Ten Ways to Make Life Better for Your Senior Dog
This morning, I struggled to read the label on my dog food bag, in an attempt to place (not so little) Iris on a weight loss plan. I very quickly realized that I hadn’t put my glasses on when I got up. As frustrating as it is to be faced with this very real consequence of my advancing years, I’m certainly happy that popping some super cute glasses on my face lets me see what I am doing. Poor Iris, on the other hand, was not so happy about her new diet!
So what kind of changes can help our senior pets? Read on to find out!
1. Rugs are your friend!
One of the first things that I look at when I arrive at a client’s house is the floors. Are they wood? Tile? Or are we carpeted throughout the house. I watch how the dogs travel through the house. Many times, senior or arthritic dogs have paths through the house that follow the carpets or rugs, even if it’s a longer walk to the door. Why do they do this? Those slippery wood and tile floors do not provide secure footing. This creates insecurity. Their achy, stiff joints make getting around difficult enough as it is and now they have to worry about falling. Why do you think there are entire industries devoted to preventing slip and fall accidents for your grandma? Just one slip in the shower can lead down a path of decline that is hard to recover from. The same thing is true for our dogs. So take a look at your floors. Consider adding some rugs, runners or cheap yoga mats. If that’s not possible, maybe Dr. Buzby’s Toe Grips could help.
2. Simple accommodations can be helpful.
How many push-ups can you do? Yeah, me too. Now consider that you had to hold yourself in a half push-up while you ate your dinner. Not happening, right? For our senior dogs with arthritis in their elbows, bending down to eat can be painful. If there is any stiffness or pain in the front limbs, I recommend elevating their food and water bowls to a level between their elbows and shoulders. This can also help dogs that have pain in their necks(but not the ones who ARE a pain in the neck!)
3. Find ways to maintain your special bond.
Raise your hand if your dogs sleep in your bed. Yep. I knew it. I fight for space with a Shih-tzu, a Labradoodle and an old Himalayan. While it’s a struggle to get comfortable, if they are not there at bed time, I go looking for them. It’s a concern I hear echoed a lot during my hospice visits. “Doc, s/he used to sleep in bed with me but stopped doing it a few months back.” There’s usually a little tear in the corner of their eye when they tell me this. This snuggling is a HUGE part of our bond with our pets. So why have they stopped? Consider whether they have trouble navigating the steps to get to the bedroom. Can you carry them upstairs? If they are near the very end, could you bring your mattress downstairs to them? Perhaps they are having trouble jumping into the bed. Consider adding some carpeted bed side stairs for them to use. Maybe pain is making them avoid your tossing and turning. I had a very creative client use a bedside baby bassinet so her dogs could safely sleep next to her.
4. Keep moving!
Have you noticed how your dog struggles to get up after they’ve had a long nap? Why does that happen? It’s because immobility lead to stiffness and pain in arthritic dogs. Studies show that 20% of middle aged dogs and 90% of older dogs suffer from osteoarthritits in at least one joint. So, while they may not be able to go for miles like they used to, they need to keep moving. Movement helps to keep muscles strong…and those muscle support those aching joints. Activity also helps to keep them trim. Every pound they add, just increases the strain on them. So go take a slow wander around the block. Stop and smell the roses (or the fire hydrant, whatever works). It’s stimulating. Which leads me to my next point…
5. Stimulate their brains.
Challenge them mentally! My grandmother loves puzzles. I do sudoku. Mental stimulation challenges our brains. This gets even more important as we age. So how can we do this for our dogs? As mentioned above, getting outside for a walk and engaging with the world is one simple way. There are also a lot of interactive toys. You can even make your own. The other day I put Iris’ food in a used plastic water bottle and she spent the next half hour batting it around to get her breakfast. Simple.
6. Grooming is still important.
My grandmother loves getting her hair done. Who doesn’t love a little pampering at the salon? It’s important for our pets to continue with grooming too. Matted hair pulls at the skin, causing painful areas. Arthritis may make it harder to posture when eliminating or clean themselves, leading to a messy coat. This can be a source of skin infections. So don’t give up on brushing and grooming. If it’s become difficult to get your dog to the groomer, consider having a mobile groomer come to the house.
7. Take care of their teeth.
Does one whiff of your pet’s breath send you reeling? If you hadn’t brushed your teeth in 12 years, imagine how your mouth would smell! Dental care is still important, even for our seniors. Those rotting teeth are a contributing factor to heart disease in older pets. They can also be a source of pain. Many people worry about the anesthesia needed for dental cleanings, but if your dog’s teeth hurt so much that they have stopped eating and you are considering euthanasia, might that risk be worth it? Advances in veterinary medicine make anesthesia safer and intensive monitoring more routine. So talk to your vet about the best way to care for your dog’s teeth.
8. Veterinary visits are even more important as your dog ages.
Speaking of your vet, when’s the last time your dog was in for a visit? As they age, we want to see them AT LEAST twice a year. Why? It has nothing to do with the size of our student loans. It’s because they don’t always tell you when problems are developing. That sneaky little heart murmur can turn into heart failure before you know it. That arthritis that we talked about? Intervening early gives us a better chance to slow progression and maintain quality of life. That senior exam with blood work is how we catch things early. My grandma, she goes to the doctor a LOT more than I do. And there’s a reason for that.
9. Be proactive with pain.
So. Many. Times. I show up to euthanasia appointments for dogs who can no longer get up. This makes me sad. Many of these dogs have had difficulty getting to the vet because they struggled to get in the car. This is where I come in! One of the most important things that I do is manage pain for older patients (and I come to you to do this). Why is this so important? It’s been shown that unmanaged pain can take 1-3 years off your dog’s life! Arthritis is a chronic, progressive condition. We don’t cure it. We manage it. The earlier we intervene, the more successful we can be.
10. Love on your dog. Every day.
What’s the one piece of advice I give all of my hospice clients? Find time every day to enjoy your dog. This is true if they’ve been given 3 months to live or you expect them to be around for years. You will never regret it.