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Guiding your Pet through the Twilight Years

Aging is a part of living, even for our animals.

As springtime awakens in our gardens, many of us are inclined to get out and be more active. But for some of us, increased activity is a stark reminder that our pets are aging and no longer able to keep the pace they once did.

As someone who prefers to adopt older animals, I deal with geriatric pet issues on a seemingly continuous basis. My little-big man, Zack, was 13 when I adopted him. He was also blind and supposedly diagnosed to have cancer. He had been abandoned at a large city shelter, where his outlook was pretty bleak. I adopted Zack, not expecting him to live very long and essentially thinking that I would provide hospice—allowing him to live out his final weeks or months with dignity and comfort.

I could not bear the thought of this sweet little guy alone and afraid in the twilight of his life.  

That was more than four years ago and Zack (knock on wood) is doing great. He is 17 years old now and fully deaf, as well as blind, but he has such a happy-go-lucky little soul. With his own special joy for life, Zack is a vital part of our family and I hope he will remain so for a long time to come.

The reality is that pets, like people, have a natural lifespan and Zack is approaching the end of his. He is slower and requires more help. His deafness allows him to sleep very soundly and he is a great napper. He also gets lost a bit more often and sometimes needs rescuing when he is stuck. But he is active and happy and completely fearless. He loves his stuffed toys and his turtle pillow. He likes being wherever I am and will sometimes search for me when I leave the room.

He is not really much of a lap dog, but on occasion he will "ask" to be picked up and held. I always gladly oblige him. I am thankful for the time we have together. He requires a leash when outside, to steer him away from objects, to avoid bumps and spills, and to keep him from wandering off.

This week I was again reminded of Zack's mortality when not one, but two dear friends had to make the excruciating decision to let their much loved pets go. One was a 20-year-old cat that had lived long and well with the best of everything, including a person, Susan, who was devoted to her. The other was a dog who had a rough start in life with many homes and rejections. When my friend, Jen, adopted him, she committed to loving and caring for him for the rest of his life. Together they went through very trying times and where others may have abandoned their vow to see it through, Jen never did. To his last breath, Jen was there for her dog, as Susan was for her cat.

We do not like to think about the end of our loved ones' lives, our pets or ourselves, but in doing so, we can provide the kind of care that will not only prolong life, but make those twilight years and months as happy as possible.
Like people, pets, in many cases, are living longer than they used to.  With advances in general and veterinary medicine, we have the tools to help our pets through their entire lives and well into their dotage.

This article is the first in a series on geriatric pets. 

I would love to hear from readers who are willing to share their stories about their elderly animals and the special bond they have. We will speak with local veterinarians, as well as other pet care professionals, about geriatric care and the simple things you can do to keep your elderly pets comfortable. We will identify geriatric issues, including pet dementia and suggest some ways to deal with these issues. We will also discuss some basic old age changes that every owner should be aware of.

Please email me if you feel you have a geriatric pet related issue or story for this series.

tina April 23, 2011 at 12:46 PM
hi, i just wanted to mention my three feline girls ages 13, 14, and 15 i've had them their entire lives and luckily not too many serious health issues. i'm dreading the day that i know will eventually come but until then i plan on giving them all the love they have given me.
Tammy Zaluzney April 23, 2011 at 05:16 PM
Thank you for your comment Tina and for caring for your feline crew. While it is sometimes hard to watch them age and know that one day you will likely face the inevitable, I think you are absolutley right to cherish your time with them now. Enjoy each day!
Kim Remesch April 24, 2011 at 05:10 PM
Tammy, that was beautiful. A vet told us to put our cat to sleep multiple times. They were just beginning to talk about feline leukemia back then. We kept feeding her baby food, and she turned around. She lived about 15 more years, good years, too. My dad got Lulu for me when I was seven. She was still alive when my children were young. In fact, when my daughter was five, she routinely blamed Lulu for things like coloring on the floor. That's a good, long life.
Tammy Zaluzney April 24, 2011 at 05:49 PM
Thanks Kim. You bring up some very good points. Feline Leukemia is still often misunderstood. Many cats that could live long and healthy lives never get the chance when the dreaded diagnosis of feline leukemia comes down. I am glad to hear that with your care, Lula was the exception to the rule and that she was able to return the love by enriching your life and that of your children.
Janice April 25, 2011 at 02:55 PM
I adoted a 13 year old dog from a shelter. Her owner had just brought her in. At 5 pounds, I couldn't bear the thought of her being alone in the last days of her life. She had a huge bladder stone, a mouth full of rotten teeth, a heart condition and recurrent colitis. She not only survived 2 surgeries, but is still alive today at age 20!! She's now also blind, but she jumps for joy at mealtimes and loves a warm lap. She's my little love.
Tammy Zaluzney April 25, 2011 at 04:14 PM
And while you are certainly her hero, I'll bet in many ways she is yours as well. I know Zack is mine. Thank you for sharing your story Janice.
Minako Sargent-fukuda April 27, 2011 at 10:04 PM
I have lots of cats, in double figures, all very much loved , now I have one at the vets and I hope so much he,s pulled through, tuesday early morning nightime, he sat at his usual place , both of us were in the kitchen and suddenly he was with one faul swoop on the floor fitting, I grabbed him and gave him healing , his body rigid as if going to die, couldn,t open his mouth to see if he was choking, no , anyway he got over it, and i rang our vet , wednesday he went , he was diagnosed with dry eyes, ulcer on the tongue, and needing his teeth cleaned , but the worst was a murmur in his heart, I myself have never seen him having fits, suddenly I found out yes on 2 occassion, hubby forgot to tell me when that happend, anyway he is 14 born into our family and dearly loved, he talks to you , mouth open as wide as can be, so we have fun miauwing to each other! we had no joice in taking the risk , its a catch 22 , cant leave silva like that, he,s a desexed grey striped cat, and because of his age skinny, I am just waiting for the surgery to open and hopefully have good news to pass on, will keep you postet, sorry no pics no digital camera!
Ron Pfleger May 10, 2011 at 11:48 PM
I have a 20 year old cat name Ted who I've had since he was a kitten. He was adopted by a former girl friend who had to give him up when she moved into a condo that did not allow pets. When Ted was young I was told by a vet that he had mulitple health issues including a heart murmur and deviated septum making it hard for him to breath. The vet said he might not live long. Ted proved him wrong and is still going strong. He has lost his hearing and sleeps most of the time but he and my 9 year old son are best friends. At 20 I know his days are numbered. In addition to a good vet and nutrition I think the real secret to a pet's longevity is the love and support of their family. While we will miss Ted someday we will always have the memories of the long life we shared.
Tammy Zaluzney May 11, 2011 at 12:33 AM
Thanks for telling us about your pets and Ron, I could not agree more.
elayne reel June 11, 2012 at 03:43 PM
My husband and I adopted a papillon six months ago. At first Montaque came to stay with us for a few weeks as we were dog sitting. But Monti had other ideas. Seeing how quickly Monti bonded with us, his former family offered him to us. We were told he was about five or six years old. He looks about three years old. But then we learned that Monti was really 13 or 14 years old. And up until a week ago, one would have never believed it. Last monday, Monti started vominting yellow foam and refusing to eat. He had a hard time relieveing himself. We started going him pumkim and that helped. But really what we are seeing is Monti entering into his twight years. Suddenly, my husband and I find ourselves reading everything on older dogs and trying to reconnect to our little guy, who now spends most of his time under the sofa.

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