Snuggling up with a blanket and hot chocolate around the fire – there’s something undeniably cosy about winter. While you’re going about finding ways to thaw out your frozen bones, spare a thought for your elderly pets who need special love and care during the colder months. Here are a few tips to help your special senior citizen cope in the cold.
As pets age it’s important to keep up regular vet visits (twice a year is recommended), so that age-related concerns can be detected early, to spare your pet unnecessary suffering – suffering that is often intensified in the colder months. These health issues can generally be treated quite easily, often with prescription medications and dietary supplements to make your pet more comfortable and allow him (or her) to manage the aging process with grace and dignity. Thorough check-ups are recommended once your pet reaches his geriatric years, especially if being treated with chronic medication, to ensure potential side-effects are managed and kidney and liver function maintained. Your vet will tell you when he is considered senior or geriatric, as this varies between species and breed/size.
Watch your pets closely when it’s cold. Some may spend more time sleeping inside, which conserves warmth and energy, but others that are more exposed to the cold (outdoors) may require a bit more sustenance to sustain a higher body temperature and support their higher energy requirements under winter conditions. But do keep in mind that maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for older pets, since osteoarthritis is one of the most common disorders for their age group, and extra weight compounds the issue – just like us, it is worsened by cold weather. Lessen the pain related to arthritis by installing ramps and providing extra bed padding or blankets, positioning beds in warmer areas away from drafts. Also consider the option of a PFI (Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa) member’s special or prescription diet (ask your vet for guidance) to support this and other age-related conditions, including the occurrence of hairballs in cats.
Complete nutrition and access to fresh water remains a top priority in winter. The nutrition that you provide for your pet can greatly assist some of the metabolic and body composition changes that are associated with old age. Generally, senior diets should be lower in calories yet still contain protein, fat and fibre but nutrient composition does vary to provide for his particular senior needs. Feeding a pet food brand that is a member of the PFI will give you the peace of mind that you’re feeding the best you can afford, to give your pet a complete and balanced diet, meeting the needs of his life stage. Don’t forget to consider his finding in terms of the palatability of the food to ensure he is able to eat and digest the nutrients and then benefit from them. Also pay attention to dental care, by using either pet-specific toothpaste or PFI member dental treats to reduce plaque build-up. Hopefully this has been a lifelong practice, however, for more difficult cases, there is the option of dental cleaning, under anaesthesia, done at your vet.
The natural aging process makes body temperature regulation less consistent so, be sure to keep him dry, warm and preferably indoors during the colder months. If being indoors is problematic, give him adequate shelter and additional warmth – blankets and pet jerseys work well. Cats often seek warmth in weird and wonderful places, like underneath the bonnet of the car, so always check carefully before starting the engine and heading out.
Although winter days are shorter, help your best friend remain stimulated and in shape by maintaining a routine of regular (low impact) exercise. As he grows older he may also begin to lose his sight or hearing, which can be stressful and cause disorientation. To minimise this stress, remove clutter and put measures in place to prevent him from getting lost.
Above all, be aware of your aging pet – you know him best and if you notice anything out of the ordinary you should not ignore potential warning signs and rather get him to the vet for a check-up. Be especially aware of lumps; toileting or respiratory issues; changes in weight, energy, appetite or water intake; stiffness or limping and significant behaviour changes.
His best years may be behind him, but you can help him through another winter and see the ‘spring’ in his step again.