Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker
Last time I discussed one of my favourite topics: senior pets. Having had several of these in my own life, and having seen countless others in my veterinary practice, I have particular soft spot for the older pet who’s given many years of loyal companionship.
In the not-so-distant past, we had to resign ourselves to the fact that old age — for pets and people — meant decreased activity, increased stiffness and, quite often, chronic pain. Happily, this is no longer the case. For our aging pets, as for ourselves, there are now many options available to help make life more comfortable.
As a veterinarian, I believe the first hurdle is recognizing that your pet may be in pain. Human beings, as a species, are a pretty whiny bunch. We’re all too pleased to share the details of our slightest aches and pains with anyone willing to listen. Our pets, though? Not so much. Mother Nature designs animals with a built-in instinct to hide pain or illness. In the wild, any creature who lets it be known that he or she is hurting stands a pretty good chance of becoming somebody’s lunch.
So when I see a pet that is less active or engaged with their owner, that shows signs of stiffness, sleeps excessively or (in the case of dogs) pants a great deal, I’m going to assume that the animal is in pain. I would rather err on the side of compassion than allow the pet to suffer in silence.
So let’s say you and the vet have concluded that your senior pet may be suffering from chronic pain, caused by a condition such as arthritis. Now what? Often, the only way to know for certain is to treat the pet for pain.
For dogs, there exists a wide range of safe and highly effective pain-relieving medications. Many were developed specifically for long-term use on animals with chronic pain. And their impact on a dog’s quality of life can be profound. I love hearing from owners about old dogs that are getting into trouble again: climbing up on that white couch reserved for company or chasing the neighbour’s cat. Acting years younger, in other words.
When prescribing medication for an older pet, your vet will likely recommend bloodwork to make certain there isn’t an underlying problem with the the liver or kidneys. Since most medications are processed through these organs, it’s important to confirm that they are functioning properly.
For senior cats, the choices are more limited. Cats have a very different metabolism from dogs or humans, and medications must be selected carefully to meet their needs without causing undesirable side effects. Still, there are a number of excellent options for pain control in felines, and many cats can be made quite comfortable with medication that needs only to be given a few times a week.
Glucosamine chondroitin, a naturally-occurring supplement with anti-inflammatory properties, works well to ease joint pain and increase flexibility in both dogs and cats. SAM-e and fish oils may have similar benefits and offer a more holistic approach to pain management. Your veterinarian can also administer a series of injections of a naturally-derived product that helps to lubricate joints and maintain joint health.
Veterinary acupuncture is a field gaining wider acceptance and becoming increasingly popular with pet owners. Acupuncture can promote relaxation, improve overall functioning, and reduce pain and stress. A further advantage is the absence of adverse side effects.
Pet massage, heat and cold therapies, rehabilitation exercises and therapeutic ultrasound are also excellent ways to help your pet. Owners can learn how to perform some of these techniques themselves, so that treatment can be done in the comfort of home — something many senior pets appreciate.
One consideration that owners of elderly pets sometimes overlook is the home environment. Take a look around the house or apartment from your pet’s point of view. Older kitties still love to observe their world from high places, but often can’t get up to that ledge or bookshelf because they can’t jump or climb anymore. A non-slip ramp or stack of cushions leading up to a favourite perch will be very welcome.
Older dogs, especially larger ones, tend to land hard on their elbows when they lie down. Thick, padded bedding is more comfortable and will help prevent callous formation and pressure sores on bony joint areas.
Finally, bear in mind that regular activity slows the aging process — for people as well as pets. Even if they can’t travel far, senior dogs still benefit from a daily walk. Older cats, similarly, can be coaxed into a play session with an engaging toy. Pet stores and online suppliers offer all manner of light-up and moving toys that even the grumpiest old felines find hard to resist. A few daily dashes across the living room or down the hall will help prevent muscle wasting and keep joints mobile.
Secreting a few treats around the house or yard for your dog or cat to search for is another good way to encourage activity and provide mental stimulation. Hunting for food is a deeply ingrained behaviour that animals retain throughout their lives — and old noses stay sharp and sensitive even after hearing and sight have diminished.
Inevitably, the end comes for all of us. But the last years of your pet’s life can be a time to treasure — and afterward, you can take comfort in knowing you did everything possible to make that time the best it could be.
Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.