Sharing our homes and hearts with dogs and cats, or any other friend that has a shorter lifespan than ourselves, opens us up to repeated attacks of grief and loss as each one moves forward into her final resting place. In the best-case scenario, our pet has by that time enjoyed a long life. Hopefully, she’ll have spent a relatively substantial amount of time cruising along as a priceless and pampered (if somewhat fragile) antique. Those are valuable days, but not without their challenges.

It is usually (although not always) more costly to be the caretaker of an aged pet. More pills, more testing, more mountains emerging from molehills. Subtle changes in routine will need to be investigated so that a treatable disease process isn’t mistaken for normal aging, and vice versa.

More medical supervision, however, isn’t the full formula to a safe and satisfying passage through our pets’ geriatric years. The key, in my opinion, is our attention to the gradual changes in her day-to-day needs and our willingness to adjust the environment in response. A very common example is the older pet that’s no longer willing to climb stairs or jump onto the furniture. I am astonished at the number of pet owners who do not recognize this as the number-one indicator of pain. Our first step, then, is to see the doctor about a trial of pain medication to explore this possibility. Dietary supplements and OTC medications have their place in animal care but are not effective or reliable enough to yield meaningful information in a pain trial. If removing pain from the equation is not helpful, simple weakness or diminished balance may be the issue. These are, in most cases, an expected component of aging and need to be addressed in the pet’s immediate environment rather than the doctor’s office. Food, water, and litter boxes will need to be thoughtfully placed in easily accessible locations that are all on the same level of the home. It may be helpful at this point to rethink the shape of the litter box so that the sides aren’t quite so high; easy entry and exit are essential for older skeletons. Both dogs and cats will benefit from non-skid rugs or traction mats placed in the smooth-floored parts of the home. A ramp or portable stair, placed adjacent to their favorite furniture and perching spots, will allow them to maintain comforting routines such as cuddling with the family or gazing out the windows. Exiting the home to eliminate must be made simple and safe for dogs, so a ramp might be useful there as well. Large-breed dogs might appreciate a raised feeding station that allows them to eat and drink without crouching or bending toward the floor.

Mobility, flexibility, and balance are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting old. Hearing, vision, and mental health may also be affected by the aging process. See our next installment for more household changes that might make this stage of life more satisfying and a little less daunting.

Dr. M.S. Regan