Caring for senior pets


For an 11-year-old dog, Mindy still has a lot of pep in her step. The Wheaten terrier loves long walks and play time with her canine pals, just like she did when she was adopted at a year old.

It was only after a play session last Christmas that Mindy’s owner, Julia Barron Hicken, of Stevenson Ranch, noticed her dog slowing down a bit.

“The next morning Mindy could hardly stand up. She must have pulled a muscle, but it got better a few days later,” Hicken said. “Wheaten’s tend to age well.”

When a pet is considered a senior depends on their size, according to Evelyn Vega, owner and veterinarian at Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia.

“A larger breed dog is considered a senior at age 5, a medium sized dog at age 7 and a small dog at age 10,” Vega said.

Cats are generally considered seniors once they reach between 7 to 10 years old, according to

Jane Weiss Settles, of Saugus, has two senior cats. Aldo, 14, and Duffy, 13. Both were adopted as kittens, so she’s watched their energy level change over the years.

“Duffy’s always been kind of a big lazy guy, he’s just bigger and lazier now,” she said. “They still eat and play somewhat, but they do a lot of laying around and sleeping.”

Aldo recently developed an incontinence issue due to urinary crystals that requires medication, which Settles noticed when she started pooping and peeing outside the litter box.

Incontinence is just one of the conditions Vega sees with senior pets. The others include arthritis, dental disease, heart disease and cancer.

Symptoms of such diseases can include weight loss, decrease activity, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, a change in appetite, muscle atrophy, weakness or cough.

“Basically, any symptom that is abnormal for that pet,” Vega said. “I always hear clients tell me, ‘My pet has been so healthy, never had a problem until now.’  This does not mean there was nothing there previously. We just didn’t look for it until the pet started to show symptoms, which in some cases can be too late.”

That was almost the case for Duffy. While Settles takes her pets in for annual exams and vaccines, she noticed one day that her cat was more lethargic than usual so she took him to her veterinarian, where a blood test revealed pancreatitis.

“Duffy went downhill really quickly and almost died. He was hospitalized for a few days and I had to take him in several days after for fluids,” she said.

At Happy Pets, Vega recommends semi-annual vet visits and blood work for her senior clients.

“Depending on the blood work results we may need to run further diagnostics,” Vega said. “I always check for dental disease and recommend the appropriate treatment plan which may range from a dental deep cleaning to home dental care. A good home dental care program to maintain healthy teeth, which in turn keeps their heart healthy.”

Vega also checks for sore joints by performing passive range of motion on all 4 legs. Lastly, she addresses weight, especially if they are starting to show evidence of arthritis.  

“If the pet is overweight, then we start a diet program,” Vega said. “If they are on a good dog food, supplements are not necessary unless on blood work we find issues, then we recommend specific supplements for their specific health concerns.”

Vega also recommends regular exercise, if the pet can tolerate it. That can range from walks for dogs to regular playtime with cats using wand toys or laser pointers.

“We want to make sure we can enjoy their company as long as possible and the only way to do that is to take care of their health,” Vega said. “Nowadays I see pets live longer, that is possible because of the preventative care they get from their pet parents that love them and want them to live forever.”

That’s certainly the case for Hicken. While she’s always adored Mindy, they’ve grown especially close since Hicken broke her kneecap three months ago. The duo has spent 24/7 together as Hicken recovers, with Mindy always close by, either by her feet or by her side on the couch.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to keep Mindy happy and healthy,” Hicken said with tears in her eyes. “We hope to have her for at least five more years.”

Settles echoed that sentiment. She’s spent thousands of dollars on her pack of pets – including several senior dogs — as they’ve aged and developed everything from cancer to diabetes.

“They’re my life. They’re part of my family. I would do for them that what I would do for my children,” Settles said.

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