Comprehensive  Ways To Delightful Healthy Pets
REJUVENATING YOUR OLDER PET
OUR DOGS AND CATS ARE PRECIOUS TO US. WE WANT THEM TO live forever, but we don’t like to see them show any signs of age. People often explain problems with arthritis or other illness by saying, “She’s just getting old.” But that is not a diagnosis; it is just an assessment of how long the pet has been here.
When my dog Tundra was eleven, I felt she was “just getting old.” I had originally rescued her as a puppy from a shelter, so I wasn’t certain of her breed. She looked mostly like a German shepherd and I knew that breed’s life span averages around twelve years. I wanted her to live longer than that and so I searched for something to do about it.
I have since refined the strategies I used for Tundra and applied them to all of my aging patients. These include a high-protein diet with proper moisture content, supplements as they apply to each case, acupuncture where needed, exercise, and simple ideas for home care. I was thrilled that Tundra lived another six years—playing on the beach and living a wonderful life. Supporting animals as they age is something I look forward to, because my clients and I consider aging an asset rather than a disease.
Here are some tips to assist you in your goal of a long and active life for your pets.
AMBULATION: THESE FEET ARE MADE FOR WALKING
Just because animals are older doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exercise. Becoming sedentary with arthritis is a dangerous downward spiral. Arthritic animals that don’t exercise will deteriorate rapidly. Disuse atrophy of leg and back muscles destabilizes joints and the spine, causing unbalanced, hesitant, or stilted gait patterns and increasing discomfort. Even gentle weight-bearing exercise strengthens muscles and circulates nutritive synovial fluid over the surfaces of the joint. Confidence in the limbs comes from using the limbs, pure and simple.
And older animals require enough good-quality meat protein in their diet to maintain the muscles they are working to improve. Underwater treadmill treatments can make a big difference in muscle mass and coordination.
Take a walk on the wild side. Go places on your walks where your pet can experience, smell, or see something new. Keep his mind lively and his body will follow suit. Don’t neglect the daily outing. Take it slow if you have to, but take it—and make it interesting.
Try moving off the beaten track. Dogs and cats benefit from challenging terrain. If you only walk on flat surfaces, it may soon be the only surface your pet can navigate. Make games include varying surfaces for indoor pets, or when outdoors maneuver your pet over tree roots, gravel, and irregular ground. Step up and down curbs, go around posts, walk in short figure-eight patterns, and go up or down inclines or driveways.
Massage the feet of older dogs and cats. Once a day, gently squeeze the feet and slowly pull down the toes of your geriatric dog or cat. Take care to avoid getting bitten by foot-sensitive animals. This physical therapy trick can improve the neurological connection from the brain to the foot, improving leg mobility and foot placement, called conscious proprioception.
Place toys or treats in places where it requires some effort to retrieve them, and don’t forget to play with your aging cats. People play games with dogs in many life stages, but mature cats are often left to sleep all day. Don’t just put treats under their noses; make them do a little work for them. Place treats up a flight of stairs or on top of some climbing toy. Your cat will have to exercise to get to it. Those wire-bouncing fobs and little mouse toys are not just for kittens. And your cat may shed some unwanted weight as well.
Place carpets, runners, nonskid tape or paint, rubber mats, or even yoga mats in slippery spots. Pads of older canine and feline feet can slip more on smooth surfaces. Adding area rugs and other nonskid floor coverings can help them get up and move more confidently.
Adhesive foot pads, waxes, or nonslip booties, if they aren’t too bulky, can also help.
And make sure to provide good lighting to help failing eyesight.
SPINE AND TAIL
Massage small circles with fingertips on either side of the spine to improve overall circulation, lymphatic drainage, and spinal health. Little massage circles up and down the sides of the spine may invigorate circulation. Gentle traction in a smooth massaging stroke down the tail can help to stretch the spine and stimulate inter-vertebral circulation. A supple spine can mean a more active dog or cat.
Older dogs, such as Labradors, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and many other large breeds can make more breathing noise as they age. It may be normal panting or old-dog breathing, or it can be a sign of laryngeal paralysis. This means that the larynx, which normally will open and close all day long, has more and more trouble doing its job. It doesn’t close completely to cover the trachea during swallowing and can’t open wide for a big breath.
These animals will often wake up and have to cough out saliva that has pooled around the slightly open trachea and dripped down toward the bronchi (the “old man cough”). They will also have trouble thermoregulating (keeping cool), as open-mouth panting with the larynx wide open is the main mechanism dogs have to cool down. This can be a life-threatening problem for dogs in summertime. Make sure to monitor their temperature, and keep plenty of water on hand in hot weather.
This condition can progress slowly, so it may be hard to notice that the respiratory noise has increased. It may be accompanied by low thyroid function, so when I hear a loud-breathing dog, I’ll usually run a test to check the thyroid gland.
Treating the thyroid deficiency won’t reverse the breathing problem, but it may help slow the progression of the paralysis, and it will certainly make the animal healthier in general. I use acupuncture and proper nutrition to help with laryngeal paralysis. Some people have had good results using a tricyclic antidepressant, doxepin, to help treat the laryngeal paralysis and accompanying spasms. It is not always successful, but worth a try if your vet recommends it.
