Animal Shelter - Education
A Companion Animals Golden Years
Our companion animals rocket through infancy in six short months, struggle through adolescence, which may seem like forever but is actually only from 12 to 18 months of age, and then reach that plateau known as adulthood -- ages 2 to 8. Before we know it, Mojo and Belle have reached their "golden years."
Not unlike their human caretakers, our geriatric pets slow down -- in some cases way down -- sleeping longer and sounder. They are harder to roust out of bed in the morning and may become a bit snappish if startled out of slumber. A soft, orthopedic foam bed with a machine-washable pile cover (essential for cleaning up old age accidents) becomes indispensable for arthritic bones that seek warmth and comfort.
Changes in metabolism are responsible for an animal's inability to regulate his body heat the way he once could. A thinning coat doesn't help matters. Older pets feel colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than they did when they were younger, so a winter sweater may be advisable, even for an animal who never needed one before. Summer walks may need to be of shorter duration or taken at the coolest times of the day.
Four of the five senses diminish with age, leaving only the sense of touch as acute as it was in more youthful days. Hearing loss is noted by owners who feel their pet has tuned them out. Such a loss may help to explain why older animals seem to sleep sounder and react more aggressively to being woken up.
Loss of the sense of smell can be quite dismaying for owners who rely on their working dogs' noses to detect drugs, search and rescue, and track. [However, I do know a few Beagle and Basset Hound owners who are excitedly looking forward to the day that their dogs will be less scent-oriented when they go for strolls outdoors. ]
The sense of sight is dimmed by cloudy lenses, cataracts and eye diseases. Most companion animals compensate extremely well for their loss of vision and move about their abode with ease. Sometimes the owner is the last to know that his pet has gone blind and won't discover it until furniture is moved. A reluctance to leave the house by an animal who used to cherish his walks may have its roots in diminishing vision. If you suspect that your pet is having difficulty seeing, a trip to the veterinary ophthalmologist is in order.
Like their human counterparts, many older animals gain too much weight. Obesity is due to reduced activity, over-feeding and a lower metabolic rate. The additional weight stresses the heart and can exacerbate arthritis, resulting in an animal that is even less likely to exercise.
How do you help a fat cat or a plump pooch? Diet and exercise. A number of foods found at both grocery stores and specialty shops are formulated for older animals. Prescription diets are available for cats and dogs with heart, liver or kidney problems. Moderate play can keep muscles toned and blood circulating, and prevent constipation, which is a very serious problem.
Companion pet's senior years are a time that demands owner alertness. Weigh your pet every three months and bring weight swings in either direction to your veterinarian's attention. They can indicate a serious medical problem, such as diabetes. Frequent grooming sessions will keep you in touch with any physical changes. Keep your eyes and nose open for tumors, lesions, lumps, discolorations or bad breath and be sure to report these to your veterinarian as well. Early treatment can prolong your companion animal's life considerably.
Behaviorally, your pet may become set in his ways and resist change. Slow introductions to new environments and activities are in order. Don't fall for the old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!" Of course you can -- it just takes a little longer. Old Dogs, Old Friends, a book by Chris Walkowicz and Dr. Bonnie Wilcox, is filled with stories of dozens of canines who took up new activities in their golden years.
Although geriatric cats and dogs are seldom the ideal new companion for a young child, they do quite well presiding over a full-time working household or sharing retirement with a senior citizen. If you are interested in providing a few quality years for a feline or canine senior who has fallen on hard times, go to your local animal shelter or SPCA and make your wishes known to the adoption counselors. A geriatric companion is waiting to wash your face and warm your heart. Ah, the tails they can tell!
ASPCA Companion Animal Services
PDF Version: A Companion Animal's Golden Years