Good Ways to Care for Pets in their Golden Years
We know that animals subjectively age faster than humans. What are the signs and how can we ease the way for an elderly pet?
“As with humans, living longer doesn’t mean adding on time at the end, but adding to the middle, when pets can still enjoy themselves, maybe with some changes and modifications,” advises Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Mark Howes, owner of Berglund Animal Hospital, in Evanston, Illinois. “Pets deserve quality of life.”
Howes believes the old rule of thumb—one human year equals seven dog years—has changed. Size and breed are also factors now. “A 7-yearold great Dane is a senior, but for a Pomeranian, it’s closer to 10,” he says. “For other breeds, 12 is not necessarily elderly.”
Key signs that indicate a pet may be slowing down and require special attention include changes in appetite, mobility and social interaction with people and other pets. In general, watch for flagging desires, abilities and cooperation.
Instead of visiting a veterinarian’s office, choosing a vet that makes house calls is one viable solution. This is how New York City-based Dr. Jonathan Leshanski has specialized in aiding pets for 15 years. “During home visits, I notice things a pet’s person may miss or misinterpret in the midst of daily companioning,” says Leshanski, who sees more cats than dogs. “Because house calls are convenient for owners, I see pets more often and can diagnose problems earlier.”
Dr. Cathy Alinovi also takes to the road with her rural practice, Hoof Stock Veterinary Service, in Pine Village, Indiana. She’s found, “The best way to keep a pet healthy and present longer is to keep the brain active,” adding that clients attest that their dog lived well and longer because of early intervention. “Some treatments for maintaining flexibility in their body are as simple as massage and stretching,” she adds.
An older or ill pet can become a finicky eater whose diet needs revamping. Dogs can sometimes skip a meal or two, but it’s important for cats to eat regularly says Jodi Ziskin, a holistic nutrition consultant who specializes in companion animal care in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“Each animal is different, and it’s important to find the right food texture, smell and taste,” she notes. “Keep nutrients as pure and organic as possible and serve real meat and veggies. If a pet has trouble chewing or needs more fluids, try dehydrated foods, thinned by blending with filtered water to a puréed consistency. Don’t set food and water dishes on the floor—raise them so the pet’s head is higher than his stomach, which helps digestion.”
Ziskin recalls how a holistic diet and supplements enabled her own cat, Kayla, diagnosed with chronic renal failure, hyperthyroidism and irritable bowel syndrome at age 14, to live twice as long as her original prognosis of three years. Acupuncture and subcutaneous fluid therapy complemented her nutritional program.
For pets with chronic pain from arthritis or another ailment, veterinary house calls can literally be lifesavers, because they give owners more options than premature euthanasia. Dr. Karri Miller, a veterinary oncologist with Veterinary Healthcare Associates, in Winter Haven, Florida, advises, “Cancer treatments for pets are not as harsh as they are for people and have fewer side effects. Before making a decision about treatment, consult a veterinary oncologist and ask a lot of questions. More pets today are living longer with a good quality of life.”
Dr. Kathleen Cooney, owner of Home to Heaven veterinary services, in Loveland, Colorado, likes the team approach. “We teach people to partner with their pet on a day-to-day basis and help take away the fear by educating the family to recognize the stages of aging and illness, pain and crisis, manage nutrition and live like their pets do—in the moment, not in the future. Understanding brings peace.” When the end comes, compassionate euthanasia at home or on Cooney’s farm lends a comforting atmosphere at a difficult time.
Leaving with Dignity
For aging or terminally ill pets, Dr. Mary Gardner, owner of Lap of Love, in Broward County, Florida, works with families through the end of the pet’s life. “As a veterinarian who solely practices in-home hospice and euthanasia, I have been given a unique privilege,” she says. “Hospice care supports both the pet and family. I make sure the family and I have a clearly defined goal—the comfort of the animal.” Similar to hospice care for humans, pets in hospice are given palliative care that can prolong life without suffering or pain.
Accepting help from a hospice service is not about giving up, but simply recognizing that additional treatment will not cure the illness. It’s accepting that the quality of each day of life is more important than the number of days. It’s living fully, beginning to end, right up until the last breath.
Sandra Murphy is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines.