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Household Changes and Other Adjustments For Aging Pets

Our animal population is getting older and suffering from many of the same ailments we do, especially arthritis. I regularly work with clients to help with household adjustments that can 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 all their 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 can 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 its 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 — that's half their height. Having to use a flight of stairs to get to a litter box in the basement is another issue I've encountered with clients. (Even on a single level, the cat might not want to walk as far, or might 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. Increased Cushioning for Pet Comfort.

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 memory foam, other layers, or completely replace them, just as you would with your own 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 To Ease Painful Joints.

Heat eases the pain of arthritis, and can be relaxing too. Put an electric heating pad (they’re widely available and 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 its bones” — keep him/her in warm surroundings. For pets who walk outside in cold weather, please get them wear a coat or sweater. You can't imagine how many times when I'm out walking in cold weather, I'll pass humans who are all bundled up in their puffer jackets and their dogs have no coat on. The fact that they have fur doesn't mean they can't get cold — especially when they're older.

5. Pet Acupuncture.

Most animals respond extremely well to acupuncture'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 will most likely find vets who specialize in it. I urge you to give it a try.

6. Supplements and Medications To Help Arthritic Animals.

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 had great difficulty being on pain killers. An integrative or holistic veterinarian can lead to you to options that are non-opioid, plus supplements and foods that are helpful to easing pain and inflammation.

7. Enrichment For A More Engaged and Happy Pet

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, or the "go find it" hidden treat game for dogs. 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, for longer. If you’ve gotten lazy about playing with your pet, it’s time to re-engage! There are lots of online articles and available products that will give you a good idea of where to start.

8. Different Types of Pet Checkups.

If your pet has had a recent vet checkup and a clean bill of health but still doesn’t seem quite right, the problem could very well be not detectible with conventional medical tests, or it is merely emotional. I've worked with many anxious, depressed, and bored pets and have helped my clients find appropriate solutions. I always give my clients pragmatic suggestions that are easy to implement; this can make a huge improvement in their overall well-being. Moving your checkups from once per year to twice per year helps you head off problems in a senior animal a lot earlier. While you're at it, please don't neglect their teeth — there are a variety of problems (sometimes quite serious) caused by a lack of good dental care. If your pet is too old to risk anesthesia, look into the new dental treatments that are done with minimal sedation.


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