considered Old?

A dog is considered to be a senior after age 7 (this varies by breed, and giant breeds are considered senior at 5 or 6), and a cat is considered to be a senior after age 10. An annual veterinary examination is essential for keeping your pet in optimal health and staying on top of all age-related changes. But as with people, pet health is less about age and more about a body's particular array of challenges.

People may argue that, in the case of advanced age, an extended treatment regime would not add any more quality to the pet's life. This may be true, and it's something to discuss with your veterinarian. It is important to note, however, that a pet may simply seem older due to an illness. Once a pet is restored to health, it may indeed act like a puppy or kitten again.

Normal Age-Related Changes

The same normal progressions occur in our dogs and cats that occur in humans. Here we focus on only age-related changes, yet this is not a comprehensive health checklist. Any time that you notice a change in your pet (at ANY age) that you are unsure of, please call your veterinarian to discuss.

  • Graying of the fur on the muzzle, increasing slowly with age
  • Less active overall
  • Sleeping more
  • Reduced sense of hearing
  • Reduced sense of sight
  • Less able to handle temperature extremes
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Increased discharge from ears
  • Dark-colored matter in ears

Disease Symptoms Commonly Mistaken for Old Age

Some changes may be symptoms of a disease process or an injury and not just old age. If you notice any of these symptoms, a call to your cat veterinarian or dog veterinarian is warranted:

Gastrointestinal Changes

  • Loss of appetite
  • Foul breath/dental disease
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, constipation at any time

Behavior Changes

  • Lethargy
  • Drinking and/or urinating more than usual
  • New behavior such as growling, biting, or scratching people or animal friends as if they are not recognized or unwelcome
  • Walking or moving in a jerky manner, losing balance or falling down
  • Legs sliding out from under when on carpet or on non-slip floors, or favoring a leg after slipping on a slippery floor
  • Favoring a paw, or more than one, chewing on it, or licking it when no cut or injury is visible

Skeletal Body Changes

  • Weight loss or gain
  • Laying with odd body positions as in hind legs splaying out when that has not been a position before
  • Stomach or chest looking unusually bloated or having lumps or strange concavities not noted before

External Body Changes

  • Increased discharge from eyes and or pink color in whites of eyes
  • Swelling of mammary glands or nipples in male or female pets
  • A patch of skin or fur that is discolored, especially if it has come about quickly
  • Swelling that is dry or swelling that has a discharge
  • Deliberate scratching of an area, continuing for more than a few hours