Micah Kohles, DVM, MPA | Vice President of Technical Services & Research
How do I know if my rabbit or guinea pig is considered a senior?
One of the most common questions I get as a veterinarian is at what age do I consider my rabbit and my guinea pig "senior?" It's a great question. We're all aware of the different stages and the journey of our pets' lives. And we want to be conscientious about the things that we should be considering during those life stages. So, we first need to remember that all pets are individuals. We can make generalizations, but we want to look specifically at our pets. What is their breed? What is their lifestyle? Have they had underlying other issues along the way? All these factors make a difference when it comes to that dietary transition. In general, though, rabbits at the age of five and older and guinea pigs at the age of four or older are the times that we start having "senior" conversations with these pets.
How often should I take my senior pet to the vet?
We're all aware of the importance of good wellness and preventative care. Another common question I get with senior pets is how often should I bring them to my veterinarian? For adult animals, a once-a-year physical exam with your veterinarian gives us that opportunity to evaluate them and really gives us a good opportunity to look for disease. Obviously, as animals age, there are age-related changes that we may see potentially associated with disease. So, I do recommend that you work with your veterinarian to get your animal in at least twice a year, ensuring we're getting that good weight check, that good physical examination, and that may even warrant additional diagnostics such as blood work and radiographs.
What type of hay should I feed my senior rabbit or guinea pig?
Another key factor to think about as our animals age is what those changes mean in terms of our diet. With hindgut fermenters like rabbits and guinea pigs, we understand that fiber (and hopefully a diversity of fibers) is at the root of that nutritional need. So, what do we want to consider differently as our animals age? First, we don't want to change our consistency in offering the largest diversity of grass hays that we can; the bigger the diversity we can offer for these animals, the more likely we're going to ensure consistent intake. As we begin to see age-related changes (potentially associated with weight loss, a loss of muscle mass, or other issues associated with arthritis), we may want to consider bringing in other types of hays (namely alfalfa) into the nutritional equation. Alfalfa is still going to bring good amounts of fiber, but also provides an additional amount of protein that can be beneficial to these animals as they age.
What should I look for in a senior diet for my pet?
We've talked a little bit about hay, but what about the other parts of that nutritional equation? Let's talk about pellets and what to think about from a nutritional standpoint. When we look at senior rabbit diets, we want to think about the types of proteins that are in that diet. With proteins, we're specifically talking about amino acids, those essential building blocks to muscle. So, we want to think about additional levels of protein. Beyond protein, we also want to evaluate the benefit of additional antioxidants. We know antioxidants can help to slow the age-related processes and combat oxidative stress that can naturally occur. Lastly, we want to think about prebiotics. One of the most important things in a senior animal is to maintain a healthy GI tract specifically to support the microbiome that lives in the hindgut. Utilizing different types of prebiotics in the diet of a senior animal can be beneficial to support that hindgut.
Just like we talked about in rabbits, with senior guinea pigs, we don't ever want to forget about the importance of the diversification of fiber sources. We know this is going to support dental health as well as digestive health, and it will decrease the likelihood of obesity as these animals age and potentially become less active. Number two, we want to think about the inclusion of antioxidants. Antioxidants have a lot of beneficial properties, especially in animals as they age, as they can combat the naturally occurring oxidative stress-related process. And, number three, we want to think about prebiotics - things like mannan-oligosaccharides and fructooligosaccharides. These prebiotics are food for the microbiome that lives in the hindgut. The happier we can keep those bacteria, the more effective they're going to be at fermenting fiber and the more healthy that ecosystem is going to be.
Should I offer supplements to my senior pets?
Let's talk a little bit about supplements. We're all aware of how popular supplements are in the dog and cat world. And, many of us ourselves probably take supplements. Supplements are an important part of the nutritional health and wellbeing equation, but we want to look at supplements through the lens of the individual. We want to evaluate what potential challenges they may have or what potential diseases they may have faced and consider supplements specifically for those purposes. We also want to make sure that the supplements that we use are specifically formulated for these species. It would be easy to take dog and cat supplements and potentially think about using them in rabbits and guinea pigs. However, that would be a mistake and could actually lead to nutritional issues. We want to stay focused on a high fiber basis and look at appropriate plant-based nutrients, such as herbs and other nutraceuticals that are targeted for specific types of diseases.
Is enrichment important for senior pets?
We've talked a lot about nutrition, but equally as important is enrichment. And, hopefully, you are already providing different types of physical and mental enrichment for your animals at home. But, the question I get is, "how should that change as my animal ages?" It is important for us to understand that the behaviors, activities, and capabilities of animals as they age are going to shift. We want to keep those factors in mind as we look at how we provide enrichment. However, the importance of enrichment absolutely does not diminish. If anything, we want to focus on more enrichment. We want to continue to stimulate those animals to be as physically active as possible. And, we want to continue to challenge them to be mentally enriched in their environment.