As I sit and start writing this entry, I can’t help but look over at my dog Cooper, resting comfortably after breakfast. As I call to him, he pops up pretty quickly and comes to see what I want. Petting him I survey the once rust red colored fur on his face and head is now being slowly replaced by the white fur that marks his passage into the stage of senior pet. It is often a difficult and sad realization that our furry young friends will age and one day pass away. This time with them is so happy and life-enriching, but oftentimes seems too short.
As our pets age, newfound issues and challenges can arise. This article will briefly review some common aging and end of life related issues as well as ways that we as pet owners can help our pets retain a good and comfortable quality of life.
One of the most common changes in older pets is a decline in everyday activity level. The dog who once could easily snatch a Frisbee from mid air, now struggles to get up after an afternoon nap. Or a cat who would spend all day scaling a cat tree, now struggles to jump up on a two foot tall ottoman. Unfortunately, mobility problems hinder many aged pets. Causes can include musculoskeletal or neurological disorders. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic lameness, decrease in physical activity and orthopedic pain. Common signs include stiffness in rising after periods of rest, steady decline in regular activity, pain when examining/touching limbs or joints, aversion to certain activities (e.g. going up/down stairs, walking on slippery flooring, jumping up into a car door). By recognizing these signs and with the help of your veterinarian, steps can be taken to alleviate pain/discomfort and encourage better mobility. Treatment regimens for osteoarthritis can include of maintaining a healthy weight, light regular exercise, joint supplements, and antiflammatory pain medications.
As dogs and cats age, certain individuals can display odd behavior or changes in normal mentation often akin to dementia or senility in humans. These issues can range from strange random vocalizations, disruptions in sleep/wake cycle, confusion/fear (e.g. “zoning out” getting lost in familiar surroundings), to house soiling. These changes can be concerning and frustrating to deal with. With the help of your veterinarian other underlying issues (such as metabolic, liver/kidney disease, thyroid disease, etc) can be ruled out as contributing factors. If true cognitive dysfunction is diagnosed, management plans may include enrichment activities, training exercises, special diets and or even pharmaceutical intervention.
Ever see a cat with a pair of reading glasses or a dog sporting some hearing aids? Kidding aside, aging pets can often slowly develop changes in the senses, most notably sight and hearing. Cataracts can develop in our pets, potentially causing significant, but reversible visual deficits. Progressive degenerative retinal diseases can also occur, often initially causing problems with seeing in low light situations. Signs include bumping into objects and lack of ability to follow moving object (e.g. toys and other housemates). Mature cataracts can often be easily seen, but routine veterinary exams may pick up early cataract formation.
Monitoring the development of cataracts closely is important so that steps (surgery) can be taken if significant visual effects are noticed. Retinal degeneration is progressive and can often lead to partial or complete blindness. Dogs and cats are usually good at adapting to the loss of sight, but steps should be made to help make their lives easier (e.g. offer adequate light and avoid moving furniture, food, water, and litter boxes). Hearing loss is not as concerning, but it can also be a problem in older pets. Pets can be more easily startled, which in some cases can lead to injury to the pet or bites/injury to the source of noise. Other sensory cues such as turning on lights or vibrations of the floor can cue a deaf pet to your whereabouts.
In aging pets, as it is with humans, more frequent physical exams and lab work monitoring by their doctor/vet is important to screen for disease and follow any age-related maladies. Communication with your veterinarian is key to developing short-term and long-term health and wellness goals for your furry friend.
I will end in discussing little bit about the end. Unfortunately we can not stop Father Time. Our pets will eventually pass away or get to a point were euthanasia is a viable, humane option to end suffering and allow our pets to pass on peacefully. Many people have varying beliefs about euthanasia of pets. The decision to do so in an aging and significantly ill pet can very difficult. When it comes time to make the decision, multiple factors need to be assessed. In my mind the decision comes down to general quality of life. Is the pet comfortable; can we alleviate pain? Is your pet eating and drinking? Is your pet interacting with his environment (i.e. playing with toys)? Is he interacting with you or other pets or is he completely withdrawn? In my mind these are the types of questions that should be asked and if the answers concern you, then euthanasia should be considered as a humane option to ease suffering.
Once the decision to euthanize has been made, be sure to discuss your options and the procedure with your veterinarian. Most likely, you will have the option to be present during the procedure, but you shouldn’t feel bad if you do not want to be present. The procedure itself involves a series of injections to sedate and ultimately shut down the cardiopulmonary and nervous system. It is generally quick and the only pain is the small poke of a needle. Discussing with your veterinarian any concerns you have and what to expect can often be helpful. After the euthanasia the decision with what to do with your loved ones remains must be made. Many veterinary hospitals offer pet cremation options if you do not wish to have your pet buried.
Losing a pet can be one of the hardest things in many people’s lives. You are not alone. Please inquire at your veterinarian on options of grief counseling if you feel you need to talk to someone about your loss. I hope this information helps in some way prepare for the challenges of the later years of ours pets. – Peter Olson, DVM
Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.