Taking care of aging pets: Part 1

As pets age, focusing on their quality of life is most important.
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Just like with humans, dogs and cats experience changes as they age, including with their metabolism and activity levels. Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Editor’s Note: Heaven at Home is currently offering many of its services through Zoom due to the pandemic. For part 2, of “Taking care of aging pets,” click here.

As pets age their needs increase. Dogs are considered “senior” at around 7 years old, and even earlier for large-breed dogs, while cats fall into that category around the ages of 9-12. Our furry friends hit the geriatric mark at approximately 10-years-old for dogs (again, earlier for larger breeds) and 14ish for cats.

Just like with humans, dogs and cats experience changes as they age, including with their metabolism and activity levels, which means they can start packing on the pounds quickly, which in turn can lead to chronic issues and deadly diseases if untreated.

But, also like humans, there are many things pet owners can do to help their pets age gracefully and enhance their chances for a longer life.

“Certainly, like in people, our pets tend to slow down, and not be as mobile and active,” said Dr. Ryan Carpenter, veterinarian at Family Friends Veterinary Hospital. “Secondary to that, we tend to see some weight gain, so it is important in our senior pets to keep them active with other variables. Whether stimulating them mentally through toys or regular walking, it is important to keep them stimulated and doing new things, active things, to keep their brain going.

“That gets to the weight point. If their metabolism is slowing and they’re less active, they tend to gain more weight, so it’s imperative that as a younger animal, dog or cat, that we keep their weight appropriate so when they get to the later stages they don’t pack on the pounds and then weigh too much that they can’t be active.”

Oftentimes, weight gain can impact joint issues as well. Carpenter said sore joints are common in aging pets. He noted if you start to notice your dog is having a difficult time rising from a laying position or not wanting to hop up on a couch or bed like he or she used to, it may be due to joint pain. He also said joint pain is treatable with supplements.

“Some of our senior foods have glucosamine, a joint supplement to keep them active and their joints lubricated,” he said.

Dr. Chelsea Grimes, a veterinarian with Cascade Hospital for Animals, said oftentimes people may notice their pets’ habits changing and just attribute those changes to old age and not mention the symptoms to their vet.

“But we can intervene and improve their lives,” she said. “Even if you think it’s minor, your vet can let you know if there’s things we can do to make your pet’s life better.”

Other issues that aging pets face can be managed as well, from hyperthyroidism to kidney disease and cognitive impairments.

“There are definitely some commonalities or common disease processes that we see among older pets,” Grimes said. “For dogs, a lot of cognitive dysfunction or decline, similar to people when they get dementia. Arthritis in dogs and cats. Some issues with urinary and fecal incontinence that can have to do with the cognitive decline more than anything else, or it also can be with arthritis if they are having a hard time posturing … or getting in and out of the litter box for cats.”

Replacing a higher-sided litter box with a lower-sided one can help cats as can relocating a litter box from a basement to a main level if your cat is struggling to go up and down the stairs.

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

How do you know if your pet has a disease?

Paying attention to your pet’s habits is one way to identify possible symptoms of a disease. Carpenter recommends periodically thinking about whether your pet’s habits have changed over a six-month period. If your pet’s litter box use has increased substantially from six months ago, it could be a sign of a kidney issue. Or, if your dog easily trekked a mile six months ago, but now is struggling to go that distance, it might be joint pain getting in the way.

However, pets’ behaviors may change gradually as they age, so it can be harder to notice a symptom versus ordinary behavior sometimes. Carpenter and Grimes said because of this the best way to identify a disease is through biannual vet visits and regular blood work.

“I know it’s a bane of people’s existence and it is pricey,” Grimes noted, but she added it can save your pet’s life in some instances, including in her own case.

Grimes said she’d been doing regular blood work on her Golden Retriever, beginning at an early age, so she could create a baseline for the future. During one of these routine draws, she noticed one of his levels was off. “It was within the normal reference range for the lab, but for him it was a big jump, and I started to do some evaluating and it was cancer. I found it early enough that he made a fantastic recovery.”

She said without the blood work she wouldn’t have caught the cancer when she did and the outcome for her dog may have been different.

Another regular vet procedure both Grimes and Carpenter encourage is dental cleanings. “Dental disease is common in older pets. It is good to start out brushing their teeth and having that checked when they are at their veterinarian,” Carpenter said.

Grimes noted, “Periodontal disease can be linked to systemic illness and that can affect kidneys, liver, heart and lungs.”

Who’s going to pay for all this?

As pets age, they often become more expensive to care for. According to an article published in the American Kennel Club, dogs can cost around $15,000 over their lifetime and typically between $700-$1,500 annually just in health care costs alone, depending on your dog and where you live.

While pet insurance does exist, Carpenter said it works best for emergency situations. “I think in most instances it works well for emergencies. If your pet gets hit by a car or breaks a leg or has some sort of emergency surgery, that is when it seems to help the most. (There are) not a lot of preventive care routine plans that are cost-effective at this moment.”

Instead, he recommends starting a savings account for your pet early on and building a fund that you can use in the future as your pet ages.

While most pet owners would like to be able to spend any amount of money to extend their pet’s life, budgets can become a factor. Grimes said she often discusses the likelihood of a positive outcome with pet owners trying to make tough financial choices around caring for their pets.

“What are the odds that this is going to have a good prognosis? Like chronic kidney disease in cats, we can do a lot of things to help manage them,” she said. “They often won’t succumb to kidney disease. They might pass away from other reasons.

“If they are suspicious of something more geared toward senior or geriatric pets with a good outcome prognosis, then I might encourage them to go forward and work up and find out what we’re dealing with.”

There is also the fact that our pets will one day pass away and making the decision of when that time has come can be difficult. Grimes and Carpenter said evaluating quality of life is the best way to determine when that time has come for your pet.

Grimes encourages pet owners to consider five quality of life categories. “They should meet at least three out of five consistently.

“Being able to eat or drink. Breathing with ease and (not in) excessive pain. Urinating and defecating normally, including the ability to posture without falling over or experiencing pain. Four and five, you should identify for your own pet. What do they get up for and what makes them happy?”

Grimes said, as an example, if your pet used to eagerly greet you at the door ready to play, but now isn’t able to do that anymore, or if your cat used to love to snuggle in bed and be petted, but no longer enjoys being touched, those can be signs that their quality of life has declined.

“Four and five are specific to your own pet,” she said. “Once they start to fail to meet three out of five, that is helpful in making the decision.”

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Saying goodbye

Making the decision to say goodbye to your beloved pet and long-time companion is hard. Heaven at Home, an end-of-life pet service, can help. The organization offers quality of life consultations, hospice and palliative care, and euthanasia at home.

“Our goal is to help pet-loving families provide a peaceful, pain-free end to their pet’s life story, with the respect and dignity they deserve after a lifetime of love and devotion to their family. Our doctors will come to your home to help you say goodbye to your beloved pet, where they are most comfortable and relaxed,” said Dr. Laurie Brush, veterinarian and founder of Heaven at Home.

She added, “When families are uncertain if there is more that can be done to keep their pet comfortable as they age or when they’ve been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, we offer hospice and palliative care consultations in the local Grand Rapids area. We will work with your regular veterinarian, if appropriate, to provide continuity of care.”

Pet hospice is similar to human hospice care.

“We are no longer trying to diagnose the illness but want to keep your pet as comfortable and pain-free as possible until the time to say goodbye has come,” Brush said. “This can be done through medication adjustments, adding in new medications, environmental adjustments within the home, specialized harnesses to help with mobility, incontinence aids and even nutritional changes.”

Hospice care varies in duration; Brush said her organization has cared for pets from a couple of days to over a year.

“It varies quite a bit depending on the disease the pet has, the pain they are experiencing, and if there are medications or tools to help maintain their quality of life. Hospice care is most successful when we start addressing issues early on, when they are first noticed,” she said.

When the time does come to say goodbye, Brush said many people appreciate being able to do so from the comfort of their own home. “Being at home removes any fear and anxiety they might have going to the veterinary clinic and provides the peaceful transition we all want our pets to experience. It also provides privacy and space to grieve for you and your family at a very difficult and emotional time.”

Grieving your pet

Heaven at Home also can help set families up with grief organizations. Brush said locally, Ginny Mikita, a death and grief studies certification candidate at the Center for Loss, a Master of Divinity, and a lawyer at Mikita Kruse Law, hosts a pet loss grief support group on the second Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.

Currently, those meetings are being done via Zoom but they may move outside when it’s warmer. Pet owners can contact Heaven at Home for more information.

There are online support groups available as well, at rainbowsbridge.com or through the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement, at aplb.org. Pet Loss Support Hotlines are available through Tufts University, (508) 839-7966, and Cornell University, (607) 218-7457.

“We have grief support material available for children as well,” Brush said. “It includes ways children process their grief at different ages, which may be helpful for parents to understand what they might be going through and what to expect. We have a book list for children, teens and adults, as well as suggestions on how to memorialize your pet.”

Brush said there are several local businesses that help families memorialize their pets. Heaven at Home provides a pawprint “every time we help a family say goodbye — it comes in a nice little keepsake box and has a place for your pet’s photo.”

She also recommends Tracy Van Horn, “a talented artist in town that does beautiful pet portrait sketches — you can find her on Facebook at Tracy Van Horn Studio. Cameo Anderson also does wonderful pet portrait paintings, cameoanderson.com. There are many local artists and photographers that provide wonderful keepsake memories — too many to name!”

You also can memorialize your pet by planting “a tree or special flowers where you bury your pet or spread their ashes; creating an ‘inspiration station’ on a shelf or in a special place, with photos of your pet, their collar, toys, a fur clipping — anything that touches your heart and brings a smile when you see it,” she said.

Finding a supportive friend or family member also is important in getting through the grieving period.

“Most importantly, pet owners should have someone they can talk to and receive acknowledgment that their grief is real and that it can be just as hard, if not harder, than losing any family member or dear friend,” Brush said.

This story can be found in the April 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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