How to address the biggest worries of senior-pet owners

By MWI Animal Health

Offer empathy, encouragement, and effective strategies for dealing with common aging issues

Dorian Wagner spent the last few years of her cat's life focused on getting him to eat. He died at the age of 20 in November 2019. “My life revolved around putting food in him," says Wagner, founder of CatLadyBox. “He was hyperthyroid, so he had pills twice a day for that but couldn't keep weight on. I was constantly giving him treats or fixing him extra plates of food or giving him turkey. On Thanksgivings, everyone knew some of the good part of the turkey was to be saved for Pimp."

The focus on feeding reluctant eaters also ranks among the top concerns for members of the Senior Dog Care Club on Facebook. With more than 5,600 members around the world, the group provides support and practical ideas for living with senior dogs and letting go when the time comes. It's a place for people who “get it," explains the group's administrator Hindy Pearson, who is based in the United Kingdom and maintains the DogParenting101 site. “I foster and adopt senior dogs. I prefer those with issues. I've been doing it for about 12 years. I love old dogs."

Eating and other big struggles at home

Families with senior pets often need more than straight-forward animal health services. Especially in the final, geriatric years, people also require empathy and effective strategies for making home life more comfortable for their pets.

Besides getting aging or ailing pets to eat, people struggle at home with the following issues:

Dealing with arthritis pain and mobility challenges. Clients will likely need prescription pain or anti-inflammatory meds for their aging pets. They may also need recommendations for functional supplements, if appropriate.

Making the home environment safer for pets with declining mobility. Solutions include pet ramps or stairs to help them get onto furniture. Be prepared to recommend specific adaptive equipment or strategies if pets start falling or develop hind-end weakness. Slip-proof rugs provide better footing, and good-quality, well-fitted assistive harnesses provide support without causing blisters or other issues.

Handling incontinence, including diapers, bellybands, and litter box adaptations. Wagner, for example, initially got litter boxes with higher sides when Pimp stopped squatting and would shoot urine right out of the box. “Later I had to get ones that had a shorter opening in the front because he had trouble getting in," Wagner says. “After that, I put puppy pads in front of the litter box because he knew he was supposed to go to the box to use it, but he couldn't really get in, so he used the pee pads in front of it. Such a good boy!"

Coping strategies for dementia issues, including disrupted sleep cycles, wandering, and random barking / vocalization. Ask questions about these concerns when talking with veterinary clients with senior or geriatric pets. Be ready to provide safe, effective recommendations for individual cases. Examples include calming medications or supplements, calming wearables such as tight-fitting shirts or calming caps, and changes in sleep area set-ups to increase patient comfort.

Helping pets with vision or hearing loss. Educate clients about which household objects or activities startle pets that are losing their vision or hearing. For example, kids may need to keep toys, backpacks, and other obstacles out the way so that dogs don't stumble and lose confidence in their environments. The family may need to make sure that pets with hearing loss see them so the pets aren't startled by their presence.

Explain how to adapt the environment, such as nonslip rugs for main thoroughfares so that visually impaired pets can feel their way around the room. Other tips include speaking close enough to hearing-impaired pets so that they can detect the vibration of voices and don't feel ignored.

Quality-of-life scoring and knowing when to say goodbye. Companion veterinary hospital teams can use quality-of-life scoring systems to help people make end-of-life decisions. A popular one lets people rank pet health on these measures:

  • Hurt
  • Hunger
  • Hydration
  • Hygiene
  • Happiness
  • Mobility
  • More good days than bad

Handle with care

When dealing with clients in your veterinary practice, Pearson says, “What senior dog parents really need from a veterinarian is for him or her to actually care about senior dogs, recognize that old is not a disease or a death sentence, and take the pet parent's concerns seriously."

Clients with aging pets also need recognition for the sacrifices and relentless love they give for their pet's health and happiness.

Wagner spent a lot of time letting Pimp drink out of the bathroom sink, even after it wasn't safe for him to get up and down on his own. Wagner says, “When he looked up at the counter and old-man-yell-meowed at it, my heart would explode, and I'd pick him up and give him 'his waters'—multiple times a day."

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