I’s impossible to miss the bounce in Dutchie’s step as the 15-year-old stag red miniature pinscher walks with her caretaker, Sarah Lane, along her Cuyahoga Falls neighborhood sidewalks. Her daily two-mile jaunt is good medicine, says veterinarian Sharmyn Clark, who emphasizes that mild daily exercise helps relieve stiff and achy joints common in senior pets.
Likewise, when Roscoe, a 20-year-old orange-and-white cat affectionately nicknamed “Big Man” by his owners Sean and Jen McMonagle, gets hand-delivered to a windowsill, “he thinks he’s king for the day,” says Sean, ever mindful of Roscoe’s feline pride and instincts.
As pets’ aches and ailments creep up with age, their caretakers can do plenty to ease them through their senior years with comfort and dignity. Depending on their size, dogs live anywhere from 12 to 14 years and beyond and indoor cats live an average of 18 years, says Clark, whose Rainbow Bridge Pet Hospice and Senior Care in Northeast Ohio practice specializes in geriatric, hospice and mobile pet care. Age, however, is just a number for some pets, says Clark noting that a couple of her feline clients have reached the 25-year mark.
Like their furry counterparts, parakeets, lovebirds, canaries and some cockatiels live well into their teens while macaws enjoy a lifespan that can stretch into their 80s, says veterinarian Gary Riggs, who is board certified in avian practice and works at the NorthCoast Bird & Exotic Specialty Clinic, Barberton Veterinary Clinic and The Animal Clinic of Wadsworth.
So which health problems affect elderly pets most often, and how can their owners help them manage comfortably through their golden years?
Arthritis inevitably strikes senior dogs, cats and birds, and it’s the most prevalent health condition elderly canines face, Clark says. After age 10, dogs show telltale signs of osteoarthritis: limping, short steps and slowness standing up and lying down. While senior cats display fewer outward signs of arthritis, which affects their spines, they often avoid taking painful leaps or walking up and down stairs. Geriatric birds also suffer from arthritis, sometimes detectable by reduced activity, says Riggs.
Both Riggs and Clark say simple measures can relieve senior pets’ arthritic pain. For example, glucosamine, an anti-arthritic medicine, helps reduce inflammation and joint discomfort in cats and dogs. Likewise, easing senior pets’ navigation and helping them rest comfortably do wonders.
McMonagle, Chef de Cuisine at Rosewood Grill in Hudson, spares Roscoe the discomfort and defeat of jumping to high spots around the house. He gently lifts Roscoe to the sofa for an afternoon nap and to his favorite perches, such as the coffee table.
“I pick him up and let him know that it’s all good,” McMonagle says. “If you’re going to have another living being in your house, you want to make sure they’re comfortable and happy.”
Like McMonagle, Lane provides Dutchie the easy route to her destinations. Lane has three miniature staircases for her senior pup: one at home, one in the car and one at home with Lane’s parents.
“Dutchie’s health and comfort are a priority,” says Lane, who also provides glucosamine to Dutchie. “I see every day with Dutchie as a blessing.”
Clark says comfy bedding, litter boxes, water and food bowls placed at ground level, as well as ramps, relieve elderly pets as they go about daily life.
“One of the biggest things we can do for kitties and dogs is to provide them an orthopedic-type bed. Laying all night makes joints stiffer. I always stress making bedding comfortable,” says Clark, adding that inherently noble cats might dismiss a cushy new bed “just because.”
Caretakers of senior birds can provide their feathered loved ones with home comforts such as broad platforms for food, water and sleeping, and padded perches, says Riggs, who also recommends anti-inflammatory medication for arthritic birds.
Conditions, cures and compassion
Signaled by frequent drinking and urination, kidney failure commonly affects senior pets. If caught early, kidney disease can be tempered by diet, which Clark says could “make a pretty big difference in cats.”
Likewise, hyperthyroidism, often recognizable in hungry felines that eat excessively yet lose weight, is 95 percent treatable by way of a radioactive iodine injection, Clark says.
Heart disease, another condition prevalent among elderly pets, often goes undetected. Quick, heavy breathing in cats or coughing in dogs provide clues to heart conditions, which Clark says are more treatable in dogs than cats. Riggs says that bird owners who serve a heart-healthy diet to their feathered pets will help prevent hardening of their arteries. “It’s one of the biggest things you can do for birds,” Riggs says. “Diet is critical, especially as birds get older.”
Cancers, liver disease, chills from thinning coats, cataracts and other conditions underscore the fact that it’s not easy getting old. Providing a cancer-stricken pet with pain relief, a cataract-inflicted canary with night lighting, a frail pup with a warm sweater or a boney cat with a heating pad can transform pets’ challenging senior days into golden glory days.
/ Writer Denise Henry and her family look forward to celebrating their beloved cat Sophie’s 23rd birthday next month.
E-mail them to managing editor Abby Cymerman at firstname.lastname@example.org