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5 things to know about caring for senior pets

Those of you who have or have had to care for a senior pet know they have different needs than younger animals. Below is a short list of things special to senior animals that companion animal owners should be mindful of.

Pumpkin age 14 getting some supervised outdoor exercise.

1. They still need their exercise

The more one moves the more their joints remain mobile and loose – this is true for people and for animals. With your senior pets, it is ideal to keep their life as active as possible, with the level of activity you provide dependant on their age and condition.

Older pets may struggle going up and down the stairs, so providing traction surface (e.g., carpet) on the stairs can help, or you can set them up so everything they need (e.g., access to outdoors, litter, food and drink) is all on one level, if possible. If you need to keep your animal secluded to one floor, it is best for your pet that they are on the floor that is most used by their family, so that they are not socially isolated. You can also carry them up and down the stairs, but depending on the size of the animal, this is not always practical. In cases where your animal cannot go up and down the stairs due to the high risk of them falling and injuring themselves (e.g., in cases of hip dysplasia), it is best to put up baby gates to prevent them from using the stairs completely.

When walking your senior dog, listen to them when they tell you they want to go home or when they want to slow down – most often than not they know their own limits.

Seek your veterinarian for advice on proper exercises for their joints and before giving your pet any supplements related to muscle and joint wellness.

2. It is never too late to learn new tricks

Studies have reported that older dogs are just as able to learn new tricks as younger dogs. In a recent study, border collies were shown two images on a touchscreen – one picture had a positive association (the dogs were rewarded with a food treat for touching this picture) while the second picture had a negative association (touching this picture resulted in time-out and no treat). They were trained to identify the positive image in this method. Researchers found that older dogs required more trials than younger dogs before they were able to solve the task correctly. The researchers speculated that the test showed how older dogs are less flexible in their way of thinking compared to younger dogs. Thus, providing some evidentiary truth to the saying, ‘old habits die-hard’.

However, six months after this task they were presented with a combination of images, one ‘negative image’ from the previous task and a new image unseen by the dogs. Through a process of elimination, the older collies showed better logic skills to pick out the novel picture. Thereby displaying that older dogs are not only still able to learn new tasks but sometimes they can even do so better than younger dogs!

Performing training, and providing items/games that promote mental stimulation (e.g., food puzzles, hiding treats around the house), help maintain your senior pets cognitive skills.

3. Lower tolerance for adapting to change

The study described above highlights an older dog's inflexibility in their way of thinking.

When a senior animal experiences any change to their routine (e.g., during a move or when a new member is added to the family), it can be a source of stress. Younger animals are more adaptable when it comes to having to acclimate to a new situation/surrounding. However, older animals need special care and attention to ensure that their world stays the same despite any other external changes.

So, if you are moving with an older pet, make sure to keep your pet’s bed, toys, etc., all with her/him; ensure that their crate/bed and all of its blankets and toys remain constant. Also, it is best to refrain from washing your pets items before you move and to only wash them after a few weeks after you’ve moved - the familiar smells from their items can help them transition into the new environment. Their feeding time and walking times should also remain unaffected as much as possible. By making their internal environment as constant as possible, your pet can better adapt to the changes in their external environment.

4. Watch for development of medical conditions

With aging, medical conditions in our pets become more prevalent. This can include conditions such as joint issues, loss or hearing or sight, diabetes, obesity, and other age-related medical concerns. Our pets may try to hide their pain or symptoms of these conditions, but by looking at small behavioural indicators, we can learn how our pet feels.

For example, in the evenings, your senior pets can begin to display different behaviours. Senior cats may become very vocal at night time due to their disorientation. Senior dogs can also have difficulty seeing at night and may behave strangely due to their confusion and stress.

Regular, routine veterinary visits are vital to help keep senior pets healthy! If you are concerned your pet is showing unusual behaviours, please seek professional advice by visiting your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues.

5. They still enjoy their favourite things

More than just the basic necessities (food, water, etc.) are required in order to ensure a happy pet. Whether by going to their favourite forest, chewing on their bone/playing with their toy mouse, visiting their doggie/kitty friend, lying on in the snow/sitting in a box – do whatever you can to keep your senior pet happy.


Sadie – age 11 – enjoying her walk in the snow

If you have any concerns and want to seek guidance in caring for your senior companion, please speak with your veterinarian or appropriate professional for assistance.


Lisa J. Wallis, Zsófia Virányi, Corsin A. Müller, Samuel Serisier, Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range. 2016. Aging Effects On Discrimination Learning, Logical Reasoning And Memory In Pet Dogs. Age, 38 (1).

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