by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
A Senior Pet Friendly Home
No question about it, there are more senior pets with us today than ever before. With better diets and improved medical care, the average life span for both cats and dogs continues to increase. Environmental enrichment and accommodation adjustments can do much to maximize the welfare of older pets in our homes.
We know that people who remain active and engaged in their senior years are less likely to show mental decline. It has also been shown that senior dogs offered environmental enrichments experience the same benefits when compared to dogs that did not receive these attentions.. Many pets become more sedentary as they age and they may be less likely to initiate games or activities with their owner. A dog that once greeted your return from work with its leash in its mouth, ready for a walk, now may not hear the door open and sleep soundly through your arrival. In such circumstances, it is important for the owner to show the initiative. The pet once aroused will likely enjoy the walk, even if it is a bit shorter, just as much as it did years before. And remember, it probably is benefiting the pet - and the owner - just as much, if not more, than it did in times past.
Owners should try and plan daily activities that stimulate their pet's brain. Puzzle toys, like a stuffed Kong, often work well for dogs. Since food rewards are usually well received even by older pets, why not try making a game of giving them a treat. Instead of just handing out the dog biscuit or cat treat, hide them around the house or yard as you would eggs for an Easter egg hunt. With a little encouragement from you at the start, your pet will likely catch on quickly. Obedience exercises should be continued throughout a dog's life. Cats taught to play with feathers or fuzzies at the end of short fishing pole sticks can keep reflexes sharp and muscles agile well into their teenaged years.
Owners should make their homes senior pet friendly. Perhaps it will require some modification of obstacles in the house. These may include stairs that need to be changed to ramps, foot stools to make high furniture or cat perches more accessible and carpeting placed on smooth or slippery floors to prevent slipping. More appropriate pet bedding might include a heated resting spot. Providing elevated food and water bowls may make a pet's posture much more comfortable for eating and drinking. Keeping the house tidy and uncluttered will make it easier for the aged pet to navigate throughout.
Special considerations also may be important, when dealing with a senior pet, to prevent or resolve elimination issues. Older pets are quite likely to have developed some arthritic changes in their joints. Over the years, a pet will likely have developed some strong area preferences for toilet activities. Owners will need to assure ease of access to these areas. Failure to do so will surely cause distress for their pet and possibly result in the frustration of loss of housetraining.
An older pet who is developing arthritis will be helped if a ramp can replace steep stairs or an alternate route can be found to reach elimination areas. Sometimes it is possible to move the elimination spot to a more accessible area. The surface the pet must walk over to reach the toilet location should allow stable, sound footing. Slick flooring, irregular surfaces with rocks or areas that develop icy or snow covered conditions in the winter months may be quite challenging to an older, arthritic pet. For some elderly pets training them to use an absorbent pad for an elimination site can be helpful, especially if weather conditions make outdoors access difficult. For cats, owners should evaluate not only litterbox location but also the height of the sides of the box, the size of the box, litter type and cleaning schedules. A cat that has successfully used a standard litterbox, when elderly, may find it difficult to hop over the edges. Cutting an opening in the side or providing a low-sided box may remedy the situation. An older cat who may have difficulty squatting fully, will probably find a larger sized box more comfortable. Also, an older cat with kidneys not working quite so well, as earlier in life, will need to make more frequent trips to the litterbox. This means more frequent litterbox cleaning will likely be necessary.
Sometimes it can be easy for us to overlook the needs of our senior pets since they are often less demanding than when they were young. However, surely they deserve our every effort to ensure their golden years are good ones.