There are many changes that can occur in our pets as they age. These changes may require us to care for them differently than we may have when they were younger. This guide is intended to help you recognize the signs or symptoms common in our senior pets and ways to help them stay comfortable, safe and happy.
Mobility will decrease with time due to a combination of factors. Arthritis resulting in pain or decreased range of motion of the joints may cause difficulty in rising or laying down, or difficulty getting around. Muscle and nerve weakness can also lead to difficulty lifting the legs properly to walk — this may result in dragging or scuffing of the nails on the ground, or difficulty walking on slippery floors. Decreased mobility may result in your pet laying down most of the day — this can result in bed sores and infection or possibly swollen legs from decreased circulation from lack of movement.
Addressing lack of mobility will vary case to case depending on the severity and each pet’s particular needs. The following list are things that may help our pets with decreased mobility:
- Placing non-slip rugs, bath mats or yoga mats on slippery floors to provide traction.
- Trim excess hair that may be between toes that could reduce your pets natural traction.
- Move food and water bowls to a location where they can be easily accessed. For cats this means having the food on ground level so they do not have to jump up onto a counter, or walk down stairs to get to it.
- Use a litter box with lower edges to prevent need to climb or jump into the box
- Harnesses or slings can be used to help dogs stand from a laying position, or help them walk with our assistance. The Help Em Up Harness (www.helpemup.com) is a comfortable harness worn daily that has handles over the shoulders and hips that caretakers can use to help lift dogs into a standing position, or help them walk out to potty. Even a beach towel used like a sling could be helpful if your pet isn’t amenable to wearing a harness.
- Toe Grips – (www.toegrips.com) are non-slip nail grips that fit on a dog’s toenails to provide traction on slippery floors. They can be worn continuously, but will need to be replaced every 1-3 months.
- Use ramps to minimize number of steps a pet has to maneuver to go outside or into the car
- Medications — there are many safe and effective medications to treat arthritis pain.
- Acupuncture can be helpful in supporting nerve function and strength.
- Use of baby gates to protect pets from accidentally falling down stairs
- Comfortable bedding in a variety of areas to choose from
- Keep active — take small walks if tolerated to maintain muscle mass
Pain can come from many sources: arthritis, certain disease processes, decreased mobility. Speak with your veterinarian about signs of pain to watch for such as: heavy panting, pacing, whining, laying or sitting in an abnormal posture or location, or lack of appetite. There are safe and effective medications to treat the different types of pain our geriatric pets may experience. Laser therapy and acupuncture can be combined with traditional medications to help treat and control pain.
By 8-10 years of age most of our pets will have some degree of hearing loss. This can pose safety concerns if they should become lost or if we need to call them away from a dangerous situation.
- Monitor your senior pet closely when outside, do not allow them outside alone if they are not contained in a fenced yard.
- Early on training your pets with both verbal and hand signals.
- It has been suggested that acupuncture can be helpful for age related hearing loss.
Decreased vision or blindness
Decreased vision or ability to see fine details is a common aging change. You may notice them missing treats on the floor or not being able to catch toys like they used to. Being able to see clearly at night is also a common complaint. Not all of our pets will completely lose their vision. If your pet suddenly becomes blind, a veterinary visit to evaluate vision and the eyes will be important in formulating a treatment plan. Ways to help our pets with decreased vision:
- Blocking off stairways using baby gates to prevent accidental falls
- Using night lights can help with decreased vision in poor lighting
- Not allowing pets with decreased vision outside alone to prevent accidents
- Use verbal commands or gentle touch to help guide them
- For pets who are blind the book “Living with Blind Dogs” by Caroline D. Levin can be very helpful
As muscles and nerves weaken with age, just as we see weakness in the hind legs, we can also see weakness in the muscles that control the bladder or rectum. This can result in urinary and/or fecal incontinence. Older pets may also have the urge to urinate or defecate more frequently. Hygiene can become an issue if they are urinating/defecating where they lay — this can lead to sores and infection. Depending on the severity of their incontinence, a variety of treatments are available:
- Medications can be used to help with urinary incontinence.
