Winter can be hard for elderly people, and elderly pets suffer more too. 

Cats are considered elderly from 11 years of age, dogs at 7, but this depends on breed. Just as in humans, age brings changes: reduced smell, taste and hearing; poor digestion and immune function; changes to skin and wear and tear of organs leading to damage, disease, pain; and behaviour changes.

Older pets have different needs than the young, but in the winter these may be more pronounced. With thought we can make winter happy and healthy for our aged pets. 

Arthritis in Pets

Osteoarthritis is common in older pets. It’s considered to affect 4 out of every 5 dogs over the age of 8, while 61% of cats over the age of 6, and 90% of cats over the age of 12, have x-ray evidence of arthritis. Rabbits over 6 will have some arthritis. Pain is often worse in cold weather

Lameness and stiffness are obvious signs, but often animals hide signs and tend not to cry out. This is especially true in cats and rabbits when signs may be subtle. Arthritic dogs may sleep more, be reluctant to get in and out of bed, or use steps. Lack of grooming or changes in behaviour may indicate issues in cats. Pets may be withdrawn or grumpy and their appetite can be affected. 

If you think your pet may be suffering with arthritis, contact your vet. There are things that can be done.

Considerations for cats

In cold weather, older cats usually want to stay in more, where it’s warm. Even if they don’t use a litter tray usually it’s worth having one available year-round, so they have the option, but certainly in winter. Cats that hold their urine in for a long time are more prone to potentially life-threatening urinary issues. Outdoor cats may be reluctant to use a tray. Make it appealing by placing it in a quiet, secluded place. Low sides help if your cat’s mobility is reduced. Different cats like different litter. For some the addition of soil initially provides a more ‘natural’ environment. 

Cats often drink outside. 

This resource reduces in the winter. They’re prone to dehydration so make sure your cat has access to clean, fresh water, avoiding plastic bowls, choosing metal or ceramic, and consider water fountains for cats preferring running water. Try and figure out what your cat likes. 

It’s recommended to have one more litter tray than cat, so there is less competition. There should be several water and food stations also. 

Cats, especially older ones, are less active during the winter. 

It’s important they still get some exercise. Initiate play more in the winter, especially with outdoor cats, to keep them moving, fit, and prevent weight gain. 

Cats like warm places. 

Check tumble dryers and know where your cat is before you start your engine. Cats can get hypothermia and must not be left outside without access to shelter whatever age, but elderly cats are more vulnerable. If your cat is cold and unresponsive, dry them off and warm slowly using blankets while getting to a vet. Warming quickly causes more damage. 

Microchip cat flaps let your cat come and go as they please. If you’re not home, keep the house at a comfortable temperature and consider keeping elderly cats indoors overnight, making sure they have a thick, padded bed to rest in.

The most common and concerning winter toxin for cats is antifreeze

It’s sweet, and if your cat encounters spills, they will likely drink it. It’s extremely toxic, causing kidney failure in small amounts. By the time signs are noticed they are usually suffering irreversible kidney failure and euthanasia is needed. Take care to store any antifreeze very carefully, clear up spills, and spread the word to neighbours and friends. 

What about my older dog?

As we discussed, arthritis is common. Older dogs need walks that are short and frequent. If arthritic, lead walks are best to stop them overdoing it, becoming stiff afterwards. Aged dogs can be a bit unsteady. To avoid falls in snow or ice, stick with safe routes and keep walks short. Remember to reduce food with exercise. Senior pet foods offer lower fat or protein diets, containing anti-aging nutrients, easier to digest. 

Worsening arthritic signs in the winter also make falls in the house more likely. It’s wise to prevent them using the stairs and to use rugs/runners for slippery laminate and tile flooring. Consider a ramp for in and out the house/car. 

Breeds like huskies are designed for cold weather. 

Whippets and greyhounds have low body fat and are susceptible to cold, needing a coat outside in the winter at any age. Finer haired dogs like Staffies may also benefit from a coat. Whatever breed, elderly dogs are more susceptible and run around less, not warming up, so consider a coat.

What about small pets?

Small furry pets need environmental change for winter at any age but especially in the aged. Rabbits and Guinea pigs should be inside or in draught free shelter with extra bedding that’s changed regularly and bubble wrapped bottle feeders. Raised insulated hutches reduce damp. Rabbits and guinea pigs should not live alone, not only for company but for warmth. Older pets still need outdoor access for exercise and light, and may need more food due to higher energy demands. 

Getting organised 

Identification collars/microchips are vital for reuniting older pets that may have wandered off in the dark and cold. Make sure you don’t run out of medications, especially pain medications, as winter is often most painful for arthritic pets. Clear paths of snow/ice, as older pets are more likely to slip. Wash paws straight away if using salt or grit, but ideally avoid them.  

There are many common old age issues unrelated to the winter, so it’s always a good idea to seek veterinary advice for even the most subtle of signs. 

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