Pet Talk: Caring For Older Pets

Pets are more than just our companions — they are a part of the family. As your pet ages, it is important to consult your veterinarian for help providing the proper care for your senior pet’s changing needs.

Every animal is different, so the senior life stage occurs at different ages in different pets. For instance, dogs are typically considered seniors at seven years old, but older dogs age more quickly than smaller dogs. Cats can be considered mature at 7 years and seniors at 11 years old. Breed and species aside, your pet’s genetics, nutrition, health and environment will ultimately determine when your pet is considered a senior.

One of the telltale signs of increasing age in pets is a decline in physical activity. For instance, previously active pets may not play as much, and both dogs and cats may need assistance climbing on and off the bed or couch. Dr. Stacy Eckman, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), explained when pet owners can expect this transition into senior pet behavior. “A decrease in physical activity depends on the breed, size and genetics of the pet,” she said. “However, some older pets are still quite active in their senior years.”

In addition to a decrease in physical activity, older cats and dogs tend to develop more degenerative health problems. “Chronic degenerative disorders like heart and kidney disease are common in older pets, and so is cancer,” Eckman said. “In cats, kidney, heart and thyroid disease are the most common aging conditions. In dogs, different breeds are more prone to certain conditions. For example, some breeds are more likely to see a dramatic increase in cancers as they age.” A visit to the veterinarian every six months can help determine what is normal for your pet so that any changes in behavior or health can be detected early.

Aging cats and dogs are also prone to arthritis, dental disease, loss of sight and hearing, and a decrease in mobility. Just like humans, pets may need more assistance getting around and taking care of themselves. Despite this change in mobility and physical activity, it is important to keep your dog and cat active to slow the progression of joint pain and arthritis. In addition, a healthy diet that adequately nourishes your pet is also key in reducing your pet’s risk for obesity, which can also contribute to joint pain. “The single most important aspect in helping your pet stay as happy and healthy for as long as possible is maintaining a healthy weight throughout their lifetime,” Eckman said. “A healthy weight should be coupled with regular exercise and activity.”

Perhaps the hardest part about having an aging furry best friend is accepting when they are no longer happy in everyday life. It is never easy to let go of a pet, but in some cases, euthanasia is the most humane option. “Making the decision to euthanatize a pet is a personal and difficult decision,” Eckman said. “The decision is dependent on what signs and symptoms the pet is showing or what disorder the pet is experiencing. When owners are questioning if they should euthanize their pet, they should discuss it with their veterinarian to help guide the decision-making process. At the CVM, we typically have owners think of three-to-five specific characteristics of their pet, and when the pet stops doing these things, then it may be time to consider euthanasia. For example, my dog loves to play ball. When he stops playing or does not get joy out of this any longer, that would raise concerns for me.”

As much as we would love our pets to live forever, they grow old and need special care. To ensure your pet lives a long, healthy life, be sure to visit your veterinarian regularly to discuss your pet’s diet, exercise habits and overall health.

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Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu

National Pet Month: The Power of Pets and Comfort Animals

By JoAnn Bacon

Our family has always had pets and each is a valued member of the family. Our painted turtle, Myrtle, is over 30 years old. She was my husband, Joel’s, birthday gift when he was 15 years old and has made multiple moves over state lines with him, and eventually with both of us and our twochildren. We also have given a home to three gerbils, a dozen Koi fish, and two dogs.

But it wasn’t until after our daughter, Charlotte, died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, that we realized the full impact dogs can have on our well being.

Charlotte & LilyCharlotte was an avid dog lover. When we rescued our yellow Labrador, Lily, Charlotte was three years old. Charlotte accompanied Lily on her first veterinary visit, and quickly decided that she would be a doggy doctor when she grew up. Charlotte spent her playtime with Lily or playing with her stuffed dogs. Loving dogs was one of her defining characteristics.

In the months following her death, Joel and I searched for the perfect way to honor Charlotte. We settled on focusing on the thing she loved second to only her family, dogs. With the help of award-winning author Renata Bowers, we wrote the children’s book Good Dogs, Great Listeners: The Story of Charlotte, Lily and the Litter. The book focuses on Charlotte’s relationship with her constant companions, Lily and her litter of stuffed dogs. The details and adventures are authentically Charlotte and beautifully illustrate the strong bond between Charlotte and Lily. As we were working on publishing Charlotte’s story, another story was beginning to write itself and it involved our son, Guy. This story also included dogs.

Guy attended the Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, and in the winter and spring of 2013 the school administration brought in dozens of therapy dogs to comfort Newtown students. Initially, Guy was anxious about returning to school, but the therapy dogs were highly effective in helping Guy acclimate. They provided a sense of calm, eased anxiety, and provided a perceived layer of security that had been stripped away on December 14th. During many school days, Guy interviewed the therapy dogs and took notes that he kept in a notebook. Months later, he decided he wanted to write a book just as Joel and I were working on Good Dogs, Great Listeners. Guy thought everyone should learn about the therapy dogs that visited his school. He wanted his book to be a tribute to the dogs and to highlight their different personalities. Guy worked on this project for two and half years, and in September 2015, The Dogs of Newtown was released. For Guy, it was his way of saying “thank you.”

After watching the powerful impact these dogs had on Guy and to honor Charlotte’s biggest passion, Joel and I decided to advocate for the use of therapy dogs in all schools. We founded the Charlotte’s Litter program to bring awareness to benefits of therapy dogs in schools with the hopes that more schools and districts will adopt a therapy dog program of their own. We have seen steady interest from schools that would like to introduce therapy dogs, and our next concern is advocating for and supporting the training of more therapy dogs teams to meet the demand.

Our family has suffered a tremendous loss and we continue to grieve each day. We were fully aware of the joy and comfort a family dog brings to a home, but had never considered the impact that working therapy dogs would have on our family. Most of these therapy dogs are just regular pets who like to sleep, cuddle, play catch, and perform tricks for treats in their leisure time, but when it is time to work they commit to giving fully to the human they are helping. It is a demanding job, but these dogs demand nothing in return. That is dedication to the highest degree.

To learn more about Charlotte, therapy dogs, and our books, visit our websites:

www.gooddogsgreatlisteners.com and http://charlotteslitter.org