by Dianne Cook, LVT
There are few things as rewarding as sharing your life with small mammals. Their quirky personalities, silly hijinks, and unconditional love fill our lives with purpose and companionship. As the years pass, however, and their little bodies age, it can be difficult watching our beloved fur babies face new hurdles and limitations. Fortunately, with a few tweaks to your kiddo’s diet and environment, routine senior well visits with a knowledgeable veterinarian, and loads of love and affection, you can ensure your petite pal remains happy, comfortable, and spry throughout their senior years.
What is “Life Expectancy?”
A pet’s life expectancy is dependent on a multitude of factors including (but not limited to) species and breed, genetics, diet, living conditions, and access to consistent, species-specific veterinary care. With proper nutrition and care, many small mammals are living longer, healthier, happier lives than was ever thought possible in generations past. It is important to remember, however, that just like humans, each animal is unique and may live much longer, or quite a bit shorter, than the ages outlined below.
At What Age is My Pet Considered a “Senior?”
- Rabbits: 5+ years
- Dwarf rabbits may remain more active and “youthful” later in life when compared to larger or giant breeds
- Guinea Pigs: 5+ years
- Chinchillas: 7+ years
- With proper care, some chinchillas can live to be 20+ years old!
- Rats: ~ 18 – 24 months
- Hamsters: 18 – 24 months
- Largely dependent on breed
- Gerbils: 2+ years
- Mice: ~ 12 – 18 months
Senior Well Visits
While it should come as no surprise, our pets require additional health care as they age. As a result, most veterinarians encourage parents of senior small mammals to increase the frequency of checkups from once a year to at least twice a year.
In addition to a thorough physical exam and any routine treatments needed (fecal exam, dental exam, etc), your veterinarian may suggest various tests to help screen for the common ailments listed below. These tests generally include lab work to check the blood and urine for any abnormalities, as well as imaging (x-rays, ultrasound, etc) to look for signs of organ enlargement, tumors, arthritis, and other age-related concerns.
Maintaining consistent senior well-visits with your veterinarian will ensure your elder furry friend remains as healthy as possible and will allow your veterinarian the best chance at catching any age-related changes early. It is also important to continue conducting monthly, or even bi-monthly, at-home wellness exams so you can bring any changes to your veterinarian’s attention as soon as possible.
Common Health Concerns in Older Animals
- Weight loss/decreased muscle mass
- Dental Disease
- Skin/Coat concerns
- Kidney/Urinary Health issues
- Gastrointestinal Irregularities
- Heart and respiratory diseases
- Ovarian Cysts
- Especially common in guinea pigs
- Though any animal can get cancer, it is regrettably common in rabbits, rats, hamsters, and mice
- Chinchillas and certain breeds of hamsters tend to be more predisposed to diabetes than other small mammal species, though it can develop in any species
Caring for Senior Herbivores
As our beloved small herbivores transition from “whippersnappers” to “golden oldies,” one of the easiest and most important ways to help them remain in peak condition is to tailor their diet to their individual needs and known health concerns.
Not unlike humans, many small herbivores tend to either gain excess weight or lose weight and muscle mass as they age. Though weight gain and weight loss can both be normal signs of aging, they can also indicate or exacerbate underlying health concerns. It is important to seek the advice of a trusted veterinarian to develop a suitable nutritional game plan to help your little ones lose, maintain, or gain weight as appropriate.
The Benefits of Alfalfa for Senior Pets
If your elderly herbivore is losing weight, and bloodwork doesn’t indicate a systemic issue, your veterinarian may encourage you to add some alfalfa back into your pet’s diet (either loose or via a species-specific young herbivore diet) or include supplemental Critical Care – Herbivore feedings. While the addition of alfalfa will provide your little one with extra protein and calcium to help maintain muscle mass and keep bones strong, make sure you get the green light from your veterinarian, especially if your little one has a history of urinary health concerns.
If your older pet is getting a bit chunky, talk to your veterinarian about adjusting the ratio of hay, pellets, and fresh produce you offer. Often decreasing pellets, eliminating packaged treats, and increasing leafy greens (which can be used in place of treats) will help prevent further weight gain. It is important to ensure your little one is still getting an optimal balance of nutrients, however, so do not to make any adjustments without your favorite vet’s nod of approval.
