Living with (and Loving) Senior Pets

I don’t feel good admitting this, but sometimes I’m impatient with my two old dogs, Basil and Rinaldo. Their gait is slow and uncertain. They need help getting in and out of the car. They have to go out more often to relieve themselves, and the really old one, Rinaldo, does not want to go out in wet weather at all, which means I have wee wee pads in place of throw rugs on my kitchen floor. The most annoying thing is how slowly both old dogs eat. One is 14 and one is 17; at this point, neither have many teeth. This slow eating is only a problem because I also have Lucy, the young, strong, voracious one, who given the slightest opening, would happily intimidate both her brothers off their food. Sometimes I feel like a cafeteria monitor. I’m not kidding.

I love my old dogs. I love old pets. In my adult life I’ve had, not all at the same time, six dogs and five cats. My Appaloosa pony, Buttons, lived to be 35. All of my dogs and cats have lived well into their late teens. Although most of my animals were acquired when they were a young age, I’ve gone out of my way to adopt older animals. Seven years ago, I adopted Rinaldo from a shelter when was 10. For a year until I found another home for him, I fostered a 10-year-old Russian Blue cat.

There’s no special trick to keeping your pets healthy well into their golden years. Now that I’m older myself, I more appreciate what it takes to stay fit. I’m happy to share here my tips on successful pet longevity. And if you’re contemplating being a total saint and adopting an older animal, know that many shelters offer reduced or even waived adoption fees for pets over 5 years of age.

Feed your animals the best food you can.

There’s plenty of information available on what is a good pet food. Many websites have solid nutritional information on the most popular brands. There are also small batch commercial foods specifically tailored to older animal’s needs. Your vet can advise you, or, in some cases, recommend a prescription diet. A surprising number of dogs, it turns out, have poultry allergies. Read labels for protein content and source of protein. Worried your store doesn’t carry the food you need? Websites like carry specialized brands and will deliver right to your door.

If your veterinarian suggests a teeth cleaning, say yes.

You might be one of the lucky ones whose dog actually enjoys having its teeth brushed. And some teeth-cleaning chews really do cut down tartar and plaque. But there is nothing like a professional teeth cleaning done by your vet. In addition to the necessary sedation, many people balk at the perceived expense. But tooth decay can lead to heart problems, and broken, decayed teeth make it tough for your pet to eat. Your pet may not be getting its proper nutrition and may lose weight. As a result of not eating, or eating far less, your pet can experience personality changes, including depression and lack of vitality. Don’t be frightened if your vet says there might be some extractions. There will be a few days afterwards of antibiotics and soft food, but I can attest my mostly toothless Chihuahua has no problem with his ¼ cup Zignature kibble. Just as the vet predicted, his gums toughened right up.

Be prepared to do some lifting…or get a ramp

It’s always a sad day in my house when I realize that one of my four-legged family members needs help getting on and off the sofa. A beautiful Turkish Van cat I had for years named Leo grew so old and spindly, he couldn’t reliably jump on and off the counter where his food was kept. I had to lift him up and down multiple times a day so he could have a nibble. If your dog is too big or heavy to carry up and down stairs or get into the car, consider a ramp. Think you can’t teach an old dog a new (ramp) trick? Even the really old ones learn fast when they’re taught using treats.

Attend to your pet’s mental health

Just as you would feel neglected and depressed if no one talked or played with you, so do your pets. While it is true most very old animals spend much of their day snoozing, just like their humans, they do better when they have some entertainment and interaction. Talk to your old pets. Take short walks with them. They may want to do more sniffing than walking, so gauge your gait accordingly. Mine really love it when I sing to them- the sillier the song, the better. Basil enjoys music and has been known to join in by barking/singing. Dogs, just like people, if left alone too long, become depressed. So engage them, entice them with new toys, spend a little extra time grooming. Most dogs love the attention of grooming, not to mention, brushing with the soft brush feels good. One of the reasons I got a puppy two years ago was to give Basil (11 years old at the time), someone to play with. Please note that he hated her at first, but now they love each other.

This would probably be a good time to remark that older animals often require more medical attention, including surgery. I think this is an individual choice, whether or not to pursue specialized medical care. It’s one thing to give a pill a day for a heart condition; quite another to treat canine cancer. Finances and your own ability to administer home treatment or ferry the animal frequently to the vet are all factors that come into play. When it comes down to major surgery or extended medical treatment, there shouldn’t be any shame or guilt involved if you decide euthanasia is the right choice given the animal’s age, condition, likelihood of a positive outcome, and your ability to pay. As any experienced pet owner will tell you, the animal almost always tells you when it’s time to let go. I’ve often said my pets are the lucky ones, that I can end their suffering when they are truly suffering, and not just having a bad day.

In general, treat your older pets as you would treat yourself. Eat a good diet. Get some exercise. Engage with others to avoid isolation. Give love. Receive love. It’s a pretty simple recipe for living a good and happy life.

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