Dr. Kasandra Garner, DVM
How many times have you heard (or said it yourself), “The only bad thing about pets is that they don’t live long enough.” It is an unfortunate reality that most of us are going to outlive our furry soulmates. However, when they reach their “golden years,” there is no need to despair. Older pets still have plenty of life left. They are in many ways better behaved than their younger selves, and with a few modifications, you and your older pet can continue to enjoy an active pleasurable companionship right up until the moment they cross the rainbow bridge.
There is no denying that older pets are at risk for a myriad of diseases. That is why your veterinarian is going to recommend more frequent veterinary visits and bloodwork. Senior pets benefit from twice-a-year exams so that any issues can be caught as early as possible when interventions are the most likely to be beneficial. Some drugs common in older patients (such as thyroid medications) need to be monitored by checking blood levels periodically. Medications that treat conditions such as arthritis and heart disease can affect the kidneys or liver. Pets on these medications benefit from frequent blood panels so dosages can be adjusted at the first sign of trouble. Even in the absence of an obvious medical condition, older pets often have decreased vision, hearing, or sense of smell, have a decreased appetite, experience arthritis pain that is not always obvious to the family, have decreased grooming habits, urinary accidents, or difficulty defecating. They may develop new behavior issues related to senility. Your veterinarian is your best resource for developing a plan to mitigate the negative effects of these changes. Just because we can’t stop the aging process from occurring doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to make life easier and more comfortable for our pets.
For both dogs and cats, but perhaps especially dogs, decrease in mobility is one of the first things indicating that our companion is not as young as s/he used to be. Whether it’s a limp that shows up for the first time after a hike or a slight stiffness after laying down for a long time, arthritis can sneak up on our pets, but to us, it often seems to appear out of nowhere. Of course, we have some pretty good and safe drugs to help with pain and inflammation, but there are many other ways we can help our pets navigate safely and comfortably through their days once degenerative joint disease has struck. We are lucky in Asheville to have access to physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, and cold laser treatments. Ask your veterinarian whom they recommend for these modalities if they do not offer them at their hospital. Remember that mild to moderate activity is actually good for arthritis – especially early in the course of the disease. Pay attention to your pet on walks. You will need to go shorter and slower, but you should definitely still go. Walks are opportunities for your dog to experience mental stimulation through the sights and smells of the neighborhood. Walks not only help your dog physically, but also cognitively. Similarly, you may need to modify your dog’s favorite games as they age, but try not to cease play entirely. For example, fetch may need to be on flat surfaces with a soft toy rather than off the back deck with a firm ball. I will discuss games for older pets in a later section dealing with cognitive dysfunction.
Many of us have hardwood or tile floors, which can be tricky for your older pet to walk on. Anything that will help them gain traction will make their lives easier. Yoga mats, carpet runners and area rugs can be placed strategically through the house. Nail grips can be bought online and applied at home. There are a variety of “help up” harnesses that provide a way for you to help your dog stand from a prone position and provide stability at crucial times. The designs vary, but most have handles over the shoulders and hip area where the owner can help the dog get up and balance. Ramps, step stools, and portable stairs help older pets get into vehicles, on and off beds, or anywhere else they used to be able to jump but now are having difficulty. In addition to arthritis, loss of muscle mass or degenerative neurological issues may develop. Unfortunately, these conditions do not respond as well to therapy. For medium to small dogs, devices like wheelchairs or strollers may become necessary. For larger dogs, these conditions are often a major factor in quality of life decisions.
Mobility issues lead directly into our next topic: elimination issues. Dogs and cats with lower back or hip pain frequently become constipated. Walking while defecating is an early sign of having difficulty passing stools. Defecation requires our pets to arch their backs and put most of their body weight on their hips; this can be painful and difficult with aging. In addition to making sure, you have your pet on a safe and effective pain medication, adding on a stool softener or laxative may be required. The harnesses mentioned before can help your dog “assume the position” for defecating by providing lower back support and taking some of the pressure of the hips and back legs. Also, if it is painful or difficult for an animal to get up and go outside, they may wait longer to alert you, resulting in accidents. Covering their beds with waterproof mattress pads (like the ones sold for infant cribs) or putting a plastic liner or garbage bag under their blankets can make cleaning up after them easier. Keep in mind that older cats may not be able to get to a litter box on a raised surface or with high walls as easily, resulting in them urinating and defecating near but not in the litter box. Of course, don’t assume that a loss of housetraining is only due to old age. Make sure you have visited your veterinarian to rule out treatable diseases such as urinary tract infections or urinary sphincter mechanism incompetence.
