When my dog, Tundra, was 11, I felt she was “just getting old.” I originally rescued her as a puppy from a shelter, so I wasn’t certain of her breed. She looked most like a German Shepherd and I knew that breed’s lifespan averages around 12 years. I wanted her to live longer than that so I searched for something to do about it.
I have taken and refined the strategies I used for Tundra and applied them to all of my aging patients. I was thrilled that Tundra lived another six years – playing on the beach and having a wonderful life. Supporting animals as they age is something I look forward to, because my clients and I consider aging an asset rather than a disease.
Ambulation: These Feet Are Made For Walking
Just because animals are older, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exercise. Becoming sedentary with arthritis is a dangerous downward spiral for a pet. Arthritic animals that don’t exercise will deteriorate rapidly. Atrophy of leg and back muscles destabilizes joints and the spine, causing unbalanced, hesitant or stilted gait patterns, thus increasing discomfort.
Gentle weight-bearing exercise strengthens muscles and circulates nutritive synovial fluid over the surfaces of the joint. Confidence in the limbs comes from using the limbs, pure and simple. And don’t forget to make sure older animals have enough quality meat protein in their diet to maintain the muscles they are working to improve. Underwater treadmill treatments can make a big difference in muscle mass and coordination.
Take a walk on the wild side
Take walks where your pet can experience/smell/see something new. If you keep his mind lively, his body will follow suit. Don’t neglect the daily outing. Take it slow if you have to, but take it –and make it interesting.
Move off the beaten track
Dogs and cats benefit from challenging terrain. If you always walk on flat surfaces, it may soon be the only surface your pet can navigate. Make games include varying surfaces for indoor pets, or maneuver outdoor pets over tree roots, gravel and irregular ground. Step up and down curbs, go around posts, walk in short figure-8 patterns and go up or down inclines or driveways.
Place toys or treats in places where it requires some effort to retrieve them
People play games with dogs in many life stages, but mature cats are often left to sleep all day. Don’t just put treats under their noses; make them do a little work for them, for example, on the top of a flight of stairs or on top of a climbing toy. Your cat will have to exercise to get to it. And, those wire-bouncing fobs and little mouse toys are not just for kittens! By encouraging exercise, your cat may shed some unwanted weight as well.
Place non-skid floor coverings in slippery spots
Pads of older canine and feline feet can slip more on smooth surfaces. Adding area rugs and other non-skid floor coverings (i.e. yoga mats, rubber floor covers, runners) can help them get up and move more confidently. Adhesive foot pads, waxes or non-slip booties, if they aren’t too bulky, can also help.
Spine and Tail
Massage can help with overall circulation and spinal health. Try little massage circles up and down the sides of the spine which can invigorate circulation. Gentle traction in a smooth massaging stroke down the tail can help to stretch the spine and improve intervertebral circulation. A supple spine can mean a more active dog or cat.
Massage the feet of older dogs and cats
Once a day, gently squeeze the feet and pull slowly down the toes of your geriatric dog or cat (take care to avoid getting bittenby foot-sensitive animals). This physical therapy trick can improve the neurological connection from the brain to the foot, improving leg mobility and foot placement.
On the Nose
Topical treatments for a crusty, dry nose. While nose dryness/crustiness can be a sign of a significant autoimmune condition or nutritional deficiency, sometimes older dogs just have dry noses. After ruling out any underlying medical causes, there are a few options to try. My clients feel that Vaseline on the nose is the most reliably effective topical treatment for an elderly dog’s dry nose. I have also had some success with shea butter or coconut oil topically. Coconut oil taken orally (about 1 tsp daily per 30-50 lb dog) can ameliorate dry noses, dandruff, dull hair coats and can improve general gastrointestinal health.
Vitamin E or fish oils often make the nose sticky, not smooth and bag balm can be too irritating, and its pungent odor can irritate a dog’s keen sense of smell.
Nosing the Bowl – Avoid Plastics
Change plastic bowls to ceramic, metal or glass bowls, and clean them regularly. Plastic bowls may be an irritant to sensitive nasal skin. Inflamed skin on the mouth, chin or nose of a dog or cat can improve once plastic food or water bowls are removed.
Under your Nose
If your furry friend doesn’t seem hungry, it could be that they can’t smell the food. Some older animals may lose weight because of eating less. A pet who seems to lose interest in food as they age may be a sign of significant illness (cancer, systemic diseases, dental problems, etc.). However, the answer may be under their nose.
If you’ve been to the vet and there’s no apparent medical concern, remember, smell is an important appetite stimulant. Aging animals can have trouble with their sense of smell due to many causes, like a previous respiratory disease, or side effects of medication (e.g., some antiinflammatory meds may decrease sense of smell). They may be wondering what scentless clumps are in their food dish, but dinner is not on their mind.
Smelly is better. Try warming up the food, or mix in some hot water, chicken broth, tripe (very smelly!) or a slurry of meat baby food (no onion powder). Your pet will more likely come running for supper if you super size the aroma.
Breakfast may be Optional
I’ve noticed that many aging dogs skip their morning meal. Even with enticement and fabulous smelling food, they just say no. But by supper, they are perfectly happy to clean the bowl. As long as everything else seems normal, and there’s no vomiting or other signs, many older dogs can do just fine having all their food at supper, if that’s what they choose.
The Eyes Have
It Install an extra light fixture over the stairs. This may sound like a homedecorating solution more than a veterinary one, but this can work wonders for an aging pet with an optical condition. When a pet seems hesitant to go up or down stairs, the first thought is arthritis, but it may be the eyes.
