After recording the first podcast in our senior pet series, on the benefits of senior pet adoption, my wife and I went ahead and dove headfirst into that challenge and picked up our newest 10 year old family member just a month or so later.
Before picking up, Mabel (formerly Peanut, who you will hear more about on a future episode), we knew she was dealing with a few health issues, including Pug Myelopathy (weak rear) and we would have to be making some adjustments around the house to ensure her safety.
Our French Bulldog, Marshall, while blessed with very few serious issues, has developed some IVDD over his 11 ½ years, so we had already made some adjustments to the house prior to her arrival.
Unfortunately, Marshall's sight isn't what it used to be and it's hard to tell whether they are both hearing impaired or just ignoring me (I think a combo of both), but it's safe to assume there will need to be more adjustments in the near future.
This episode I ask Dr. J and certified dog trainer and behavior consultant Cathy Madson for advice, tips, and tricks for making sure I am doing everything I can to provide my senior pups, and my cat who will eventually be a senior, with the best quality of life as they grow older and their needs change.
You may think that your dog or cat isn't getting around as well as they used to be because "they're aging", but it doesn't have to be this way.
How Can We Make Our Senior Pets' Lives More Comfortable Through The Aging Process?
Making Adjustments for Mobility Issues
Unfortunately arthritis and other mobility issues tend to go unnoticed until an issue has already progressed. This is especially true when it comes to cats, where at least one study* found 61% of cats under the age of 6 showing signs of osteoarthritis in at least one joint. By the age of 12, that number shoots to over 90% of cats.
Setting your home up to prevent more stress on your pet's bones and joints can be a really quick and easy way to help a dog or cat suffering from mobility issues.
In some cases, this may even mean putting up baby gates or setting up an ex-pen in order to prevent your pet from falling down stairs, or to limit their jumping on/off activity.
Since Marshall can't be trusted to not jump up and down from things, and because he's never met a rug he hasn't enjoyed destroying while no one is watching, he stays in the kitchen behind a large baby gate like this one when we leave the house:
A word of caution: You should also be setting your household up so that it is easy for you to continue helping your pet with mobility issues. If you hurt yourself while trying to help your pet, you're not helping anybody.
One of the easiest things you can do for your animals and for yourself, is purchasing at least one set of stairs or ramps for your pets to use to get on and off of beds, couches, and in and out of cars.
This is especially true for any dogs or cats who quickly and easily need to move to higher spaces to get away from other animals or children. This particular set of pet stairs is good for small breeds of dogs and cats, and folds easily for quick storage and easy transport:
Marshall uses the pet stairs below, and while they aren't able to be folded and tucked away, they are wider and sturdier for Marshall's 34-pound Frenchie frame.
According to the manufacturer, this version of the Pet Gear Easy Step pet stairs will hold dogs up to 200 pounds (our 10-pounds cat loves it, too, and Mabel is able to use them better than she's able to use the three regular from our bedroom).
Steps and ramps like these are great to have for senior pets but I would also highly recommend them as a preventive measure for any breeds, like my Frenchie and pug, who are more susceptible to things like IVDD and weak rears.
If your dog or cat has never used stairs before, or isn't used to using them to get on or off the couch, it may take a little while for them to get used to it. But don't worry, it's really easy to train with a little bit of practice and some delicious treats.
Of course, just because you can train your animals to use the steps, it doesn't mean they will use them all the time. There may also be times when you don't want them up on the couch or on your bed. For those times, it's really important to make staying on the floor something rewarding and as comfortable as possible for them. This might mean being close to you, lots of words of encouragement, belly rubs, and seemingly magical treats falling from the heavens.
Sometimes, especially if your animal has just gone through surgery or has an injury where their mobility is, or should be, very restricted, you may have to set up camp to be on the floor with them because all they really want is to be close to you.
If you will be training your animals to use the stairs or trying to train them to stay off the furniture, just make sure everyone in your household is aware and will be following the new rules, otherwise it will be really confusing for your pup and very frustrating for you.
For cats who aren't as spry as they used to be, but still need to exercise their natural instincts, a cat scratcher that is lower to the ground (and also doubles as a comfortable lounge chair) like this one, is a great idea.
If your kitty is dealing with arthritis and leaping after wand toys is no longer a great option, bring the fun and games closer to their comfort level with interactive toys like this one:
Wood and tile floors can be really pretty and really convenient when it comes to cleaning. Unfortunately, they are not so convenient for animals with mobility issues due to their slippery surfaces making it difficult to walk or even just stand in place to eat or drink.
Some easy ways to tackle this problem would be to put down mats, rugs, or floor runners throughout your home — but especially in high-traffic areas.
Exercise and yoga mats provide a great surface for your dog or cat to stand on while having their meals. And if you're anything like me, your yoga mat is just collecting dust anyway, so might as well give it a job!
These interlocking exercise mat pieces are pretty convenient for being able to customize how much area you'd like to cover.
If your dog will tolerate it (or can be trained to tolerate it) grippy socks can help your pup a lot. One of PV's senior pups, Daisy, wears these traction socks around the office and they really put some pep in her step!
I'm sure all you want to do now is watch a video of dogs wearing socks/shoes for the first time, so here's a quick one for your viewing pleasure before you read on...
