How do I Take Care of My Aging Pet?

Our animal population is getting older and suffering from many of the same ailments we do, especially arthritis. I’ve recently worked with several clients to make household adjustments in order to better accommodate their aging pets. Here are some tips for dealing with common problems— including ways you can prepare for their Golden Years in advance:

1. Ramps and other improvised devices.

Is your dog suddenly reluctant to jump into the back of the car? It could be that it is getting too painful to climb up into it the way he used to. You probably need a little bench or propped board/ramp to ease his difficulty in entering and exiting.

If your pet always sleeps with you in bed, or has a favorite elevated “perching” spot, a footstool or little steps will help them climb up and down much more easily.

Doggie and cat doors can also become problematic to climb in and out off. Your pet may have to start using the “people” door!

2. Litter box accommodations.

While their box may be fine in the beginning of a cat’s life, as a cat ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate entering and exiting if they have to climb over any kind of “lip”, or scoot into a small or complicated opening. Most cats end up with arthritis from years of wear and tear on their joints due to jumping and landing — i.e. just “being a cat.” And when it starts to get too painful to climb in and out of their litter area, they will stop using it and just go on the floor instead.

I frequently see this problem with my clients — they can’t understand why after years of using the box, Kitty has suddenly abandoned it. So please keep in mind that as we can live longer than ever before, so do the cats! I urge everyone to think ahead about what it might be like when your cat reaches it’s geriatric years— and to design their litter box setup with that in mind.

A four or five-inch box lip might not look high to us, but it is to a senior animal who stands barely ten inches tall. Having to use a flight of stairs to get to a litter box in the basement is another issue. (Even on a single level, they might not want to walk as far, or even have a bit of dementia, so you may have to have more than one box available in your house to prevent accidents.)

A standard litter box on the floor often needs to have a section cut out of one side to help a cat with stiff and painful hindquarters to get in and out. Covered boxes may become more difficult to crouch in. And the newer litter box “houses” that look like furniture (more visually appealing to humans) can have even more difficult entries/exits. Try to buy one with a really low opening, or adapt the existing hole if you are handy. The best way to think about this is to always keep entries/exits as level to the floor as possible. (A small mat in front will help with litter tracking.) Just put yourself in the cat’s paws and imagine what would make it easier for them to do their thing.

3. Cushioning.

Make sure your pet beds are extra plump and soft. Sometimes cushions are just too thin, or they get compressed and harder after lots of usage. Add foam, other layers, or completely replace them, just as you would with an uncomfortable mattress.. Think about what it would be like to lie on a floor with aching joints and not much padding underneath you…ouch.

4. Heat.

Heat eases the pain of arthritis, and can be relaxing too. Put an electric heating pad (they’re very inexpensive) on the lowest setting and place it under a blanket…you want it to be diffusely warm but not too hot. Your pet could love being on it once they get used to it and realize just how good it feels. Ever notice how elderly people always seem to be cold? Your pet feels the same way as it gets older and has less “meat on it’s bones” — keep it in warm surroundings.

5. Acupuncture.

Most animals respond extremely well to acupuncture and it’s benefits. I’ve seen them not even notice or care that the needles are going in, and I’ve also watched them get markedly more relaxed as it takes effect. It’s known to be very effective for pain relief, and depending on where you live, you may find vets who specialize in it. I urge you to give it a try. (I have 2 practitioners in the Seattle area to recommend; if you are local, contact me for their info.)

6. Supplements and medications.

I’ve seen glucosomine/chondroitin work well on some animals but not others, especially if their condition is more advanced. It also takes several weeks or even more to build up effective levels. Not surprisingly, some common pain killers used in animals can have really horrible side effects — I’ve had a number of client’s pets who have great difficulty being on opioids. A great alternative is Adequan — it’s like a “super-dose” of chondroitin and can be absolutely miraculous for some animals, including my 19+ year old cat who literally could not stand up and walk before taking it. There is plenty of info about it online, and I urge you to ask your vet if your animal would be a good candidate for it. You only have to administer it once a week and it’s not in pill form— it goes right into the scruff of the neck, which is another big plus. An integrative or holistic veterinarian can also lead to you to supplements and even foods that are helpful to easing pain and inflammation.

7. Enrichment.

While we are taking care of our pet’s bodies, we should also not forget their minds. Environmental enrichment means engaging with your pet in ways that stimulate their mind, which has mental and physical benefits. A good pet store should be able to show you a variety of toys that engage your pet’s mind and keep it young — one example is food puzzles. You can also do different kinds of activities like training your animal to do tricks. People get so used to their dogs and cats sleeping a lot of the time that they can neglect the importance of both exercise and quality play time. Studies have shown that environmental enrichment will keep them more youthful, longer. If you’ve gotten lazy about playing with your pet, it’s time to re-engage! There are lots of online articles and products that will give you a good idea of where to start.

8. Checkups.

If your pet has had regular vet checkups but doesn’t seem quite right, something else may be going on. My “wellness check-in” with a built in action plan is the most popular service I offer my clients. Contact me for more information.