Just two decades ago, large dogs like Labrador Retrievers lived to age 9. Today, these dogs can live to 15 or 16. Our cats and dogs are living longer thanks to many changes in veterinary medicine, and because of the care we give them.
“We’ve taken our pets from the backyard to the bedroom, and from the kennel to the couch,” says Dr. Robin Downing, DVM, and owner of The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, CO. “Our pets are aging, and with that we know, as the Buddhist saying goes, pain is inevitable. [But] suffering is optional. Our senior pets don’t have to hurt.”
Dr. Robin shares 5 tips on how to make our senior pets more comfortable:
1. Lay a foundation.
Pets like their routines. Start with regular veterinary care, a good diet, exercise, and together time. As your cat or dog ages, maintain their regular activities.
2. Practice preventive care.
Senior cats and dogs should see their veterinarians twice a year. “The most dangerous words in the English language are Let’s just watch it,” says Dr. Robin. “We see our cats and dogs slowing down and attribute that to old age. Maybe their coats aren’t as shiny as they once were. Maybe you found a small lump. Maybe something else seems off. Slowing down may be a slowing metabolism due to an underactive thyroid. Early detection is critical. By scheduling semi-annual veterinary visits, we can catch illness at its initial stage, making the success rate far higher than if we let a disease progress.”
3. Prevent obesity.
“Obesity is the number-one preventable disease of dogs and cats in the U.S.,” says Dr. Robin. “It trumps kidney disease and cancer for preventable diseases, and it is completely preventable and reversible. Leaner pets live longer than obese pets. Obesity causes wear and tear on the body. Twenty percent of all senior cats and dogs have osteoarthritis, and the percentage is much higher among the overweight and obese. Just like with humans, if you are fat, you have a higher increased risk of developing cancer of all types. Diabetes can also be caused by obesity.”
“Your pets should be eating foods that are age-appropriate. Kittens get food that is marked for kittens. It has a higher fat content, which they need for their growing bodies. Then, there is an adult stage, and a senior stage.”
4. Watch for medical breakthroughs.
“It used to be that we had to amputate the limb for certain bone tumors,” says Dr. Robin. “Now, we know—in many cases—how certain bone tumors grow by using stereotactic radio surgery. Dogs and cats are keeping their legs. A really cool development right now is work on the horizon for a vaccine that may be able to be used against bone cancer. Comparative oncologists are looking into this to be used on human cancer. It’s a huge breakthrough.”
5. Make your home comfortable.
As pets age, we can make our home environments comfortable for them. Dr. Robin suggests using pet ramps for dogs getting in and out of cars. “There are also carpet-covered steps that you can place by your bed, so your cats and dogs can have easy access to your bed,” she adds.
Other items Dr. Robin suggests include:
* Food and water bowls that can be raised so your pets don’t have to put any stress on their backs. The bowls should be somewhere between elbow and shoulder height.
* No-skid carpets or foam floor mats—the ones that look like puzzle pieces—are easy to assemble and can be removed from the floor when guests come over.
* For homes with cats, make sure your cats have easy access to a window seat. Place an ottoman or step so he won’t have to jump too high.
* For pets with bad backs or hind legs there are wheelchairs, assistive slings, and harnesses.
* For hard-of-hearing pets, you can ring the doorbell when you enter your home. Since their hearing isn’t as sharp as it used to be, they will hear a doorbell or you can use a loud lifeguard whistle. “Pets like their routines and they want to greet you when you come home,” says Dr. Robin. “By using a whistle or ringing the doorbell, they can. You can also stomp on the floor, if they can’t hear. They can respond to the vibrations.”
* If your pet has poor vision or is blind, please don’t rearrange the furniture. “Keep their food and water dishes in the same place,” says Dr. Robin. “Same goes for the litter pan. We want to set seniors up for success.”
“Our pets need us a lot when they are very young and again they need us a lot when they are very old,” says Dr. Robin. “Now that they are older, it is time for us to step up to give our pets the best life they deserve.”