It’s no secret. I love senior pets. From the subtle whitening of a black Labrador’s smiling face, to the eternal lounging of a teenage barn cat, I truly appreciate the character, and more importantly, the needs of “golden oldies.” Even more captivating for me is the devotion of pet owners to their elderly, four-legged family members. If you have ever owned a geriatric pet, one that has been given the gift of living well into its teens, you know what I mean.
When working with pet owners, I always emphasize that senior pets need you more than ever. Many age-related ailments begin as “silent” diseases with no symptoms at all, chronic kidney disease being a perfect example. Elevated kidney values on blood testing and abnormalities in urine often occur before a pet shows decreased appetite and increased urinations associated with this disease. Once kidney values increase, we know that the pet has already lost at least 75 percent of its kidney function. As veterinarians, we now begin playing “catch up” instead of being given the opportunity to prevent this common, age-related cause of death.
Pets age more rapidly than humans, and a fair assumption is that one year in a pet’s senior period is like two to four in ours. If your veterinarian is only seeing your older pet once a year, you might be missing an important opportunity to diagnose and treat chronic, life-threatening diseases early, when they are most treatable. My favorite adages still apply … have your pet examined and tested “twice a year for life” because “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
In addition, I am repeatedly saddened by the many senior pets that suffer quietly from the pain of osteoarthritis because we assume that their “slowing down” is just “getting older.” The reality is that it hurts for them to get up or move a lot, so they just choose not to. They then get stiffer and more painful from inactivity. During an examination, your veterinarian should ask questions like “Is your dog having difficulty rising?” Or, “Is your cat still making jumps to high perches or having any difficulty using the litter box?”
Supplementation of the aging pet’s diet with glucosamine chondroitin can make a significant impact on mobility and quality of life. For senior cats, there are sprinkle capsules or flavored pastes that can return them to climbing and pouncing again. If your pet does not benefit from supplements alone, your veterinarian may prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to be used as needed or routinely.
Like their human counterparts, older pets develop senile deafness and compromised vision. Pet owners often tell me that their senior pet has “selective deafness,” when in actuality, the pet is hearing some tones, but not all. In your family, that could mean the pet hears deep voices, but not soft, high voices. While you are feeling frustrated that your pet is “ignoring” you, consider the pet’s frustration when it can’t hear or understand its familiar commands that give it direction and security.
Visual deficits of a senior pet are due to compaction of the aging fibers in the lenses (lenticular sclerosis). Light rays can no longer be transmitted efficiently through the lenses to the brain. You can assist your elderly pet by turning on more lights and using outdoor lighting at night. For dogs, consider getting your aging pet a “seeing eye dog,” a.k.a. a puppy!
Think about it. Not only would your aging pet take action cues from a younger, vivacious one, but that “golden oldie” also will be rejuvenated by the addition of youthful energy to the household. I know what you are thinking: “I’m not sure I can go there, for me or my senior pet.” However, what I have seen time and again (even in my own home!) is the initial turmoil from the introduction of a new pet turns into return of vigor, mental and physical stimulation, and human interaction for the senior pet.
The greatest benefit of adding a new pet to your elderly pet’s life is actually for you. I have observed and understand the endearing forces of the senior pet and the need to guarantee quality of life for them, perhaps more than others. I also have experienced and know the infinite hole that the loss of a beloved older pet creates. But, what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that painful void can be successfully filled by the addition of a new paw print on your heart.
Dr. Bonnie Jones is co-owner of Delphos Animal Hospital which she operates with her husband, John H. Jones, DVM. This column is dedicated to “Vivian Lee” Friedhoff and in memory of Princess “Bunny” Jones.