It is difficult to accept the fact that our pets age faster than we do, especially when we start noticing signs of aging. Some of the obvious physical signs include gray hairs on a pet's face, body stiffness when moving, clouding of the eyes and diminished physical activity. Subtle physical changes may also be observed such as reduced hearing acuity that may seem to start as "selective deafness," urinary and bowel incontinence, and the pet having difficulty jumping up on a favorite piece of furniture or climbing stairs. Older dogs may develop problems with balance and equilibrium from inner ear issues and display symptoms that include incoordination, collapsing, head tilting to one side and eyes rapidly darting from side to side.
Age-related behavioral changes may also surface such as irritability, disorientation in familiar surroundings, staring, increased vocalization and decreased interaction with or recognition of family members. Fortunately, from advances in veterinary medicine and studies in animal behavior and nutrition, elderly pets may live longer, productive and more comfortable lives.
Determining old age in pets is somewhat tricky. Cats and dogs generally age five to seven times faster than humans. Some animals, unfortunately, are predisposed to having shorter lifespans such as giant breeds of dogs like Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds whose lives may end at 7 years. Other dogs and most cats are considered "seniors" at 7 years and geriatric at 12 years of age.
The aging process may be sped up from obesity due to improper nutrition and feeding habits. Obese pets are at high risk for the same serious health problems that affect obese humans: diabetes, heart disease and painful orthopedic problems. Obese cats and dogs are also high-risk patients for surgery because the excess fatty tissue surrounding the internal organs distorts their position, making them difficult to locate, and also impairs organ function.
To help pets age comfortably please follow these suggestions:
- Schedule a geriatric evaluation with your veterinarian. This comprehensive exam may include blood testing to provide information regarding to liver, kidney and thyroid functioning and presence of diabetes. X-ray studies or other diagnostic tools may detect arthritis, heart and joint disease and pre-existing medical conditions. An eye evaluation may reveal cataracts or other eye disorders. Pet owners are advised to bring a list of the pet’s behavioral changes that have been observed such as bumping into furniture and walls, changes in eating, sleeping, urination and bowel habits, irritability, reduced interaction with family members, etc. Please note the geriatric evaluations may need to be conducted more than once a year to monitor specific health issues.
- Administer veterinarian-prescribed medications carefully and report any side effects. Some age-related health and behavior problems may be managed with medication to reduce physical discomfort and anxiety. Never administer over-the-counter medications or leftover pet medications without consulting with your vet first.
- Maintain a consistent daily schedule. Animals feel more secure and thrive on predictability in their lives.
- Provide a safe and comfortable environment to meet your pet’s needs. Visually impaired pets function better with a familiar arrangement of furniture and other large objects in their living space. Eliminate the use of stairs for pets that have visual or orthopedic problems by blocking off stairs with baby gates. Relocate the pet’s living quarters to a part of the house with easy access to a door for a dog to go outside. Purchase or create a portable non-slippery ramp to replace steps (also could be used to help a dog enter a vehicle). Provide arthritic cats with lower-sided litter boxes and food and water bowls in easily assessable areas to reduce the need to jump or climb to reach them. Use orthopedic bedding or crate pads to reduce pressure on joints (especially for larger dogs). If you have slippery floor surfaces place several textured non-skid throw rugs to create paths for your senior to move more easily to food and water bowls and to a door leading outdoors. Neverleave elderly pets outdoors without direct supervision. They are more sensitive to heat and cold and will also be exposed to biting insects. Always directly monitor the interaction of children and other pets with senior pets. Rowdy play could injure your senior.
- Modify your pet’s diet according to your vet’s recommendations. This might mean switching your pet to a prescription diet to manage health issues such as heart, kidney or irritable bowel disease and eliminating food and treats high in fat to prevent potentially fatal pancreatitis. The vet may also recommend dietary supplements to relieve discomfort for joint disease and other conditions.
- Provide physical assistance to pets. Slings, “walkabout” harnesses and customized wheeled carts can be purchased to aid pets with weak, non-functioning or missing limbs. Guide pets through doors and hallways by gently touching the sides of a pet’s body and talking to them. Dogs who learned basic obedience hand signals early in life may need to rely on them when age-related hearing loss develops (especially the “come’’ signal). Hearing impaired pets need to be warned in advance of your presence. Always approach them from the front (never from the back), speak clearly and loudly, vibrate the floor with your feet and gently touch the side of the pet’s neck. A soundly-sleeping deaf pet might bite if startled. Picking up and carrying elderly pets requires skill and great care. A veterinarian or veterinary technician may instruct you.
- Groom your pet regularly. Animals usually feel invigorated and more comfortable after a grooming session. Nails should be kept short to prevent painful splaying of the toes. The pet’s skin should be checked for tumors that should always be brought to a vet’s attention. Arthritic cats often have difficulty grooming themselves and can develop matted fur that may lead to skin infections. Mats should never be cut out with scissors which could cause severe injuries to an animal’s skin. A pet’s mouth needs to be checked frequently for loose teeth, exposed roots, gum swelling, redness or bleeding. Painful teeth can diminish an animal’s appetite. If you don’t have the time, skills or proper equipment to groom your pet please consider using the grooming services of a veterinary hospital or a professional groomer sensitive to the needs of elderly pets. Mobile grooming services are available for pets and owners unable to travel.
- Keep your pet fit and trim. Consult with your vet regarding an appropriate exercise program. Activities like walking short distances or the pet searching for hidden healthy treats also provide mental stimulation for senior dogs.
- Provide quality time for your pet. Positive interaction like slow stroking, massage and talking to pets stimulates production of serotonin-the “feel good” chemical.
Each day we share with an elderly pet is a gift!
Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.