Grooming can be an issue with older pets. As our furry companions age, their coat will become dry and mat more easily. They often develop dandruff. Cats will groom themselves less as they develop arthritis and back pain. When they do groom themselves, they will consequently swallow more hair, so hairballs may increase as they age. Older cats benefit from the petrolatum containing hairball remedies, both to help clear their stomachs of fur and because of the laxative effect of such products. Dogs will need to be brushed or combed more often, or their coats kept clipped short, depending on the breed. If your pet suddenly seems to resent grooming when they used to enjoy it, this may be a sign of pain that should be investigated by your veterinarian. Dogs may become less patient for their groomer, as it might be harder for them to stand for long periods of time for complicated clips and brush-outs. You may need to settle for a less perfect coat or do shorter grooming sessions with breaks so your pet can rest.
Another important factor in an older pets’ quality of life is their appetite. If your pet has stopped eating as enthusiastically as they used to, make sure that your veterinarian has looked into their mouth and assessed their dental health. An animal with neck pain may eat better from raised food bowls. Many older pets show an increased preference for soft food, with or without dental disease. Sometimes warming food up in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds – even dry kibble – increases the aroma and therefore palatability. It is possible that some pets lose their ability to smell as they get older, which can negatively affect their appetite, especially in cats. Congested cats often won’t eat because they can’t smell the food. Low sodium chicken, beef, or vegetable broth added to your pet’s food may make it more tempting to the older, more selective palate. Of course, your veterinarian can also prescribe an appetite stimulant if appropriate. A good appetite does not always equal good quality of life, but a reluctance to eat that persists usually indicates poor quality of life.
Older pets experience decreased visual acuity – from mild depth perception issues to blindness. Complete loss of vision can be obvious, but the milder forms may not be so easy to detect. As the lens fibers and iris muscles age, the eye cannot adapt as well to poor lighting conditions. Some pets can still track movement, but seem to have trouble with motionless objects in their path. Be aware that if you rearrange your furniture you will need to guide your pet through the new configuration. Pets that hesitate to jump down from furniture or go down stairs may be experiencing poor vision rather than along the baseboards, will help your pet navigate in less than perfect lighting conditions. At a recent veterinary conference, I also saw a device called a “Halo” that would help blind dogs not bump into things. There a few different designs you can search for online if you think it would help your dog.
Many of us also suspect deafness in our dogs and cats when they reach their senior years. Audible cues that used to bring them running to us (like opening the pantry where the food is located) are now ignored. We go out in the yard and call repeatedly for our senior dog to come inside, only to find them resting under a bush looking surprised to see us. Pairing hand signals with known verbal commands before they go completely deaf is helpful. Using a collar with a flashing light when we turn them out in the yard at night can make them easier to find if they no longer hear us calling them to come inside. Keeping them on a lead if outside of a contained area becomes just as important as if they were blind, for their own safety, since they cannot be warned away from dangers such as cars by calling their name.
The next few topics deal with some of the most frustrating aspects of aging: cognitive changes. Signs of senility occur at an earlier age in dogs than cats. It can include disorientation, activity changes, sleep cycle alterations, social changes, anxiety, and learning and memory deficits. Pets may appear confused or “spacey” at times. We need to be aware of these changes, and make adjustments to our senior companion’s environment to keep them safe and serene.
