As our pets age, they experience many of the same issues that people do, but much sooner than we expect. This month, we’ll talk about how to be proactive in your pets’ senior healthcare. It is important to understand treatment plans, what the prognosis or expectations for those treatments are, and when it is necessary and appropriate to consider end of life decisions.
We hope our pets will be a part of our lives for many, many years but the fact is that the average life expectancy is 10-12 years for dogs and 10-14 years for cats. So, when does “senior” start? The larger the pet, the sooner they are considered “senior” – for some as early as age 6. For cats and smaller dogs, generally 7 to 8. Older pets have very specific needs and are particularly susceptible in later years to metabolic changes, cancer, arthritis, and dental disease.
Once your pet is a senior, it is in your pets’ best interest to be examined by your veterinarian minimally twice a year (remember, this is like you seeing your doctor once every 3 years). Many things can change in an aging body in 6 months!
Yearly, your pet should have blood screening and x-rays; that way if a problem does show up it can be dealt with early and usually more successfully. Veterinarians depend on laboratory results to help understand the status of your pet’s health. When your pet is healthy, laboratory tests provide a means to determine your pet’s “baseline” or normal values. When your pet is sick, the veterinarian can more easily determine whether or not the lab values are abnormal by comparing the baseline values to the current values. Subtle changes in these laboratory test results, even in the outwardly healthy animal, may signal the presence of an underlying disease. If all tests are normal, then you have peace of mind that your pet is healthy.
During the exam, be sure to tell your vet about any changes in your pet’s routines, behavior and activity.
Knowing what changes to expect can help you and your pet adjust when the time comes. There are many ways we can help the older pet adapt to these changes. Things to look for include:
- Behavior changes with aging include problems with orientation, social interaction, activities & exercise, grooming, sleeping, and eating.
- Your senior pet may have a poor appetite because taste and smell aren’t as strong, and food loses its appeal. Also, there may be dental issues. This can cause changes in weight, skin and coat.
- Decreased ability to fight off disease.
- Decreased function of major organs: including heart, lung, liver and kidneys.
- Urinary incontinence and loss of housetraining.
- Hearing Loss
You should monitor your senior pet closely. Do not ignore a change in your pet’s activity or behavior as “just old age”. Many changes can also be signs of a more serious disease. If you have concerns, consult your vet and be sure to discuss any changes or problems you are seeing during the regular physical exam.
A key factor to keeping your older pet healthy is to continue to play with him, exercise him and train him throughout his life. As your pet ages you will likely need to adapt play and exercise to his slower movements, reduced energy level, declining eyesight and hearing, and any medical conditions he may have. Keep in mind your pet may have a slower learning curve. Be patient. You can have fun sharpening up rusty behaviors he once learned and teach him some new behaviors and tricks. You can also change your verbal cues to hand signals if your pet has lost his hearing. Adjust your training for any physical impairment your pet may have developed. There are many ways to keep your older pet’s life interesting and stimulating that don’t require vigorous physical effort. Just as with humans, pets need to use their brains and bodies to maintain their mental and physical fitness. As the saying goes, use it or lose it!
Regular exercise helps the senior pet get fit and stay that way. Physical fitness benefits your pet in many ways:
- Helps keep the heart and lungs in good working order.
- Helps prevent life-sapping obesity.
- Enables him to forestall some of the creakiness that old age inevitably bestows upon bones, muscles, and ligaments.
- Helps prevent the boredom that spurs all too many pets to become destructive.
- Gives the aging pet a sense of purpose.
Of course, walks aren’t the only exercise available to the aging pets. You can choose from a variety of pursuits that work out the body (jogging, swimming, yoga, and canine sports) and the mind (fetching and hide-and-seek). Try any or all of these activities with your senior after you get a thumbs-up from his vet. You may well find that staying on the move gives your dog a new lease on life.
By keeping your four-legged friend at her ideal weight (your vet can help you determine just what weight you should aim for), you increase her chances of living a life that’s free of many conditions that can shorten longevity and decrease quality of life. Be careful with treats, they can be very high in calories. There are healthy, low calorie, high fiber foods that can be given to your pet as a treat, for example – carrots, apples, and green beans. Do not feed grapes or raisins. They are toxic and can be lethal. Check with your veterinary health care team for other options, and to understand what foods may be toxic.
Hands-on care for your senior can benefit both her and you. Petting and attention can boost your pet’s longevity, and mental status. For one thing, a regular petting fest can help you feel for lumps and bumps when they develop early, and you can have your vet check them out right away. Hands-on love fests also can help you uncover flaky skin or rashes that indicate that your pet’s not in tip-top shape. A flinch or wincing response to your touch tells you that your four-legged friend feels pain when touched in that spot, which should prompt you and your vet to investigate further. Being petted may help lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Just as important as the physical benefits to you and your senior pet is the fact that regular touch — whether it’s just plain petting or a more sophisticated therapy — builds and maintains the bond between you. Taking a few minutes to literally stay in touch helps you both make the most of this time in your companion’s life and in your time together.
At this time in your dog’s life, there’s no such thing as giving her too much love. You’ve cared for your senior pet, now’s the time to let her know how much you appreciate the devotion and affection that she’s given you all these years.
Coping with the impending loss of a pet is one of the most difficult experiences a pet parent will face. Whether your friend is approaching his golden years or has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s important to calmly guide the end-of-life experience and minimize any discomfort or distress. As your pet’s health declines, you may elect to care for your pet at home—with the supervision of a veterinarian—or you may decide to end his suffering with euthanasia.
It is important to consider the dignity of your pet as well as the quality of life. Sometimes putting yourself in your pet’s shoes, may make it clearer when you should make that choice. Three important questions to ask yourself are: is your pet eating and drinking? Is he able to do bodily functions (urinate and defecate) without assistance? And, is he still social with you and your family?
It’s often helpful to discuss the process of euthanasia with your vet well in advance of the occurrence. Which family members will be present during the procedure, when and where it will take place, options for handling the pet’s remains, how the family members may want to say goodbye or provide a memorial for their pet, and how and with whom they will spend time immediately after the euthanasia, are all important issues which should be discussed.
Grief counseling services, pet loss support groups, and books are all available to help when you are grieving the loss of your friend. Your vet can help you in making decisions, provide support, understand and share your grief and celebrate with you, the life of your pet.
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals that had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….