Everyone loves a puppy. They are adorable. Who can resist? Yet it is the older dog with the eyes filled with the wisdom born of experience, a well loved and loved well senior, that melts more and more hearts. Theirs is a noble, trusting, knowing nature mixed with unconditional love and devotion that all the puppies have yet to learn. I love the greying muzzle and the tired head resting in my hand with each new senior who, for whatever reason, find its way into our shelter.
My Bear is gone (going on 4 years this April) and nothing can replace him. I do have a new fur kid named Dunkin for just over a year now. He is young and so wonderful in his own special ways, and the mission is to see him into a ripe old age, even longer than the 12 1/2 years I was blessed to share with Bear. Obviously a pet’s health isn’t entirely in an owner’s hands…or they would live forever! However, we all have some impact on our pets’ lives: mind, body and spirit. It doesn’t seem that dogs even realize they are getting older. They don’t face a mirror reflection daily where they discover flabby abs, greying hair, and weakened legs. They still enjoy running on the beach or chasing a ball just as always, and they don’t get depressed when it takes longer nowadays to run the distance or find the ball. They just live their lives! No sense of time or birthdays. It seemed Bear spent his life just trying to hang out with me, and maybe upset a kitty or two along the way. If I was happy he was happy, if I was “off” he did his best to be a loyal friend. He ate what I made for him, went along for the walks and the rides and the strolls on the beach. It hurt to see him age, but he never minded the little changes like me sitting on the floor with him instead of him sitting on the couch with me. I was privileged to be able to take him to work every day. He had a bed in the back seat of the car and needed help getting in and out. He had a few special beds at home and one under the desk in the office. It did cost a bit to make those last years the best for him. Special foods, joint supplements, medications. It became a very special time for both of us in this stage of our journey.
While we cannot judge anyone for doing right by the pet they can no longer care for by bringing it to our shelter, we rejoice when someone falls in love and adopts the seniors! The point of this blog is to offer some suggestions for when the adorable, exuberant puppy is no longer a puppy, but an aging dog. I know I am glad I did all I could for Bear, and hopefully these ideas will help others savior the golden years with their own pets:
- Get the best quality, cushiony, tempurpedic-type beds you can find to soothe his aging body and provide a comfortable place to rest. Replace them as needed.
- Old dogs have a harder time maintaining their body temperature. They won’t be embarrassed with a sweater outdoors or a blanket indoors when it is a frigid winter Wisconsin day!
- Introduce your dog to more frequent but less intense playtime. Some dogs will run and retrieve balls to the point of exhaustion and they will try to continue the activity well into old age, only to feel the effects later in the evening. Start shifting to nice long walks every day. It’s good exercise for you both! If your dog shows he’s having problems with activity, talk to your veterinarian. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications just may make the difference. There are also OTC supplements like glucosamine and omega-3 oils. Massages, acupuncture, summer swimming all can help. Your veterinarian is really important now and can prescribe medications that may help those older dogs who experience anxiety and confusion, too.
- My Bear was a big ol’ German Shepherd, and climbing steps were not his forte. But some smaller dogs find them really helpful to get onto your bed or couch, and there are even ramps available to assist with getting into the family car. Bear preferred getting into position, getting his front legs onto the seat and resting his haunches on my forearm to boost him into the car. Hey, to each their own. It pays to be flexible for your senior pet!
- Make those appointments for a senior dog checkup with your veterinarian! Ideally, go twice a year to improve your odds of catching little problems before they become debilitating. Yes, your vet may want to do diagnostic tests (usually blood work, urinary analysis and/or an X-ray) along with a physical exam to either catch problems early, or if you haven’t been a “frequent flyer” at your vet office, it will help to establish a baseline of his health going forward. While you are there, ask about getting his teeth treated and cleaned under anesthesia. Just as with our own teeth, gum infections and mouth pain will really impact his quality of life. While you’re at it, discuss dietary changes which may be helpful. Often a change in diet for a senior will help reduce the excess baggage a dog has to carry around on his joints. Arthritis may become an issue, so it’s really important to catch joint and bone problems before they stop him from enjoying his golden years with you.
And for those opening your hearts and homes to the homeless seniors, THANK YOU for being our heroes!