We currently have 73 cavies residing at the shelter. A good portion are senior citizens - cavies 5 years old and older. Living with older pets is a bittersweet experience. You've gone through a lot together and have grown very comfortable with each other. Oldsters are usually mellow and better behaved than those pesky young whippersnappers - content to sit quietly and enjoy your company. They're less demanding of your attention and more appreciative of it. The sad part is watching your shorter-lived companion age before your eyes. As he becomes frail and fragile you realize your life together grows short. Each day is time to be cherished.

I find myself in a unique position to learn firsthand the many changes and problems that can affect older cavies. The average cavy life span is 5-7 years. I consider 3-4 to be middle aged, 5-6 is getting up there, 7 and over is pretty darn old. Much can be done to help cavies live longer and more comfortably. The trick is to catch problems as early as possible. Much of the following observations apply to cavies of any age, but just a little more so for the old guys.

Be aware of how your cavy looks and acts normally, so that anything abnormal will be noticed immediately. Oldsters often cannot fight off disease as well as cavies in their prime, or bounce back as quickly. Body parts are wearing out and may not work quite the same. Catching problems early gives you a better chance of curing it, preventing further damage, or at least making your cavy more comfortable. In many cases you will find the help of a cavy knowledgeable veterinarian invaluable.

Changes in your cavy's appetite and weight are important signs that he may not feel well. Frequent weigh-ins are a good idea. I feed my cavies fresh pellets each day. By dumping leftover food from the previous day and measuring in the same amount of pellets each day - I have a good idea of what each cavy normally eats. If one morning somebody's pellets are still in the bowl, I know I have a sick cavy. If a cavy that normally loves parsley or carrots suddenly isn't interested, I worry. A cavy hasn't been eating well for awhile if ribs and hipbones can easily be felt.

Attention to water consumption is also important. My cavies get fresh water twice daily. This encourages them to drink more, which helps keep them hydrated and "flushing" through nicely. If your cavy is suddenly drinking much more or much less than usual, check your water bottle first. Sometimes bottles leak, sometimes the balls stick in the tube - blocking water in. Replace the bottle if necessary and see if that changes the water consumption. If your bottle checks out fine and the water consumption remains abnormal, your cavy has a problem.

Oldsters front teeth should be routinely examined to make sure they keep straight and even.

Sometimes teeth grow more brittle and break off easier. Broken teeth usually grow back within a week or so, but may need trimming to avoid growing back jagged or uneven. With nothing to work against, the tooth opposite the broken one might overgrow and also need to be trimmed. Your cavy should be able to eat pellets just fine with one broken tooth, but you need to chop fresh food into bite-size pieces.

If your cavy is having trouble chewing but the front teeth look fine, a molar may be broken, overgrown or misaligned. You will need the help of a cavy vet, with an otoscope, to check the molars and determine what treatment is needed. Cavy cheek pads make getting at the molars difficult. Sometimes a cavy must be anesthetized for a short time to safely trim or file the molars. Occasionally a cavy will require regular trimming to keep teeth aligned and working properly. Your vet can show you how to trim the front teeth and what tool to use. Molars are best done professionally.

You may notice changes in your senior's eyes.

As cataracts form eyes gradually become hazy, bluish or whitish, opaque. A vet exam is a good idea, but often there isn't much you can do about this. Cataracts are not generally painful and cavies do adapt to the decreasing eyesight. If one or both eyes suddenly becomes white or opaque, inflamed, starts to bulge or have discharge - see your vet immediately. Quick eye treatment is needed to clear up the condition or prevent further damage to the eye. Occasionally older cavies need their eyes lubricated, but not medicated, daily to avoid becoming overdry. A sterile eye lubricant (such as Stye) available at most pharmacies in the eyedrop section can be used.

Sometimes oldsters become a bit stiff with age. Their legs are not as limber as they once were and walking over loose bedding becomes increasingly difficult. Using a large soft flat towel on the cage floor instead of bedding can make a world of difference. Getting around on a smooth solid surface is much easier for them. The towel does need to be changed once or twice daily depending on how soiled it gets. Avoid putting anything into the cage oldsters could get tangled in. Keep toys small and compact, cut hay into shorter lengths if necessary.

Footpads must be watched for signs of irritation or sores.

A triple antibiotic ointment applied twice daily will help clear up minor problems. If it doesn't clear up or gets worse, see your veterinarian for advice. Foot sores can develop into an ugly, chronic, stubborn condition called Bumblefoot. To help avoid irritation buy the softest, cleanest bedding you can find (I prefer kiln-dried pine). Towels may be a better choice if foot sores are present. Keep nails trimmed to avoid undue stress on the feet. Hard callous-like protrusions off the side of the front paws are not uncommon in older cavies. While unlovely, this is rarely a problem. Unless the growth is long enough to interfere with walking or is at risk of catching on something, it can be left alone.

Regular grooming is still needed to help your oldster feel and look fabulous. Use a good quality conditioning-type pet shampoo.

If you see a lot of dandruff, Selsun Blue Moisturizing Shampoo for people works well. Coats tend to get dry with age. A dab of Nexxus Humectress rubbed into the coat after towel drying will help condition the coat and skin. Blow dry well before returning your pet to his cage, then cover the cage with towels for awhile to prevent chills. Bathing is a great time to thoroughly check your cavy over for lumps, bald spots, redness, scales, etc.

Just because your cavy is old, a health problem doesn't necessarily mean it's his time to go. Everything dies and everything dies of something. You can't fix everything. But, with vigilance, awareness and concern - many problems can be treated or controlled, allowing your oldster to spend more quality time with you. Notice everything! Be nosy! Even stool and urine - does it look normal, is your cavy having trouble going? Listen to his breathing - do you hear clicking or wheezing? Is there discharge near his nose, is his chin wet? Consult your vet ASAP if you notice any warning signs.

When it is finally your pet's time to go, you'll have the comfort of knowing you did your very best. You fixed what you could. You cherished him and made his life as wonderful as possible. You will grieve, of course, but I hope also feel pride and joy that your beloved pet shared your life for so long.

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