Grass Hay and Water – Everyday Essentials
Regardless of your pet’s body condition, it is essential for small herbivores of all ages to have access to a variety of grass hays and at least two sources (e.g. bottle and crock) of fresh water every day. The high-fiber hay will keep your elderly friend’s teeth worn down and their digestive tract running smoothly while the multiple sources of water will help prevent dehydration. Your veterinarian may also suggest adding certain species-appropriate supplements for added anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties.
As small herbivores age, it can be a challenge to find new and interesting ways to keep them moving. Regardless of your pet’s weight or current health condition, encouraging exercise is vital to their overall well-being. Provide as large of an enclosure or living space as possible and make sure they have plenty of time in a safe, pet-proofed play area in which they can run around, play, and explore every day. Enrichment items that keep the brain sharp and encourage movement will promote mobility, sustain muscle mass, keep joints strong and healthy, and help your furry friend maintain their mental acuity.
You may also have to get creative when it comes to helping your older herbivore get around. Slick floors and high shelves may be harder to navigate. Non-slip surfaces both within and outside of your pet’s enclosure or living environment will provide your kiddo with sure footing and prevent the potential of twisting the wrong way or exacerbating arthritic joints. Any shelves, platforms, or furniture to which your pet has access should include a secure, slip-resistant ramp to prevent any long jumps or potential falls. Additional layers of soft bedding are always welcome, especially when placed in your pet’s favorite napping zone.
Caring for Senior Omnivores
Senior small omnivores are just as susceptible to many of the same health issues as our older herbivore friends. Amongst these issues is difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. While many young and adult omnivores are pretty good at self-regulating their food intake, you may have to adjust the quantity of the fortified diet you feed your little one as they hit their sunset years.
For kiddos who are on the scrawny side, your veterinarian may encourage feeding additional supplemental foods higher in healthy fat in addition to unlimited access to a high-quality, fortified, species-appropriate diet.
For little ones with an expanding middle, greens and veggies may take center stage. It is essential to work with an experienced exotics veterinarian when adjusting your older omnivore’s diet, however, as certain foods (if fed in excess) can do more harm than good.
Dental Challenges for Aging Omnivores
As your tiny friend ages, they may also find it more difficult to chew their food appropriately. If you notice your kiddo is reluctant to eat their food, or they are dropping pieces as they eat, make sure to discuss this with your veterinarian. Small omnivores may develop malocclusions (teeth that do not line up properly) or their teeth may weaken as they age which can make it difficult for them to eat.
While it is always preferable for your little one to have access to high-quality pellets, kibble, or lab blocks, not only as a source of nutrition but also a great way to help keep their incisors (front teeth) worn down, your veterinarian may suggest adding a small amount of water or other species-appropriate liquid to soften the diet to make it easier for your elderly friend to consume.
Fresh water should always be available. If you happen to notice your pet is drinking more than usual, let your veterinarian know as soon as possible.
It is important to watch your little one closely as they navigate their environment to ensure their habitat remains safe as they age. Because older animals tend to slow down and have difficulty reaching areas they once could, you may find that your small herbivore is spending more time napping at the bottom of their enclosure versus exploring various levels and trying to scale the walls. Make sure multi-level enclosures are fitted with no-slip ramps for easy access. If your fuzzy little elder is arthritic or otherwise unstable climbing, discuss the potential of alternate enclosure modifications with your veterinarian to ensure you are providing the safest environment possible while simultaneously encouraging as active of a lifestyle as possible.
Like humans, older animals tend to nap – a lot. Supplying additional layers of soft bedding and nesting discs will support your kiddo’s natural desire to nest and burrow and will keep their aging feet comfortable. Despite their affinity for slumber, it is still important to provide a plethora of enrichment items to encourage a strong body and bright mind. An option of hides will provide cozy napping nooks, while chews, activity centers, and a species-appropriate wheel will keep them occupied and active when they’re awake. Daily low-stress play and snuggle sessions outside of their enclosure are still strongly encouraged.
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