New Tricks for Old Pets

27 Jun 2018

Simple changes can make a big impact in your pet’s golden years.

By Ruthanne Johnson Veterinarian Kathleen Cooney will never forget the old shepherd mix she helped several years ago during a home consultation. She watched as the dog circled the living room several times, each time stopping in front of her dog bed and staring at it for several long seconds before turning away and repeating her circuit across the hardwood floor. Cooney grabbed a carpet runner from the hallway and placed it in front of the bed. The dog immediately stopped pacing, walked to her bed, climbed in and laid down. Turns out the old gal had been anxious about slipping and falling on the hardwood floor as she stepped on her bed. The carpet runner gave her the traction and confidence she needed.
Senior dogs who like to swim sometimes swim farther than they should when their muscle strength declines. Doug and Shari Pfluger of Boulder put life vests on their older dogs so they can still enjoy their beloved activity without tiring quickly. (photo by by Doug & Shari Pfluger)
For more than a decade, Cooney has specialized in home consultations for terminally ill and geriatric pets through her Loveland, Colo.-based business. Just like people, pets get old. And just like us, they battle age-related issues like arthritis, hearing and vision loss, incontinence and dementia. While people can turn to walkers, eyeglasses and hearing aids, senior pets depend on us for help. The home environment is particularly important for geriatric pets, Cooney says. Often times, it’s as simple as noting activities that seem difficult for them, like walking across hardwood floors or negotiating stairs. Modest changes to your living space can enhance your pet’s life during its remaining months or years. Keep in mind that modifications are better done sooner than later, as change can be stressful for older animals, who tend to prefer routine. Here are a few tips to ease your pet into its golden years.

Keep ’em Mobile

Note your pet’s pathways, as well as its favorite activities and places to hang out. If paths cut across hardwood, tile or linoleum floors, which can be slippery for senior pets with weak muscles and joints, use carpet runners with a nonslip backing to provide stability. Carpet runners with a consistent, vibrant pattern can help lead ­visually-impaired pets in the right direction as well. Runners “should be everywhere,” Cooney says, “leading to the pet’s bed, at the base of stairs, on the stairs, to their food—anywhere they could use traction or visual support.”
Sutton’s dogs rejected their ramp until she covered it in carpeting. (photo by Ginger Sutton)

Safe & Sound

As mental and physical acuity declines, pets become more susceptible to falls and traps. “It’s not uncommon for people to come home and find their dog has been trapped behind the toilet or under the furniture all day, super-stressed out and not doing their health any favors,” Cooney says. Baby gates can restrict access to problem spots. Check your yard for danger zones too, and block a pet’s access to swimming pools, fire pits, window wells and potential traps, like the area behind a shed or underneath a porch.
Baby gates and stair blockers prevent the Pflugers’ older pets from too many trips up and down stairs. (photo by Doug & Shari Pfluger;)

Comfort Zones

Senior pets sleep a lot, so their resting spots are important. Pet beds should be soft, easy to get in and out of, and located where the temperature is comfortable. Place one bed in each room your pet likes to frequent and set up a few sanctuary spaces where it can escape activity in your home. Pet beds should be against a wall, furniture or in a corner for support. One Boulder homeowner bought a rectangular pet bed with thick bolsters on two sides for her long-and-low basset hound when he turned 7. “He had a bed before, but it was just a pad without bolsters,” she says. “He loves his new bed. I think because the bolsters support his back.” She also gave him a blanket to snuggle under—a plush one for winter and a sheer one for summer.

Easy Access

Position food and water bowls and litter boxes in convenient locations where your pet doesn’t have to use stairs. Use food and water bowls with nonslip bottoms and litter boxes with low sides. Older dogs with neck issues may prefer elevated bowls. Ramps provide safe access to the backyard, car or favorite napping spot. “The gentler the slope, the better,” Cooney says. For added security, cover the ramp with carpet or other nonslip material and add rails if needed.

Cat-Scratch Fever

Floor-to-ceiling cat trees can be hazardous for elderly cats. A ramp leading to a tabletop or wide window ledge creates a fulfilling and safer perch. For cats’ claw-sharpening, use lower scratching posts and horizontally inclined scratching pads.
Christine Dante’s cat, Jake, is an elderly indoor cat, so she pushes him around in a stroller to keep him safe outside. “Now he meows and jumps in his stroller at the crack of dawn,” she says. (photo by Christine Dante)

Ouch, that Hurts!

Older pets are prone to aches and pains, so don’t be shy about asking your vet for pain medication. CBD oil is another option worth exploring, as research suggests it can help relieve inflammation, pain and anxiety. If your pet takes more than one medication or needs two or three or more doses a day, create a tracking chart to prevent mistakes, Cooney suggests. Place the chart in a convenient location, like on the refrigerator door or near your pet’s medications.

Posture Perfect

Overgrown nails can push a pet’s toes upward and lead to bad paw posture, which can exacerbate arthritis. Trim nails before your pet gets too long in the claw. With a little help from us, our pets’ golden years can be as good as it gets.
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