Educating clients about geriatric pet care

March 8, 2021
Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC

Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC, is a veterinary dental expert with Main Street Veterinary Hospital and Dental Clinic in Flower Mound, Texas.

Older cats and dogs require special care both in and out of the clinic. Here are some important behaviors owners should monitor at home, plus some tips and tricks you can recommend for caring for senior pets.

Let’s face it. No one wants to admit they’re getting old, and the idea of beloved pets aging can be hard for veterinary clients to accept. But frequent examinations and professional care combined with appropriate care at home can help make pet aging a positive experience for both pets and their owners.

It starts with education

When it comes to caring for older pets, client education is crucial. Teach pet owners how to identify subtle changes, as these could be early signs of disease or dysfunction. Here are a few key pet changes that veterinary teams should discuss with clients.

Diet and hydration

Encourage clients to pay close attention to their pet’s eating habits. Have they noticed any changes, such as a preference for soft food or signs of pain while eating? If so, dental disease could be at play. Older pets that have trouble finding their food bowl, or pets that start eating and then wander away, could have cognitive issues. Additionally, some cats may need more liquid, making a canned diet preferable.

Most senior pets benefit from smaller, more frequent meals that are easily digested. Nutritional needs for geriatric pets may be affected by disease processes, so make sure clients come to you for appropriate recommendations. Inform them that the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which regulates pet food, offers no specific recommendations for senior diets, so a “senior” label on pet food packaging does not necessarily make it the best choice.

Hydration is another behavior owners can assess at home. Has the pet been drinking more or less than usual? Polydipsia or polyuria can be early an indicator of renal disease or diabetes, but in multiple pet households, it is often difficult to determine actual water intake for individual pets.

Sleep/wake cycles and elimination

Changes in sleep/wake cycles could indicate discomfort or pain, or could be a sign of cognitive dysfunction, particularly in cats that yowl for no apparent reason at nighttime. Explain to clients that excessive sleeping may be attributed to old age, but chronic disease processes can cause lethargy, so a full medical assessment is warranted.

House soiling could be a sign of polyuria or polydipsia. Is discomfort or pain discouraging the dog from going through its doggy door or the cat from stepping into its high-sided litter box? If these medical issues are ruled out, cognition dysfunction could be playing a role in this behavior.

Activity levels, cognition, and sensory ability

People and pets naturally slow down as they age, but sometimes there is more to it. A pet could be lethargic due to disease or reluctant to move because of pain. Additionally, cognitive issues may cause an increase in nonpurposeful movement, with more wandering and pacing. It’s clear that many issues facing older pets have a cognitive dysfunction component, so when medical issues are ruled out or managed, further attention should be paid to cognition, because the pet’s quality of life can greatly suffer from cognitive problems, and the human-animal bond will likely suffer as well.

Eyesight and hearing acuity decrease as pets age, and the signs can be obvious or subtle. A dog with complete cataracts may bump into walls, whereas pets that are having trouble navigating due to declining sight may limit their movement to play it safe.

Make it easy

Provide a folder in which clients can keep results of lab work, care instructions, and other information they collect at home, including photos. Encourage pet owners to keep a diary or records of pet health concerns. Recommend that they include the following types of information in the folder so it is easily accessible:

  • Tumor map: Ask clients to take pictures of concerning lumps or bumps, with an object in the photo for size reference. These images can be compared with subsequent photos to help monitor progression.
  • Body and muscle condition scores: Share charts that assess body condition to help clients understand the consequences of both overweight and underweight pets.
  • Resting respiratory rate: While not every pet may develop cardiac or respiratory issues, it’s never a bad idea to have a baseline for later comparison.
  • Questionnaires: A variety of validated questionnaires are available for use in determining pet pain and comfort levels,1,2 cognition,3 and more.

Discussing end-of-life care

Prepare your clients for the dreaded “when is it time?” discussion. By now, you have likely already introduced them to several pain and cognition questionnaires, which essentially assess quality of life. The Pet Quality of Life Scale4 and Gray Muzzle Quality of Life Calendar,4 offered by Lap of Love, are designed specifically to assess quality of life by enabling owners to record whether their pet had a good day, a bad day, or a neutral day.

Finally, a growing number of hospice options are available to provide in-home care for geriatric patients, from services provided by veterinary practices to hospice-specific practices. Readers can learn more from the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (

Take-home message

The best way to advocate for your geriatric patients is by properly educating their owners and working together to provide the best care possible. In the end, you will help enhance not only the pet’s lifespan but also its health span.

Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC, is a veterinary dental expert with Main Street Veterinary Hospital and Dental Clinic in Flower Mound, Texas.


  1. Osteoarthritis Checklist. Zoetis Petcare. Accessed March 4, 2021.
  2. Cat Osteoarthritis Pain Checklist. Zoetis Petcare. 2019. Accessed March 4, 2021.
  3. Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome Evaluation Tool. Purina Institute. Accessed March 4, 2021.
  4. Pet Quality of Life Scale and Daily Diary. Lap of Love. Accessed March 4, 2021.
  5. Grey Muzzle Quality of Life Calendar app for the iPhone & Android. Lap of Love. 2019. Accessed March 4, 2021.