Dealing With Your Aging Cat or Dog

Senior Dog

As cats and dogs get older, they’re prone to many of the same ailments that people may experience with aging. Unfortunately, instead of helping their companions grow old gracefully, some people replace their aging pets as they would an older car. Shelters are full of even healthy older animals that no one wants.

Animals have even more to give when they need you more. Learn how to manage their problems, and you’ll be rewarded as you help your cat or dog live a longer and more comfortable senior life.

Common health conditions of older cats and dogs

The following list of geriatric health conditions is not a complete one. Some of these ailments have similar symptoms, and not every animal experiences all of the symptoms for a particular condition. If your dog or cat has any of the symptoms listed here, take your pet to a veterinarian. Early detection and treatment can slow down or halt the condition’s progress.


Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, is more common in dogs than in cats, and in some dog breeds in particular. Cartilage wears down and the amount of fluid surrounding the joints decreases, resulting in discomfort and pain with movement. Some supplements may help this condition. Arthritic dogs and cats may find it easier to eat if you raise their food and water dishes, and they’ll sleep more comfortably if you provide them with a soft bed.

Watch for painful movements or difficulty climbing stairs, but don’t assume that arthritis is the cause. Other health conditions can also cause decreased mobility.


If caught early enough, some canine and feline cancers are treatable. Have your veterinarian examine any lumps you discover on your pet. Appetite loss, weight loss, discharge or bleeding, a sore that won’t heal, weakness, and lethargy can also be symptoms of cancer, but they can also be symptoms of other conditions.

Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism)

It progresses slowly and mimics aging: muscle weakness, a bulging abdomen, high blood pressure, and urinary incontinence. Lumpy and itchy skin, increased appetite, increased drinking and urination, panting, exercise intolerance, lethargy, and hair loss can also occur with this disease.

Cushing’s disease results from the overproduction of cortisol (a steroid hormone). It happens with dogs, and it used to be unusual with cats, but feline hyperadrenocorticism is becoming more common than it was. Blood and urine tests are used in diagnosis. If it’s left untreated, it can progress into diabetes, thyroid disease, infections, and organ failure. Medication or surgery (if an adrenal tumor is present) can control cortisol levels.

Dental disease

Symptoms of dental problems in cats and dogs include bad breath, difficulty in chewing food, and tartar deposits on the teeth. Dental disease is more than a problem with the teeth — it can cause infections that pass through the bloodstream and affect the lungs, kidneys, liver, and heart. Kidney disease increases the speed of tartar build-up.

Your veterinarian will check your pet’s teeth at routine checkups. If dental problems are present, your veterinarian will probably recommend teeth cleaning under general anesthetic. Having your pet’s teeth cleaned before the problem progresses helps avoid future health problems.

See Dental Care for Dogs and Cats for more information.

Diabetes mellitus

Increased drinking and urination, weight loss, increased infections, poor coat quality, urinary incontinence, sweet-smelling breath, and (in the later stages) vomiting are symptoms of diabetes. Obesity is a risk factor but not the only cause. Untreated diabetes can lead to kidney disease. Insulin shots, a special diet and feeding times, and blood glucose monitoring will become part of your pet care routine. With adequate care, your diabetic cat or dog can return to normal health.

Kidney disease (renal failure)

Increased drinking and urination are the main symptoms to watch for, as well as appetite loss. When the kidneys start to fail with age, there is no cure, but different treatments at each stage can help your cat or dog live longer and more comfortably. With some animals, the condition progresses rapidly, while others live for years after diagnosis. Early detection and treatment increase the chances of your dog or cat living longer.

A blood test and a urinalysis will show your pet’s kidney function, which will need to be monitored. Ask your veterinarian about a special diet for your cat or dog, and make sure your pet has access to fresh water at all times.


Obesity can contribute to arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. If your dog is gaining weight with no increase in food intake, first check for hypothyroidism, which can cause weight gain. Once hypothyroidism is ruled out (cats rarely if ever get hypothyroidism), put your pet on a weight-control diet. As with people, exercise combined with diet aids in weight loss.

Thyroid disease (hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism)

Dogs are prone to an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism. In older cats, an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, is common. When a dog is hypothyroid, he may gain weight without eating more, tire easily, be constipated, have muscle pain, and seek out warmer places. Hyperthyroid cats have many of the opposite symptoms: weight loss despite an increased appetite, increased energy (or sometimes less energy), diarrhea, and a preference for cooler places. Both conditions may cause personality changes and more hair loss than usual. See Thyroid Problems in Dogs and Cats for more information.

Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication. Depending on the cat’s health, surgery or radioactive iodine treatment may also be options for hyperthyroidism.

Urinary incontinence

Cushing’s disease, diabetes, and kidney disease cause increased drinking and urine production, which can cause the need to urinate in the wrong places. Bladder stones, bladder infections, some medications, and stress are among other causes of urinary incontinence with dogs and sometimes with cats. It can happen to animals at any age, but its likelihood increases with age. Let your dog go outside often to reduce the chances of an accident, and give your cat several litter boxes in different areas of your home.

When your pet urinates indoors, clean the area thoroughly so that no odor remains. Any lingering odor may attract the animal to use the same area again. Odor Destroyer safely and effectively removes urine odors from carpets, hardwood floors, and many other surfaces.

A urinalysis is the first step in finding the cause of the problem. If urinary incontinence is the result of an underlying health condition, treating that condition should eliminate the problem. Medication for incontinence is used in some instances.

Preventive care

  • Diet  Some commercial pet foods have special formulas for geriatric cats. Provide your pet with a preservative-free brand if possible.
  • Exercise  Animals, like people, slow down as they get older, but without enough exercise, they’ll slow down more.
  • Monitoring  Watch for changes in behavior and energy level, and in the amount your pet eats, drinks, urinates, or sleeps. Groom your pet regularly and look for any lumps or skin changes.
  • Regular veterinary checkups  Twice-yearly checkups for older pets increase the chances of identifying a health condition early and being able to start treatment before it progresses. Tell your veterinarian about any changes in your pet’s behavior or appearance.