- Acupuncture may help improve continence
- Trimming hair near the urinary opening and anus and gently cleaning these areas with warm water on a rag to prevent sores/infection
- Use of Aquaphor ointment after cleaning near the urinary opening can reduce urine scald
- Sanitary napkins, belly bands and diapers can be used – these may increase risk of urinary tract infection.
- Covering their bedding with disposable absorbent pads (like puppy training pads or hospital chux)
- Working with your veterinarian to frequently monitor for urinary tract infections which become very common in our geriatric patients with incontinence.
- Having litter boxes with lower walls and in a variety of locations on every floor of the home for easy access
- Creating an indoor potty area for dogs to use “in an emergency” when you are away (using puppy pads, dog size litter pans, artificial turf, etc)
- Letting dogs outside to potty more frequently to reduce accidents inside
Medical conditions that our geriatric pets may have can contribute to a decreased appetite. Nutrition is important for energy and maintaining weight.
- Appetite stimulants are available in a variety of forms
- Anti-nausea medications can be used in patients with diseases that may cause nausea (kidney disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, intestinal disease, etc.)
- Vitamin B12 injections are a natural appetite stimulant that may be of benefit
- Encourage appetite by feeding foods that are both enticing, but unlikely to cause gastrointestinal upset such as: cooked white rice, cooked noodles, boiled skinless potato, lean cooked protein, protein based baby food purees. Your veterinarian may have other recommendations based on your pets specific medical needs.
Just as with food, some of our pets will become disinterested in drinking water. Hydration is very important for our pets, especially as they get older. Maintaining normal hydration can improve how our pets feel.
- Have multiple bowls of water around the house in easily accessible locations
- Use a pet water fountain — fresh running water can be more enticing
- Use low sodium chicken broth
- Try making low sodium chicken broth with gelatin added to create a “treat”
- Your veterinary team can teach you how to give fluid under the skin
Behavioral changes can be some of the more concerning changes that occur in our older pets. Signs can include: aimlessly wandering or pacing the house, altered sleep/wake cycles, acting confused, getting lost in the house, not recognising familiar people or pets, regression in potty training or personality changes. It can be natural to want to scold them for making mistakes, or waking us at night, but we need to remember that these actions are usually not on purpose. Unfortunately there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, several modalities have been tried with variable success rates. The following have been found to be helpful in some cases.
- Feeding a diet fortified with antioxidants
- Hill’s Prescription diet B/D (canine only)
- Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diets Neurocare (canine only)
- Anipryl (selegiline HCL) is a daily oral medication that can help reduce symptoms of cognitive dysfunction (can take up to 4 weeks to see a response) (canine only)
- S-Adenylmethionine is a daily chewable tablet that contains a powerful antioxidant which can be helpful in reduction in symptoms (canine and feline)
- Environmental enrichment such as regular exercise and introduction of new toys or rotation of toys can help stimulate the brain and slow progression of cognitive dysfunction
- Studies have shown that dogs that were given both dietary and environmental enrichment had the greatest improvement in cognitive dysfunction when compared to dogs who did not have enrichment.
Of course this is the most important, but often overlooked, key to helping our geriatric pets. We love them unconditionally and because of this we, as pet owners, are the most important judge of their happiness. Keep in mind the things that make them special to you, what they love best, what gives them joy. Remember that even as the burden of caring for them increases with age we also need to keep in mind and provide them the things that bring them joy — whether it be car rides, walks (or trips outside in a wagon or stroller), a nap in the perfect sun spot, a visit with a special friend, beloved toys, favorite snacks, snuggles and cuddles with you.Caring for our pets as they age and develop medical conditions can be difficult. But we, at Lodi Veterinary Care understand the loving bond that connects us with our fur-children. If you have questions or concerns of the best ways or options to treat and help your pet, do not hesitate calling at any time.