As pet owners, we all want our furry companions to have long and happy lives, but as dogs and cats age, their needs change. Let’s look at some common health problems your pet may face in their old age.

What exactly is a senior pet?

You might have heard that one human year is equal to seven dog years, but it turns out that pet aging is more complicated for both dogs and cats. The rate of aging depends on the individual. 

With dogs, the rate of aging depends on size, as smaller dogs tend to have longer lifespans. For example, the average Chihuahua lives 14 to 16 years, but the average Great Dane lives between 8 to 10. 

Most cats are considered senior when they are between seven and 10 years old. Cats over the age of 10 are considered geriatric — geriatric animals tend to have more aging-related health problems.


Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, is the most frequently diagnosed joint disorder in cats, and it’s also very common in dogs. 

Cartilage is a smooth tissue between bones that prevents the bones from directly rubbing against each other. With osteoarthritis, the cartilage wears away, causing inflammation as the bones in the joints grind against each other.  

If your dog is less interested in running and playing, has trouble getting up, or has developed a limp, osteoarthritis may be the culprit. 

Cats do not tend to show it when they're in pain, so it may be more difficult to tell if your cat is suffering from arthritis. Cats with arthritis tend to have a stiff gait. 

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but there are ways to make your pet more comfortable, like providing steps so they don’t have to jump up on the bed or their favorite perch. Because overweight pets put more pressure on their joints, osteoarthritis is more common in obese animals, so making sure your pet is a healthy weight is an important part of keeping your pet’s joints healthy.

Urinating in the house

There are several causes of urinating in the house, including urinary tract infections or excessive drinking due to diabetes or kidney failure. One cause is that the bladder sphincter has simply weakened, causing your pet to urinate uncontrollably. Cognitive decline can also make your pet confused about where to urinate. 

Larger dogs are more likely to develop urinary incontinence than small dogs, and some breeds are more disposed to it. Taking your dog to see the veterinarian can get to the root of the problem and find treatment that can help.

Older cats may begin to start urinating and defecating outside of their litter box. It’s important to consider kidney problems, neuromuscular disorders or brain tumors, or overall sensory decline.

Cats with arthritis may have difficulty getting in and out of a litter box — or, if a litter box is located on a different floor of the house, they might find it too painful to walk up or down the stairs to reach it. Buying litter boxes with low sides and putting multiple litter boxes around the house can help your cat get where they need to go.

Sight and hearing issues

Just like humans, pets can lose their hearing and vision once they age. Also like humans, they tend to lose these senses gradually.  

Sense of hearing fades as the hair cells in the inner ear are damaged or die, or hearing can also be affected by blockages in the ears, like debris or infections.

Pets with hearing issues may be startled more easily because they can’t hear people or other animals approaching. Older pets may not be able to hear when they’re called, which makes getting lost even easier. Deafness can be dangerous for outdoor cats who can't hear threats like oncoming cars, but it does not typically change quality of life for indoor cats. 

Teaching your dog hand signals is a great way to make sure they can understand commands even if their hearing fades!  

Sight is also a sense that can fade with age. However, in general, aging cats tend not to have sight problems as often as their canine counterparts.  

Dogs may be more hesitant to walk downstairs if their eyesight is fading, and it can make it more difficult to interact with the world around them.

Here are three eye conditions to keep in mind as your pet ages: 

  • Glaucoma, which is a painful condition where the pressure in the eye increases. Glaucoma can be caused by inflammation, damage to the lens, tumors, or bleeding in the eye.
  • Cataracts, where proteins in the eyes bind together causing cloudy formations on the eye. Cataracts make it difficult for dogs to see clearly, as they can only see shadowy shapes.
  • Nuclear sclerosis, where the lens of the eye turns gray or bluish. This doesn't affect the pet's vision and shouldn't be confused with cataracts.

Dental health problems

Dental problems are common in older pets, and oral health has a sizable impact on overall health. 

The development of plaque and tartar can lead to conditions such as: 

  • Periodontal disease
  • Gum sensitivity
  • Gum recession
  • Tooth abscesses
  • Gingivitis 
  • Tooth decay
  • Bad breath

Untreated dental issues can lead to pain and discomfort, and they can even lead to loss of teeth.  

To avoid these issues and keep your pet happy and healthy, it's important to establish a regular oral hygiene routine. There are toothbrushes, toothpaste, wipes, and chews designed for pet oral health, and just like with humans, regular checkups ensure that any problems are caught early. Your veterinarian can help you to establish a dental care plan that's right for your pet and can also provide professional cleaning and other treatments as needed. 

Read more about pet dental care here

Your pet’s health 

As your pet ages, it’s more important than ever that they receive veterinary check-ups and care. Your veterinarian can help tackle the health problems that arise as your pet gets older to ensure that they lead a long, healthy, and happy life. 

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing