Gayle Nastasi, animal consultant and author
Even if the only pet in your life right now is a ten week old bundle of inexhaustible energy, fate, health, and good fortune willing, you will eventually be caring for a pet who is a senior citizen.
In my life, I currently have a dog who turns thirteen in May, a cat who will be twelve in the same month, several birds who are the same age as the cat, and a plecostomus (that’s a fish) who is, as far as we can figure, approximately twenty.
Oh, there are a few beings here who are younger than that but the majority of my animals are well into their mature years.
(Yes, I did say twenty, and no, that’s not a typo.)
Senior pets bring certain challenges into our lives, but the joys they provide far outweigh the worries. They are true and they are faithful. They know us through and through. Their old eyes look right into our souls and can see the love we have for them in our hearts. They listen to our troubles and understand our very natures. They have grown not only to be eternally beside us, but to be a part of us. They have helped, in their twelve or fifteen or eighteen years of companionship, to make us who we are.
Even those elder pets who are adopted when they are already senior citizens have a special kind of magic. Our own Ryder came to us at almost 9 years of age and moved right into our hearts.
I have had the privilege to work with quite a few dogs and cats who were older when adopted and their responses to their new families always touch me deeply. They fall in love quickly because they seem have an understanding of human nature. There is an internal knowledge that, “Yes, this person loves me. I am safe. I am going to be okay.”
As our animals age, the challenges of pet ownership change. One of those changes is the need for more diligent health-care. Senior pets need periodic bloodwork to make sure organs are functioning well. Their heart health needs monitoring. Aging teeth need to be watched more carefully and tended to if necessary. Just like with humans, as our pets grow older, their bodies need a bit of extra help maintaining maximum health. More than ever, it’s important for the caregivers of older pets to develop a good relationship with their veterinarians.
Our aging animal family members face other changes, too. They tend to be less energetic. They nap more, treasuring every pleasant patch of sunshine. They appreciate warmth and comfort more than ever as old bones begin to ache. They don’t always want to walk as far, because their joints are getting stiff. They might have less tolerance for handling, or they might in fact seek physical contact more than ever. Their appetites, likes, and dislikes may change.
All of these things are normal changes, for which we as their guardians can compensate. We can shorten their walks and provide joint supplements. We can buy them softer beds and warmer blankets, or invest in coats for outdoor activities and pet pajamas for cold winter nights. They have given us the gift of all their lives; keeping them comfortable is the least we can do for them in their golden years.
Toilet habits can also change with age. Old dogs will need more frequent access to their yard (or whatever their appropriate toilet is), and the occasional accident just might happen. It helps greatly to provide closer supervision and make minor adjustments to the family schedule. Some dogs, especially the smaller breeds, can even learn to use an indoor toilet area.
Old cats occasionally experience arthritic changes which make getting into or out of the box, or squatting in the litter, uncomfortable. These kitties need a few adjustments to their care (easier-access litter boxes or joint supplements can help).
Sometimes bathroom issues are due to physical changes but, in some cases, the changes are mental ones. In either situation, the pet can’t help himself, and is not being naughty. He’s simply being old.
Senses can deteriorate, as well. Both cats and dogs can experience hearing loss and diminished eyesight. It’s common for older cats to start using their voices like sonar, to help them orient to their environments, as their hearing and sight are changing. Providing points of orientation for pets who are facing sensory challenges, such as night lights, or a radio playing softly, can help them stay comfortable. Your veterinarian can help you to know whether behavior changes are due to fading senses, or other aspects of age.
Dementia, in various forms and to various degrees, can occur in our pets. Some animals stay sharp and mentally focused right to the end, but others have minds that wander and can forget the things they have learned. Playing daily mental-exercise games, such as trick training and puzzle-solving, can help to keep your pet’s mind sharp.
As you experience these challenges, be patient with your elderly pets. They are no different than us in many ways, after all. We are all going to grow older, the fates willing, and we will face the changes, too.
Remember the gifts they have given you. Tell them of all the joy they have brought you. Sit in that patch of sunshine with your dog or cat, and let them know that they are just as much a treasure to you as you are to them.
Although I am scheduling sessions again, for the time being I will not be taking on new clients. I’m hoping this will change in the not too distant future. Watch my website for information.
Do you have a dog-loving youngster in your life? (Or are you a dog-loving youngster at heart?) Visit my writing website to learn more about the Junior Handler Mysteries, available in both paperback and ebook form.