Supporting the aging pet

How to manage physical challenges and keep the joy in seniors’ lives during their golden years

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Charlie Photo © Samantha Ashenhurst
Charlie
Photo © Samantha Ashenhurst

As highlighted in the first part of this series, the geriatric pet can be separated from the senior group based on fragility and health status. I also discussed how approximately 70 percent of dogs and 77 percent of cats were not seen by their primary care veterinarians within 18 months of being euthanized.

The last 10 percent of a pet’s lifespan is when they struggle the most with different ailments that come with aging. Of course, not only are these animals struggling—their dedicated owners also are struggling. These caregivers are working to manage their pets’ changing symptoms, while also trying to maintain a quality of life—both for their pets and for themselves. In this segment, I will focus on the most common problems our gray-muzzled patients face as they age and what we can suggest to their owners for in-home care and management.

There’s a familiar saying: “Old age is not a disease.” While this is true, bodies certainly change as they age: lungs develop scar tissue, skin becomes fragile, and muscles weaken. Although aging isn’t a disease, the resulting changes bring on a multitude of difficulties and discomfort for our pets. As veterinarians, we must recognize these challenges and help both the pet and the owner when signs of aging start to occur.

The goal of proper and effective geriatric pet care is to enhance quality of life for the pet, empower their owners to properly care for them during this delicate life phase, and maintain the strength of human-animal bond. Most importantly, when it comes time to say goodbye, it is vital the family feel they were properly educated and supported by both you and your team and that you did everything you could to provide their pet with the best care possible.

Photos courtesy Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice
Photos courtesy Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice

The weak and wobbly

By a wide margin, the number-one reported ailment from pet owners in my line of work, which is veterinary hospice care, is that their pet is having difficulty with mobility. These issues range from struggling to stand, splaying while at their food bowl, or, in some cases, the complete inability to walk. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of mobility issues in geriatric pets, but soft tissue injuries, disc disorders, stenosis, and neuropathy also could be the root of the issue.

One disorder often forgotten is sarcopenia, which is the progressive loss of lean body mass in aging animals in the absence of disease. As muscle mass decreases, so does muscle strength; this is why older people are less steady and/or have difficulty catching their balance. This alone can be a significant challenge for both pet and family.

Tips
Besides pain management or prescribing other medications as needed, there are many things we can recommend to help pets with mobility issues. A well-fitted and properly supporting harness that remains on the dog most of the day can be incredibly beneficial. These devices also help with owner fatigue from lifting larger dogs. My personal favorite is the Help ’Em Up (helpemup.com) harness, which provides an equal distribution of lifting assistance for both male and female dogs. Many other harnesses simply focus on lifting from the abdomen, but this can cause strain on organs and the ilio-psoas muscle, which is often tender.

Environmental changes can be the most beneficial when helping a dog with mobility issues. Ask the pet owner what the majority of the flooring is like in their home. If it isn’t carpeted, then they have a virtual ice rink their dog has to walk on to get around their home. Bath mats or yoga mats will provide good traction for the dog to navigate throughout the house; however, please remind owners there should be a path of traction in every area the pet roams—not just a small sliver here and there. The pet needs to feel secure and safe when they walk around their home. Being able to easily access rooms around the home will also increase their engagement with the family.

Of course, sometimes you do need to limit access. Stairs can be dangerous for weak or visually impaired pets to navigate. Blocking off stairs and other high-risk spots with gates or tension rods can prevent unnecessary injuries.

For dogs and cats that like to jump on the bed or couch but can’t quite make it anymore, a step, a ramp, or a small set of stairs can give them the assistance they need to reach a well-loved space.

Some other items that help with mobility include:

Finally, we need to remind owners that exercise remains important in order to maintain a pet’s strength and flexibility. Walks and active playtime may need to be reduced, but it’s vital these pets still go outside. Getting out is not only good for the body—it’s great for the soul.

The old and the restless

Indeed, the mind is a terrible thing to waste, but watching it slowly diminish over time is heartbreaking. Cognitive disorders affect both cats and dogs at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, these problems are probably more common than we even know, as owners are often unaware of the issue or fail to report it. Dogs that anxiously pant and pace and cats that howl can keep a family up at night, and often this disruption cracks the human-animal bond.

For me, cognitive disorders are the most frustrating. By the time I see the pet for hospice, my treatment options are limited, but many would have been beneficial if they were started a few months earlier.

Some options to try for pets with cognitive disorders:

  • Senilife
  • Pheromone spray
  • Specialty foods/treats (e.g. Bright Minds, Composure, Neutricks)
  • Trazodone
  • Thundershirts
  • Enrichment games
  • Sound machines

 

To see or not to see—or hear, for that matter

As pets age, both eyesight and hearing can decrease. Although this may not seem like much of a problem, it can be dangerous to the pet and frustrating to the owner. Many times there are additional issues beyond sight or hearing loss, which can compound the problem.

Imagine a cat who has cognitive dysfunction and starts to lose her eyesight. Together, those issues can be frightening for her; however, maybe placing nightlights in spaces where she navigates will help her when her eyesight is at its worst (dusk or nighttime), or maybe her litterbox needs to be moved to a location easier for her to access.

What about the older Labrador who has painful arthritis and is hard of hearing? Imagine he is snoozing by the couch and doesn’t hear a child approaching. The child pets him or lays on him, unknowingly hurting him, and startles the unsuspecting dog. The immediate, natural reaction is to nip at the child to communicate his discomfort.

Safety and education is paramount with vision and hearing loss.

The joy of life

Often the geriatric pet is left alone by the family because they feel he is “old and tired” or otherwise uninterested in playing due to his age, but this is far from the truth. In fact, the thing I admire most about dogs and cats is their joy for life! Granted, this joy might stem from the simpler things in life, like warming themselves in a sunbeam or taking a snooze outside, but that doesn’t mean these pets don’t also want to interact with their families. Once pain and anxiety are well managed, many pets seem to get a second wind. While exercise and games might have to be modified, these pets still want to have fun!

During a pet’s golden years, I talk to families about enjoying the time they have left by thinking of some of their favorite activities that strengthen the bond they have with their pet. This might be something as simple as grooming and massaging their dog outside as he enjoys the breeze. I encourage owners to keep a Joy of Life list, detailing some of the things that give their pet her identity, and encourage them to continue with those activities as their pet ages.

This list differs from the well-known “bucket list,” which details things you want to accomplish before you die. (For my Doberman Duncan, who I let go a few weeks ago, his bucket list contained a few extra treats, like a steak dinner and an ice cream sundae.) Rather, the Joy of Life list aims to keep pets active and engaged, increasing their quality of life and the animal-human bond.

Summary

Our geriatric pet population is unique. It may take extra time and communication with a family to learn about their biggest struggles when caring for these special pets, but once you learn these things, there are plenty of tips you can suggest that will significantly improve their lives. The little things go a long way—especially at end of life.

 

Mary Gardner, DVM, is co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice. Visit www.lapoflove.com for more information.

Coming next month
In the third and final installment of this series on caring for geriatric pets, Mary Gardner, DVM, will hone in on strategies to get gray-muzzled pets into the clinic before it’s too late.

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