If you've cared for an elderly dog or cat, you know it's a bittersweet labor of love.
It seems unfair that pets, one of life's greatest gifts to people, are with us for only a small fraction of our lifetime. We all get the short end of the stick on that deal.
Your pet's senior status can sneak up on you. One day you're watching that energetic puppy or kitten romp and play and, before you know it, several years have passed and your childlike friend begins to slow down.
When your pet reaches senior status, take this golden opportunity to give it the best years of its life. Remember, it devoted its life to being your most loyal, trusted companion.
"Generally speaking, dogs and cats attain senior status at about age 7," says veterinarian James D. Lutz of Largo Veterinary Hospital. "Weight, lifestyle and size of your pet are all factors that can speed or slow down the aging process."
Rely on your own observation and the advice of your veterinarian to help you identify when your pet has begun maturing so that you can start to meet its special needs.
Senior wellness checkups may be the most important thing you can do for your aging friend. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends healthy senior dogs and cats visit the veterinarian every six months for a complete exam and lab work.
"As your pet gets older, we're a lot more interested in checking for possible metabolic diseases such as diabetes and thyroid," Lutz says. "And checking early for clues to cancer is very important."
When your pet is healthy, lab tests provide baseline values that can help the vet figure out what's wrong when your pet is sick. And subtle changes in test results, even in the outwardly healthy animal, may signal the presence of an underlying disease.
Dogs and cats should get lab work every year at middle age. During the senior years, healthy animals need a complete blood count, urinalysis, blood chemistry panel and parasite evaluation every six months.
Watch for changes
Older pets are slower pets. You may find yours reacts more slowly to sights and sounds. This loss of sensory perception is a slow, progressive process. The best remedy is to keep your pet's body and mind active.
Use playtime, exercise and training at a slower pace than usual. Pets still need quality time in terms of attention and exercise, but will likely prefer quiet walks and long naps to active play.
"Keep an eye on your pet's gait and posture to identify potential orthopedic problems," suggests Lutz. "And watch for mentation changes (mental awareness) and alterations in activity."
Remember, dietary needs change, too. Talk to your veterinarian about lower-calorie formulas with antioxidants and vitamin supplements. It's critical to avoid obesity, which can speed up aging, so no more rich foods and table scraps!
Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, diagnostics and diet, our pets can live longer, healthier lives. But since they can't tell us how they're feeling, it's important that you, as a pet parent, take a proactive approach to their health, particularly as they age.
One day you'll come face to face with a pair of wise, knowing eyes with a gray muzzle or whiskers. When the day comes, take the opportunity to repay them with love, understanding and the best health care you can provide.
Adopt a senior pet
November is celebrated by animal shelters nationwide as Adopt a Senior Dog Month. In the sunset of 2009, it's a great time to promote the benefits of an older pet in the sunset season of their lives.
Senior pets easily bond with new people, often have excellent manners, are housebroken and know the basic rules of the house. Size, temperament and personality are already established. You also may have advance knowledge of any behavior or health issues.
Senior pets need less supervision. They understand human behavior and probably know what is expected of them in the home. Physical demands are low.
Given the slower pace of most pets in their golden years, a senior person might be the best match. The calm, quiet demeanor and light exercise needs of an older pet may fit a mature person's lifestyle perfectly.
Blessed is the person who has earned the love of an old dog.
- Sydney Jeanne Seward