When I started writing about pets for a living almost three decades ago, I had one middle-aged dog and one young one. When I sat down to write this article, my final “Pet Connection,” I again have one middle-aged dog and one young one (as well as three cats, one horse, two goats, two ducks and 23 chickens, but who’s counting?). In the years between that first column and this one, I’ve held many pets in my arms at our veterinarian’s for the final good-bye, most of them dogs.
Even though I know the signs of aging pets mean the hardest part of sharing a life with them is inching ever closer, I never regret having an old dog around. To me, an older dog is one of the most beautiful of life’s many gifts to us. It doesn’t matter what time has done to the animal’s actual appearance – an older dog looks special to me, and always will.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling, but I sometimes realize that I am in the minority when it comes to leveraging the strategies – often simple and relatively inexpensive – that can make an older dog feel years younger. This time can be a special one for both of you, but it’s up to you to make the most of it.
The place to start is with your veterinarian. With my senior pets, I go to twice-yearly comprehensive wellness exams, which include not only a complete physical and dental examination, but also diagnostic tests to see what’s going on “under the hood.” With my last three dogs, those diagnostics paid off by revealing health issues that weren’t yet showing, including cancer and renal failure. In all three cases, diagnosing, addressing and treating the conditions early allowed me to enjoy extra time with all three of these dogs.
But even when tests reveal nothing abnormal, I’ve been able to take my veterinarian’s advice based on those twice-yearly visits to improve the lives of my senior dogs. My veterinarian has been able to suggest dietary changes and nutritional supplements, for example, that eased the pain of arthritis. I’ve always worked in partnership with my veterinarian, and that’s never more helpful than when managing an aging pet.
Once I have a pet’s medical needs addressed, I look at changes to make at home. These include:• Beds: Think soft. Think cushioned. Think low. Think heated. Your dog will thank you for all of these comforts, especially in cold weather.
• Clothes: Older dogs, like older people, have a more difficult time maintaining their body temperature. This problem is even more pronounced in slender, short-coated breeds like the greyhound or whippet. So check out the sweater selection at your local pet-supply store.
• Ramps and step: If your dogs are allowed on the couch and the bed, consider buying or building steps to help the dog who can no longer make it in one jump. A permanent ramp going down the back-porch step or a slide-out one to help your dog into the car will also be appreciated.
The most important thing you can do for an older dog? Keep him moving, every day (avoid “weekend warrior” syndrome), and keep his weight at or just below normal. For my dog Heather, I added a life preserver so she could continue to swim almost daily in the river near our home, providing her with low-impact exercise that wasn’t overwhelming.
In the 30 years since I started helping others help their pets, nothing makes me happier than thinking about how many wonderful pets I’ve known – and not just my own, of course. You can’t make time slow down, and you can’t change the too-short life span of the animals we adore. But you can make the most of the time your pet has, and you should always try. Start by talking to your veterinarian today.