While politicians and the media focus on the fact that baby boomers are reaching age 65 in mass numbers that will burden social systems, pet aging is receiving more attention as well. In general, pets are living longer, better lives. Happily, we can look forward to enjoying their company over an increased life span. However, it's important to develop sensitivity and empathy so that a pet's inevitable "golden years" can be rich and as comfortable as possible. The first step is a pet wellness exam, including blood screening, at about six or seven years. It's like the milestone over-50 exam for humans, setting a baseline for measuring future changes.
Just as we want to face our life changes with a positive outlook, we can help our pets ease into their senior years with trust rather than fear or depression. Step two is to recognize signals for extra attention and adaptation that is needed. Many signs of pet aging mirror human experience. Hearing dims. Eyes cloud over. Limbs need a warm up to get up. Smell is less sensitive and appetite might wane. Pet dementia or "forgetfulness" can come on with episodes of standing in a familiar room, staring for a bit, or wandering about with a bark, whine or meow.
While outdoor cats are always at risk and often die before five years, indoor cats can live into their 20s. Aging cats sleep more and groom less. Grooming may be less effective because the roughness of a cat's tongue - his or her "comb" - can grow smoother. Frequent brushing alleviates hairballs and stimulates circulation. When the scratching post is used less, nails need to be trimmed more often. Weight loss may result because cats depend on smell to stimulate appetite. Heating food or changing to food with a stronger aroma can help. With general muscle weakening, the litter box or a favorite sun spot becomes hard to access. A box can be placed as a "stair." Litter cleanliness is critical for cats with urinary changes. Cats hide illness too well. Paying attention in a sensitive new way is key to uncover aging issues.
Size as well as genetics predicts the canine life span. Small dogs can stay young to 14 or more years. Giant and large breeds experience old age at 8 or 10. Osteoarthritis, particularly in the hips, is prevalent in aging dogs. The dog park romp is for younger dogs only. Daily runs can be replaced with leisurely sniffing expeditions which are good for the canine (and human) constitution, help maintain muscle tone and stimulate continued mental alertness. Weight must be managed for comfort and mobility. Older dogs may not be able to "hold it" as long. They need more potty breaks and to be reminded of them. Teaching an old dog new tricks is fun and is good for canine mental health.
Dental disease can become a life-threatening condition, so gum condition and tooth color need regular checks. Proper nutrition is critical. Stress from household change is to be avoided. Staying trim helps preserve quality of life. Elderly pets sleep soundly and do not hear well so they can be startled or cranky when awakened. Onset of near blindness is common but can be coped with by being mindful if moving furniture or going to new places.
What never changes is that our pets live to please us, even at risk to themselves. When muscles weaken and senses grow dim, we honor and safeguard our beloved companions by recognizing that some activities are frustrating for the pet or just no longer safe. The ultimate mutual comfort is that a long cuddle on the couch never grows old.
- Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help "Keep Tahoe Kind." Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.