Living With An Elderly Pet
This is something every pet owner has to face, watching his or her companion grow old. My husband Doug and I are facing this situation, living with our fourteen-year-old standard poodle Jesse.
Old age isn't a disease, but an inevitable stage of life. The term "geriatric" signifies the point at which 75 percent of the pet’s anticipated lifespan has passed.
Jesse’s eyes have a cloudy blue glaze, a red flag for optical issues. This could signal the growth of cataracts. Another possibility is a condition called nuclear sclerosis. This doesn’t put a dog’s vision in as much danger as cataracts might, and treatment isn’t usually recommended, however, any cloudiness in your pet’s eyes are a sign for a visit to the veterinarian.
Deafness is another issue for seniors. Jesse no longer hears the doorbell ring or the garage door open. When I call his name or give him a command and he doesn’t respond, I don’t think for a moment he is ignoring me. Dogs first lose the ability to hear low sounds, like voices. Pet’s may also sleep more soundly due to the fact that they do not hear sounds they normally heard when they were younger.
Senior pets are more sensitive to temperature changes due to the shift in their metabolism. There is a reduced tolerance to cold and heat. Since I live in a cold weather climate Jesse will be wearing a sweater this winter when he goes out to potty. Hot weather is also a concern for older pets as they can dehydrate quicker. Make sure clean, fresh water is available at all times to replenish lost fluids.
Diet is a huge issue for older pets. Be aware of foods targeted to “seniors” as there are no real legal requirements or definition of what constitutes a senior food. Be sure your dog's diet is appropriate to prevent tummy upset. This includes introducing any new foods.
You may see changes in eating habits as your pet ages. Their appetite might increase or decrease. Always do your research and read the labels of everything you feed your pet. If you have any questions or are unsure what is best, ask your veterinarian.
Monitor your pets weight as extra pounds can cause joint pain due to the additional stress on muscles, bones, and ligaments. Muscle weakness, reduced mobility, and less activity can become noticeable in seniors. Two common complaints in older pets are arthritis and hip dysplasia. These ailments tend to become more painful and more apparent as years pass. Ramps and carpet can make it safer and easier for your senior pet to get around. Stairs may be off limits to prevent an accident.
To make your pet more comfortable a soft, padded bed to sleep on is recommended. Look for thick foam to cushion sensitive joints. There are orthopedic, bolster, and heated beds available, both in stores and on the Internet.
Older dogs can also develop the human equivalent of Alzheimer's disease called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Some of the symptoms are:
- Wanders. Appears lost or confused in familiar surroundings
- Stares. Disorientation
- Does not recognize familiar people. Decrease in greeting behavior
- Inattentive and/or decreased responsiveness to verbal commands
- Forgets the reason they went outside
- Gets stuck in corners. Has difficulty finding the door
- Increased irritability, fear, or aggression
Urinary and bowel incontinence is common in elderly pets. Muscles, nerves, and organs don't work as well as they used to when your pup or kitty were younger. Some geriatric pets, “go” when they are resting or sleeping and don’t even know it. This can also be a result of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction because the pet forgot the house training rules they learned as a puppy.
If it is a hormone imbalance it may be treated with medication and/or supplements. Since this is a big issue for pet owners, a vet visit is recommended. Other health issues need to be ruled out, neurological problems, Cushing’s or Addison’s disease, a bladder infection or diabetes. Surgery might not be an option due to the age and health of your pet.
If it is just old age, incontinence can be managed. Doggy diapers and bellybands are readily available. Use old towels, plastic sheeting, and washable blankets where your pet spends most of his or her time or sleeps. Have the same set-up in the car.
Pay close attention to non-verbal clues and walk your older pet more often. Keep urine odor and stain removal products handy. You might want to keep the pet confined to a part of your home where cleanups are simple and easy.
Deciding whether or not to treat illnesses, such as cancer, is difficult for many senior pet owners. There are so many things to consider: the cost of treatment, a pet's quality of life after treatment, whether the treatment is painful and how long a dog's life can be extended. Sophisticated advances in veterinary medical technology help dogs and cats remain healthier longer but always put the best interest of the pet first.
End of life decisions and care are the most difficult part of having a geriatric pet. There may be a time in a dog or cat’s life where he or she may indicate by their behavior that it's time to let go.
If the pet has reached a point where they have given up —not enjoying life, not playing, not interacting, haven't responded to any therapies, losing interest in food and social interactions you have to think very seriously about what is their quality of life. That is the most heart breaking difficult decision to make.
Our pets are our best friends and constant companions. Doug and I feel privileged to care for Jesse through this stage of life. It is easy to blink back tears just thinking about losing him. We treasure and are grateful for every minute we spend with our elderly pet. We do not take anything for granted as every day is a gift.
Ellen Ehrlich is a mobile pet stylist who loves to think, talk, read, and write about pet grooming. Next to grooming, she loves to empower, motivate, and inspire other groomers to be the best they can be. Ellen is the author of The Successful Pet Groomer, Go Mobile And Succeed, and 49 Essays on Pet Grooming. For more information go to: www.gomobileandsucceed.com