It can be distressing when aging changes occur in our furry family members. They often experience many of the same issues we do: arthritis pain, a decline in mobility, visual difficulties and cognitive changes. However, there are simple changes you can make at home and in your routine to help your senior friend.
If you suspect you’re seeing age-related problems in your pet though, always check with your veterinarian first. Sometimes, signs of “slowing down” or “behavioral problems” are actually symptoms of an underlying medical or musculoskeletal issue that can be corrected or at least supported. Our pets may show pain through changes in behavior, including disengaging socially from the rest of the family, eating less, decreasing physical activity, panting or vocalizing frequently, and/or house soiling. A thorough physical exam may reveal an unexpected finding, such as visual decline, fractured or infected teeth, or even an ear or urinary infection. Endocrine and metabolic disease – such as diabetes, or thyroid or kidney disease – can also cause similar behavioral changes.
If your pet is diagnosed with osteoarthritis, your vet can also help guide you through the many options for medications, supplements and diets that decrease pain and improve mobility. At home, the two most important (and inexpensive!) things you can do for your arthritic pet are weight control and regular, low impact exercise.
1) Weight control: Any extra weight your pet carries will exacerbate the discomfort and progression of degenerative joint changes. Ask your vet for help in assessing your pet’s body condition score. Generally, you should be able to feel the ribs easily as you run your hand along the sides of the chest. Also, you should see a “waist” or “tuck” just behind the rib cage. You can find multiple on-line body condition scoring charts that are helpful as well.
2) Regular, controlled exercise: Low impact activities such as walking or swimming can be very helpful in maintaining muscle and flexibility. Increased physical activity can also provide great mental stimulation. If your pet is very out of shape, start slow – short, frequent sessions will be better tolerated, help condition muscles and gradually build stamina. And, of course, if your pet is too painful to walk very far, check with your veterinarian about safe activity and additional supportive ideas such as passive range of motion exercises.
Since most cats don’t go for walks outside, they can be encouraged to exercise inside using toys to lure them into walking more or by using their food. Rather than just filling your cat’s bowl every day, put small amounts of food in many different areas (avoiding stairs if they’re too difficult for your cat) and try some of the ideas from www.foodpuzzlesforcats.com. Only do this if your cat is eating well though.
For dogs, a walk or gentle play session a couple hours before bedtime, followed by another short outing just before bed can help with poor sleep patterns. These activities may also reduce the need to urinate or defecate in the middle of the night. Many older dogs find it difficult to completely empty their bowels in one outing as they can’t maintain the awkward squatting posture long enough – shorter and more frequent trips outside can reduce indoor accidents.
Supportive changes you can make within your household include:
Placing non-slip mats and rugs along the paths your pet travels in the house, on slippery steps, as well as at the food / water bowl areas. They may not fit your décor as much as you’d prefer, but weaker pets can slip easily on hardwood and tile floors. They'll also walk less in general if their footing feels unsafe. For dogs with neck or back pain, elevating food and water bowls can be helpful as well.
Using baby gates to decrease stair access and, where possible, setting up your pet’s feeding and toileting areas on a single level. We all have our “supervisor” pet who follows us everywhere we go in the house, but going up and down stairs frequently can be hard on your elderly friend.
Optimizing the litter box for your elderly cat. Offer low-sided litter boxes and additional boxes on multiple levels of the house. Also, make sure the litter isn’t too deep for your cat to easily move around in – older cats often prefer less than 1-2 inches of litter. Please see additional litter box tips in the Feline Inappropriate Elimination article on our website.
Offering orthopedic beds with washable covers and, depending upon the pet and the season, either pet-safe heated beds or cooling pads. Some pets enjoy cold pack therapy over sore joints. Use common sense – if it’s not too hot or cold for your skin to remain in contact with, it’s likely safe for your pet. But it’s important that your pet has the ability to move away from the heating or cooling source when they choose.
Placing night lights in dark hallways, by stairs and near the litter box. This can help reduce anxiety, night time vocalization and accidents outside the box.
Using a specially made harness to help support larger dogs on stairs and while getting in and out of cars, etc. It’s important that the harness be comfortable for the pet, doesn’t create any pressure sores and that it distributes forces in a way that reduces strain on you and on your dog’s back. Your veterinarian can help in assessing the appropriate fit and form for your pet. Ramps and steps can also be made or purchased for use with cars, stairs or even to reach your bed or couch.
Even grooming can play a role in maintaining your senior pet’s quality of life. Nails may need more frequent trimming when your pet is walking less. Very long nails can be uncomfortable, get caught in fabric and make a pet’s footing even worse. Fur mats can also occur more frequently due to changes in the coat and skin health, as well as less ability to self-groom due to poor flexibility. When a professional groomer is needed, look for one known to be especially good with senior pets who are often more anxious and less able to stand for long periods.
Finally, keep in mind that change can be harder on senior pets – moving food and water bowls or furniture, leaving clutter on the floor that they have to maneuver around, having lots of guests or frequently changing schedules can cause confusion, stress and anxiety. In a busy household, try to provide a quiet area with soothing music or white noise as a senior refuge, and maintain a regular feeding and elimination schedule if you can.
Take a walk through your home and try to see it through your aging friend’s eyes – thoughtful assessment and minor adjustments can help make your senior pet’s golden years as comfortable, peaceful and enjoyable as possible.