While we're on the subject of foot/paw care, it's also really important to regularly take care of your pet's nails, the hair between their toes, and their paw pads.
Walking around on overgrown nails is especially painful and can even lead to other infections and mobility issues. Check out this article for more information about how regularly you should be clipping your dog's nails, as well as some tips and tricks to get them to enjoy having them done.
Food and Water Bowl Accessibility
Since Marshall already has IVDD and is flat-faced, I bought him a little raised food and water bowl stand so that he wouldn't need to bend over so far and put more strain on his neck and back.
While this can be helpful, Dr. J also cautions that this is not a good solution for all dog breeds due to the risk of GDV/Bloat. So before you put this into practice, decide whether or not it's a good option for your pup in particular.
Supplements, Diets, and Medications Have Their Place, Too
Like most things the effectiveness of taking certain supplements and medications will depend on the individual case.
Fish oils and glucosamine supplements sometimes take longer to build up to the levels where you'll start to see improvements. So using supplements as a preventive measure or at the very early stages of a mobility issue could work really well for your pets.
Prescribed medications, like Rimadyl (Carprofen), work really well in most cases — in fact, Dr. J has seen it have an almost immediate effect on some patients. But, he cautions, if you're going to be using a non-steroidal, like Rimadyl, you need to be checking blood levels of kidney and liver functions and some other things, just to make sure they are more likely to tolerate it.
With supplements, there is less to worry about, but there are still some circumstances when you wouldn't want your dog or cat taking them — so as per usual, consult your vet before giving your pet anything.
Some prescription, and even over-the-counter, diets can help dogs and cats suffering from arthritis, and they are frequently supplemented with things like glucosamine and fish oils, which can reduce inflammation.
The one big component that prescription diets for arthritic pets tend to bring to the table that over-the-counter blends do not, is they also help to regulate weight — which is another huge factor when it comes to keeping our pets (senior and otherwise) healthy, comfortable, and moving well.
Supplements, medications, and environmental adjustments can only go so far — if you've got an overweight cat or dog, their quality of life really depends on you helping them shed the excess weight.
Limited or Restricted Activity Should Not Mean No Activity (for you or your pet)
I used to be one of those people who rolled their eyes at pet strollers thinking they were a novelty item people bought to show off how spoiled their pups were.
My tune quickly changed as soon as Marshall was no longer able to complete the loop at our favorite walking trail and needed to be picked up and carried the rest of the way. At first we started taking him only to turn around very quickly after arriving and eventually we stopped going altogether. This made everyone sad.
The first stroller I purchased was one of the cheaper options with plastic wheels and it was nearly impossible to maneuver. If you're going to make the purchase, don't skimp when it comes to a dog stroller, otherwise you'll never want to use it.
I am now the very proud owner of a dog stroller that has wheels ready to go off-roading. Not only has it improved Marshall's life, but ours as well. We all get much-needed exercise, he takes breaks whenever he needs to, and he can greet his fans whether walking or strolling.
A convenient invention that will help you and your seniors get around more easily, is a harness that has a strap going across the back end providing you will a handle to help your pup up steps or even just to help them keep their balance while moving in general.
Another product that works great for animals with weak back legs, arthritis, or hip dyslplasia, is the GingerLead support and rehab harness. You can see it in action here:
How to Help Pets with Hearing Loss
You may be surprised to learn that your pets already know a bit of sign language. Maybe not American sign language, but when you think about it, a lot of our training signals are already visual cues and dogs are always reading our body language to see what's coming next and what action is desired.
Cats are just as trainable as dogs when it comes to reading body language and looking for hand signals as a way to communicate back and forth. Check out this amazing video of a woman whose deaf (and hearing) cats have been trained to understand her hand signals.
How to Help Pets Losing Their Vision
When pets lose their vision suddenly, it can make the adjustment period a little more difficult. There is a whole new way of living life that they need to get used to immediately — and so do you!
One of the first things to do, is pet-proof for their safety. Baby gates and ex-pens can be real life-savers for situations like this, but don't forget to also pet-proof the yard if you have one, and take extra precautions while out for walks.
Another product I've seen on the market is Muffin's Halo — which, just like it sounds, is a little halo that goes around your pet's head and keeps them from going face-first into into walls, doors, or other hard surfaces.
When a pet's vision starts to deteriorate gradually, the good news (if you can call it that) is that your dog or cat has already been making adjustments and has been able to gradually get used to their new normal.
In fact, Marshall's vision has definitely been struggling the last couple of years and I really only figured this out after catching him bumping into things that had been moved from their usual spots. So, one thing I have started to do, is not move furniture around as much as possible.
A fantastic way to help your blind or visually impaired cat or dog, is to set your house up to be a tour of the other senses. Incorporating different sounds, touches (carpet, rug, wood, tile, mats), and scents will provide them with extra clues to help them navigate their environment.
The Humane Society has some other tips for caring for blind pets.
If you have some tips that have worked well for you, we'd love to hear about them! Please share your tips and tricks in the comments, or email us if you prefer!
Reference: *Slingerland LI et al, Cross-sectional study of the prevalence and clinical features of osteoarthritis in 100 cats, Vet J. 2011 Mar;187(3):304-9