Anita Rutz of Averill Park arrived home 14 years ago to find a box by her back door. Inside was a black-lab-and-chow-mix puppy, so young that she had to bottle feed him for a few weeks.
Today, “Bear” is a senior dog. He has some medical issues, and he definitely needs help getting on and off the bed and up and down the stairs. Rutz will lovingly care for her canine companion until the end. It is clear she wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are no hard and fast rules to determine when a pet becomes a “senior.”
“The smaller the animal, the more likelihood of longevity,” said veterinarian Bart Forlano of the Glenville Veterinary Clinic. For instance, a 150-pound Great Dane is already considered geriatric at 6 or 7. Roughly, dogs under 20 pounds are considered geriatric at 11 years old. For cats, it’s 12 years.
Pets change as they age, both physically and behaviorally, just like humans. When pet owners understand those changes, they can help the animal age gracefully and with dignity.
Owners can be on the lookout for signs that show a pet is feeling its age. Michele Lee, founder of the Senior Animal Medical Aid Fund (SAMA), suggests listening for “that old man grunt” when a dog sits down. In addition, if pets take a little while to sit down, circling around before they sit, this can be a sign that they are feeling their age, perhaps that arthritis is setting in.
A pet’s eating habits might change with age. Big chunks of food might not be as easy to consume. There may also be graying on the underneath of their coats.
Cat owners might notice a change in grooming habits, appetite and overall energy levels as a cat enters the latter years of its life.
Changes in medical health also indicate aging. Like people, pets can experience diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, periodontal disease, heart disease, hypertension and arthritis. Yearly vet exams can help to detect some of these ailments.
A change in behavior, for example, a cat not using the litter box or a dog having an accident inside, can also be a sign that the pet is experiencing a medical issue.
In addition to physical changes, there can be mental changes. A pet’s memory, ability to learn, and awareness of what is going on around him can all change with age.
Lee notes that older animals tend to be a bit grumpier. “They’re set in their ways,” she said. “They don’t like their schedules to be disrupted.” An owner should be cognizant of a pet’s age and take it into account. “We need to respect that they’re in retirement mode,” Lee said.
There are many things an owner can do to make a pet’s life more comfortable as it ages. For example, Lee does heat therapy for the senior dogs in her care to help ease the aches and pains in their joints. This involves applying heating pads to their joints and heating blankets under their bedding for limited intervals of 10 to 20 minutes to avoid overheating them.
A comfortable bed helps ease a pet’s aches and pains. There are specialty orthopedic pet beds ranging in price from $40 to $200, but there are lower-cost alternatives. The “egg crate” cushion for the tops of mattresses makes a great substitute, Lee said. “We get those egg crates, we cut them in half, and they get nice and foamy and cushy.”
Good nutrition vital
Good nutrition is increasingly important as a pet ages. A veterinarian can advise an owner about the best and most appropriate food to meet a pet’s nutritional needs and help it maintain a healthy weight. An older animal may need food that comes in smaller pieces. Lee said that it is important not to deviate from an older pet’s diet, as it is harder for them to digest specialty cookies and other treats. Vets can also recommend appropriate and safe vitamins and supplements. This doesn’t necessarily mean high-cost prescriptions or even purchasing them at a pet store. There are discount stores that carry these types of items at a lower cost.
As a pet ages, he can have trouble moving as easily as he did when he was younger. There are several easy and inexpensive ways to help a pet get around easier. “Go to Home Depot, get a piece of plywood, some AstroTurf, and make a little ramp,” Lee said. Rutz purchased a ramp to help Bear get in and out of her truck more easily.
If a pet has trouble getting up on the bed or on furniture, Lee suggests purchasing insulation foam at a hardware store and using a carpenter’s knife to make steps out of it.
Sometimes collars bother older pets. Switching to harnesses is an option. There are also rear-end harnesses that can help an owner hoist a pet with hip problems.
Hearing and eyesight can go in an older pet. If a pet has trouble seeing, keeping things consistent, for example, a cat’s litter box in the same place, can help. In the case of hearing loss, a pet owner may need to find a new way to communicate, through touch and hand signals.
Most importantly, watch a pet for the signs that he needs help. Bear has signals to alert Rutz about what he wants to do, and she pays attention. He is no longer able to get up on the bed himself, but he lets Rutz know when he is ready to come up. “He’ll put his head on the end of the bed and he’ll stare at me,” she said. Then she knows to help him up.
In the tough economy, some owners are finding it hard to care for their pets, especially as they age and require medical attention. The overall intake of pets at the Animal Protective Foundation in Scotia was up 24 percent last year, said Marguerite Pearson, director of communications.
Advocates for pets urge people to exhaust their resources before taking them to shelters. “If surrendering your pet is something that you’re really going to be faced with doing, then make sure you go through your entire network of friends and family,” said Dori Villalon, vice president of animal protection for the American Humane Association. “There might be an opportunity to keep your animal within your circle of friends and family.”
There are also resources in the community, like SAMA, that educate pet owners and try to help them continue caring for their aged pets.
“I see a lot of people who take their dogs to shelters when they’re 12 to 13 years old,” Rutz said. “I can’t fathom why somebody would do that after years of love for an animal. The older they get, the sweeter they get. I look in his eyes, and all I see is love. My guy will be with me until the day God decides to take him home.”
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