Lenticular sclerosis is a typical aging change in the lens of a dog or cat’s eye – it’s responsible for that bluish haze you see as they age. It creates a mild vision issue, like looking through shower glass – slightly hazy vision that obscures depth perception. In twilight conditions, difficulty seeing is even more pronounced.
Better lighting on stairs, which make surface edges easier to see, will help your aging pet gauge their steps better and improve their ability to walk on uneven surfaces.
If your pet has vision issues, avoid moving water and food bowls, furniture or litter boxes. Pets can get confused, and the change can cause accidents and stress. Make sure they know where things are if you have to rearrange.
On the other hand, too much light, bright sunshine on bright surfaces (like snow or white sand) for an older animal, particularly cats and smaller dogs, can be bothersome. Animals with iris atrophy have trouble fully closing the opening of their iris to protect from bright light. They will be light-sensitive, and possibly act as if they are unable to see well when the light is intense. Give them some time to adjust, or get to the shade where possible.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Use clapping or high-pitched tones to get the attention of your pet. Dogs and cats, like humans, lose their hearing – especially when you ask them to do something they don’t want to do. As hearing fades, hand-clapping or high-pitched tones are of a frequency that seems to be the last to go. An elderly dog will be less startled from a deep sleep if you clap or use a high-pitched tone before you touch them. Consider acupuncture for hearing loss as this can improve circulation to the ear mechanism. Also, apply gentle massage circles at the base of the ear and rotate the ear flap a few times a week like a windmill to help improve irculation.
What goes In Must Come out
Pet incontinence is the bane of many pet owners. There are many causes, but many solutions. Here are some typical problems and solutions (once medical problems have been ruled out).
After giving your dog a walk, he comes in the house and poops on the carpet. Consider doing the “double walk.” It may be that the signal to poop is not strong enough to override the distraction from all the fun sights and smells of the great outdoors. So, when you finish a walk and step to the front door, stop for a second, let the dog relax, and quickly head back out and continue your walk for a few more minutes. This will give your dog enough time to refocus on the task at hand and stop being distracted. They will be aware of their body for a second, and think “Oh! I have to poop!” thus, causing fewer accidents in the house.
My dog doesn’t know when he is defecating and often wakes lying in his poop. Feed your dog once a day with canned, home-cooked or pre-prepared raw food, if possible. Often, these foods have less filler and fewer carbohydrates and you’ll find smaller, less frequent poop. Also, Psyllium fiber added to meals helps keep stool even more regular and firm (about one teaspoon mixed in wet food for a 50 pound dog, or 1/8 teaspoon per wet meal for a 10 pound cat).
If you choose to home-cook your pet’s food, make sure you have a good recipe. It should have quality meat as the main ingredient, with some veggies/fruits, and calcium and phosphorus in the right ratio (typically in a bone meal supplement). Proper vitamins, and calcium/phosphorus ratio is essential to health.
When you feed moist food (canned, home-cooked or raw), your pets won’t have to drink a boatload of water to digest the dry kibble, which in turn will reduce urinary accidents. There are many medical reasons for urinary incontinence, but once they are ruled out, feeding a diet with proper moisture content can help avoid over-drinking. Older pets on raw, home-cooked, or canned food often drink less, urinate less and have fewer overnight accidents.
Keeping Their Figure
In addition to simply watching your pet’s weight, actively make him slim.
Decrease food and treats immediately and weigh your aging dog regularly. Weight changes in an older animal can help your vet monitor various health conditions. Check your dog to see if you can feel his ribs without a lot of pressure, and that they have a discernible waist just past the last rib. While decreasing the food, keep them from being desperate by filling the begging stomach with rice cakes or green beans (low sodium canned, fresh, frozen, or cooked).
For weight loss in chunky dogs, feed less food and fewer carbohydrates. Dogs do very well on an “Atkins-like” diet with plenty of protein, and they can lose weight fast! Always change diets very slowly, over the course of 10-14 days.
If your dog is not losing weight and you’ve tried these tips, have your vet check for health conditions that may be a factor – like hypothyroidism or other systemic diseases. An overweight pet faces many health, mobility, energy, and mental issues. Remember, one pound of weight loss helps by decreasing about four pounds of torque on each leg. This is a good incentive to keep your pet thin. Every pound truly counts!
For overweight cats, losing weight must be a slow process to avoid health risks. It’s good to discuss this with your vet before beginning a weight-loss plan. Remember, unlike dogs, cats must eat every day and can become very ill if they are fat and suddenly stop eating. So take your time! Consider changing to a diet with fewer carbohydrates and choosing a healthier, low-carb canned or even raw food if they will eat it.
Be careful to offer food your cat will eat every day – you can’t force a cat to eat something that he doesn’t like. He would prefer to starve. Offer the new food slowly and in small amounts in the morning, and if he isn’t interested, offer something he will eat. It may take a few tries, but if you get him to eat healthier, he will stay healthier.
Harness the Body’s Energy
Use a comfortable harness to help your dog on walks and stairs.
I prefer harnesses that support along the chest and contain two straps that go around the chest in front and in back of the leg. These straps are best when they attach to two separate points on the strap that goes down the back. If they meet at the same place on the back and make a triangle around the front leg, they can cinch around the base of the leg when pulled (not good!), and press on a nerve plexus in the armpit.
If your dog needs help getting up or down with stairs, lift with the harness, and use your legs. You’ll find that moving them more like a suitcase helps save your back. This is more sustainable than trying to get down and lifting them with your arms.
We can’t make our pets live forever, as much as we would like to. But I believe there are many simple, common sense actions we can take to mitigate the effects of old age on our geriatric pets. I still miss Tundra, but I am comforted to know that her geriatric years, like her youth, were lively and fun