Many senior pets experience episodes of disorientation. They seem to get lost even in familiar surroundings. This can be worse at night. Putting night lights throughout the house or in the room in which your pet is sleeping may help keep them calm. Baby gates are useful to protect older pets from falling down stairs if they get up and wander at night. Bells on collars will help you locate your pet if they wander off, whether in the house or in the yard. As mentioned earlier with deaf dogs, flashing lights on their collar can help you find them if they go into the bushes and forget how to get out (this used to happen with my senior collie mix). Watch out for small older pets getting underneath furniture and getting stuck, and be especially wary if you have chairs that rock since a sleeping pet could be injured if they are close to the rockers.
Older pets sleep very deeply and are more likely to snap if they are awakened suddenly or by an unfamiliar person. They sometimes start sleeping more during the day, but not sleeping through the night. Pets that wake up and vocalize in the middle of the night may need a sleep aid, or better pain control, or both. Pets that wake up and wander the house may need to be confined at night, even returning to being crated to make them feel more secure and keep them safe. Some owners find that a white noise machine helps their pets sleep more soundly through the night. A fan serves a triple purpose of keeping them cool, down-regulating their panting reflex, and making a soothing noise.
A younger animal cohabitating with an older pet can be beneficial. The younger pet will stimulate the older pet mentally and physically, keeping them active. Other pets that have grown up with the senior pet are usually very good at “reading” them and leaving them alone when they no longer want to rough house or play. A new puppy or kitten will not be so adept at this. The ideal time to introduce a very young pet to the family is when the older pet is in late middle age. Often a middle-aged pet that had not been as playful will rediscover the joy of play when exposed to a new young companion. Teaching the youngster his or her place in the household will keep the older pet’s mental faculties exercised in ways we could never reproduce as the human companion. However, make sure that your older pet can always choose whether to interact with the younger pet(s). Allow them a safe place of retreat where they will not be bothered by people and pets when they show signs of weariness or irritation.
Dogs primarily experience the world through their nose. We do not know to what extent this very important sense declines with age. However, we do know that a varied and exciting olfactory environment stimulates their minds and greatly enhances their quality of life. If you have never offered your dog food puzzles, their senior years are a great time to start. Whether you use one of the many commercial products or just have fun hiding treats under furniture or around the yard for your dog to find, these types of games are great for older dogs because they don’t require vigorous physical effort. You may have to use higher value food treats such as lean pieces of meat or canned food since they may not be as food motivated as when they were younger. When they slow down on their walks, make sure you are letting them take advantage of their slower pace to fully investigate all of the smells that are available along the route. Try to take them on new routes as well, so that they can experience new smells. Find a park where they can just sit with you and take in all the sights, sounds, and smells that keep them interested in life.
Some pets grow more sensitive to weather extremes as they age. Hot weather can make breathing issues worse. As discussed earlier, a fan blowing on your older dog will down-regulate their “panting” reflex and may aid them in sleeping. Older dogs may choose to lie on a cool hard floor surface than their orthopedic beds in hot weather. Try covering their orthopedic beds in a sheet to encourage them to use it even when it is warm. Decreased grooming may lead to needing to clip your pet in warm weather for the first time. Some pets show increased sensitivity to cold weather as they age, especially cold wet weather, which seems to make arthritis worse across all species. Muscle wasting associated with aging makes our companions less able to keep themselves warm, meaning some pets will need coats during cold weather. Make sure your senior cats have a warm sunny spot to sleep in year round. If your dog doesn’t like going outside in snow, cover an area near the door with a tarp (weighted down) to keep a snow-free area for them to eliminate on during winter storms. Remember that older dogs will have more trouble keeping their footing in icy conditions, and a slip or fall can be very hard on them. Use slings or harnesses as discussed previously to help them keep their balance.
As I grow older myself, I have learned to appreciate my senior pets more than ever. They handle their “winter years” with grace and pluck. They model the skill of remaining present in their lives, adjusting to physical and mental degeneration with contentment and aplomb. The increased maintenance that they may require is still less than that of a puppy or adolescent dog (don’t forget the poop filled crates and chewed up furniture in that first year). They ask only to remain by our sides, and that when infirmity makes that no longer possible, that we release them to death in a peaceful and painless manner. Don't hesitate to talk with your vet to help make your beloved companion’s silver years a golden experience.