Caring For Your Ailing, Aging Pet: How To Care For Them And When To Know That It’s Time To Let Go
By: Lisa Donovan
I didn't think I would be tending to an elderly family member for at least another twenty to thirty years. I have my hands full with babies and grade school and careers and all the other "just starting out" type business — one isn't entirely in the frame of mind to think about death and dying when one is in this phase of life. But it happens. Especially when you have pets from when you were really first starting out — your college years. This is our situation, currently. My husband's dog from his early, early twenties (and now, of course, my dog too) is a thirteen year old Catahoula Hound dog. He's a big dog and by any statute of limitations — he is really, really old for a dog his size. He has been exceptionally healthy up until this summer. He has several issues — one being a new found nerve and neurological disorder that paralyzed him for three weeks and has left him a little sloppy in the walking department. We waited it out to see if he was going to get healthy again — and he mostly did, though he will never be the same healthy dog that used to gallop like a horse and chase squirrels halfway up a tree.
We spent a lot of money that we really didn't have getting tests and x-rays and blood work done — essentially to tell us nothing other than the fact that he is, indeed, old. I am not suggestion that you avoid veterinarians. If your dog has something wrong with him, it is, indeed the first thing you should do. However, that being said, had we taken our vet's advice, our dog would have been put to sleep for a disorder that she could not specifically diagnose nor treat. He did not seem to be in pain so we brought him home thinking that we would treat him to some peaceful last days and let him die at home. Our vet thoroughly explained to us how to care for a geriatric dog with symptoms of deterioration. We were prepared to bring him in to be put under at the first sign that he was uncomfortable or physically dysfunctional (there was a day or two that we actually had to help him pee by pressing on his bladder — something the vet showed us once we decided to bring him home). Overall, though, I think we knew that he had some more quality time left in him. I think it is important for people to realize that if you are as close to your pets as we are that you will have an inclination and an instinct about their well being almost as strongly as you do for your kids. We thought he might pull through, and six months later I am happy to say that we were right. Now, we are faced with watching him age quite rapidly. For those of you in the same position, it can be frustrating. They become very difficult roommates and acquire some rather obnoxious and peculiar behaviors. The behaviors might be so contrary to their youthful behavior that you think — they must be in pain or need relief, which was my first inclination.
Some characteristics typical of an extremely geriatric dog:
Walking in circles for thirty minutes at a time around the house seems to be a common trait that people with elderly dogs mention.
Not wanting to be alone, for any reason.
My dog will not even spend time in the backyard by himself without crying anymore.
My dog is quite an exception, of course, because of his disorder which has rendered him quite crippled. But others with elderly dogs have noted that they have to carry them out to potty and back in to rest. There is not a lot of voluntary physical activity coming from the animal (with the exception of the pacing, if you are experiencing that).
In the thirteen years that my dog has been alive, he has never pooped or peed in the house — he is just one of those dogs who gets embarrassed (yes, embarrassed). But, with age, they become quite incontinent.
My dog seems much more anxious/nervous than ever.
He shakes whenever anyone raises their voice — which is an issue since we have two kids who love to hear themselves holler at each other and roar like dinosaurs during their spare time.
The reason I bring these points to light is because, on forums and in conversations I have had, they appear to be "normal" behaviors of a geriatric pet. They threw me for a loop. I felt like he was behaving so differently that is must mean he is in pain or experience the kind of discomfort that I ought to have followed our vet's first suggestion of euthanasia. But, once you get educated, you will find that there are resources to help your family help your dog through his last years with dignity and kindness. It is about keeping note of their quality of life. Are they suffering? Are they still showing positive emotional reactions to the people around them? Are they still attempting to be a part of the "pack"? These are all things that should factor in to whether or not you think your pet is merely aging or dying.