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How to Tell Illness From 'Oldness' in Your Senior Pet

04/30/2015 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

It's often difficult for owners of older pets to know whether changes they see in their dog or cat are signs of normal aging, or signs of a more serious health issue.

Your pet is considered a senior if he's in the final 25 percent of the expected lifespan for his species and breed. For example, most housecats are considered senior at 11 to 12 years of age, given an average lifespan of 15 or 16 years. Giant breed dogs have shorter average lifespans than smaller dogs, so a Great Dane, for example, is considered to be entering his senior years at the age of 6 or 7.

Slowing Down

Older pets, like older humans, tend to move more slowly. But unlike people, dogs and cats have no way to tell us if painful arthritis is the reason for their slower gait. So if you notice your senior friend slowing down, it's a very good idea to take her to your veterinarian for a thorough physical exam.

There are many natural treatments and supplements that can help older pets feel comfortable and stay mobile. Some of these include chiropractic adjustments, stretching, water exercises, acupuncture, and massage.

Supplements that can help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage include glucosamine sulfate with MSM and eggshell membrane, perna mussel, omega-3 fats, ubiquinol, supergreen foods like spirulina and astaxanthin, natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals), and Adequan injections, which can stimulate joint fluid very rapidly in pets with arthritis.

Accidents in the House

Some older dogs seem to forget their housetraining and begin having accidents in the house. Older kitties may start eliminating outside the litter box. In either case, it's important to have your pet evaluated for any underlying conditions that might be contributing to a change in elimination behavior. These can include kidney disease, diabetes, and urinary tract infections.

It's important to insure older kitties have easy access to the litter box. A cat with creaky joints may not find it comfortable to climb into or out of a high-sided litter box. Adding more boxes with lower sides or a cutout for easy entry and exit may solve the problem. It's also important to insure the litter box is kept meticulously clean.

If your dog is having accidents and there's nothing physically wrong with her, you may just need to take her out more often or install a doggy door so she can relieve herself on her own schedule. It's also important to know the difference between urine dribbling (incontinence) and loss of housetraining.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Cognitive dysfunction presents as a mental problem, but the root cause is actually physical and the result of age-related changes within the brain. Dogs' and cats' brains age in a similar fashion and undergo oxidative damage, neuronal loss, atrophy and the development of beta-amyloid plaques. These ß-amyloid plaques are also seen in human Alzheimer's sufferers.

Some features of cognitive function do decrease with age, but cognitive dysfunction of the type seen in Alzheimer's disease is not normal. Diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction in a pet is a diagnosis of exclusion. There are many conditions older animals acquire that mimic the signs of cognitive decline, so it's important to rule out all other physical reasons for a change in behavior.

If your senior companion is a dog, read 5 Signs That Your Dog is in Mental Decline for tips on how to help him stay mentally sharp. If your feline friend is getting up in years, have a look at Cognitive Dysfunction: Does Your Cat Prowl the House at Night and Vocalize? This May Be Why.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: MercolaHealthyPets.com

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.