The surgical fix works, but it is typically only used when the condition is severe. It is a difficult surgery for an older animal, and recovery can be stressful. The method is essentially the tying back of a side of the larynx to leave it open wide all the time. The dog will be less likely to overheat this way, and will breathe easier, since their breath is not restricted by a small opening. This surgery does increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia.
ON THE NOSE
Dryness and Crustiness
Crusty noses can be a sign of a significant autoimmune condition or nutritional deficiency, but sometimes older dogs just have dry noses. After ruling out any underlying medical cause, there are a few options to try.
My clients and I feel that Vaseline on the nose is the most reliably effective topical treatment for an elderly dog’s dry nose. I have also had some success with shea butter or coconut oil topically. Vitamin E or fish oils make the nose sticky, not smooth. Bag balm can be too irritating, and its pungent odor can irritate a dog’s keen sense of smell. Coconut oil taken orally (about 1 tsp daily per 30–50 pound dog) can ameliorate dry noses, dandruff, and dull hair coats and can improve general gastrointestinal health.
Nosing the Bowl—Avoid Plastics
Change plastic bowls to ceramic, metal, or glass bowls, and clean them regularly. Plastic bowls may be an irritant to sensitive nasal skin. Inflamed skin on the mouth, chin, or nose of a dog or cat can improve once plastic food or water bowls are removed.
Under Your Nose—You’ve Got to Smell It to Want It
If your furry friend doesn’t seem hungry and is looking thin, it may be that they simply can’t smell the food. Some older animals lose weight because of eating less. A pet that seems to lose interest in food as they age may be showing signs of some significant illness such as cancer, systemic diseases, or dental problems, or the answer may be under their nose. If you’ve been to the vet and there’s no apparent medical reason, keep in mind that smell is an important appetite stimulant. Aging animals can have trouble with their sense of smell due to many causes, including previous respiratory disease, or side effects of medication—some anti-inflammatory meds can decrease sense of smell. This is why I don’t use them in working pets that are search and rescue or drug sniffers or FBI explosives detectives. Animals with a poor sense of smell may be wondering what scentless clumps are in their food dish, but dinner is not on their mind—or olfactory lobe. To enhance smell, try warming up the food, or mix in some hot water, chicken broth, some tripe, or a slurry of meat baby food that doesn’t contain onion or onion powder. They’ll more likely come running for supper if you supersize the aroma.
Breakfast May Be Optional
I’ve noticed that many aging dogs skip their morning meal. Even with enticement and fabulous-smelling food, they just say no. Yet by supper, they quickly clean the bowl. As long as everything else seems normal—and there’s no vomiting or other signs—many older dogs can do just fine skipping breakfast, if that’s what they choose.
DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?
Use clapping or high-pitched tones to get the attention of your pet. Dogs and cats, like humans, lose their hearing, especially when you are asking them to do something they don’t want to do. Hand-clapping or high-pitched tones are of a frequency that seems to be the last to go as hearing fades. This can be used to your and the animal’s advantage. An elder dog will be less startled from a deep sleep if you clap or use a high-pitched tone before you touch them. You may also want to try acupuncture for hearing loss, as this can improve circulation to the ear mechanism.
Gently massage circles at the base of the ear, and rotate the earflap (pinna) a few times a week like a windmill as another way to help improve circulation.
THE EYES HAVE IT
Put in an extra light fixture over the stairs, and perhaps carpet them too. This may sound like a home-decorating solution, not a veterinary one, but it can be crucial for an aging pet with a vision problem. When a pet seems hesitant to go up or down stairs, the first thought is arthritis. However, arthritis isn’t always the problem. Your pet’s vision may be worsening. Lenticular sclerosis is the name for a typical change in the lens of a dog or cat’s eye that manifests itself in that bluish haze you see as they age. It creates a mild vision issue, like looking through shower glass, giving a slightly hazy vision that obscures depth perception. In twilight conditions, difficulty seeing is even more pronounced. Better lighting on stairs, and making surface edges easy to see, will help your aging pet gauge their steps better and improve their ability to walk on uneven surfaces.
If your pet has vision issues, avoid rearranging water and food bowls, furniture, or litter boxes. Confusion causes stress and can also cause accidents. If your pet is losing his vision, make sure he knows where things are if you have to rearrange.
Too much light or bright sunshine on light surfaces such as snow or white sand is irritating for an older animal, particularly cats and smaller dogs. Elderly animals with iris atrophy have trouble fully closing the opening of their iris to protect from bright light. Because of this light sensitivity, they may seem unable to see well when the light is intense. Give them some time to adjust, or get to the shade where possible.
Q.Why is my dog squinting?
A. It could be that your dog is trying to psych you out with his Clint Eastwood impression. Either that or his eyes are bothering him. Ocular problems can be as mild as an irritant in a tear duct or as serious as glaucoma or a corneal ulcer. Eyes that are uncomfortable enough to cause squinting in a dog or a cat can be an emergency.
WHAT GOES IN MUST COME OUT
Incontinence—Fecal: Give Your Dog the “Double Walk”
After giving your dog a walk, he comes in the house and poops on the carpet. Sound familiar? Pet incontinence is the bane of many pet owners’ existence. There are many causes and, fortunately, many solutions. Here are some typical problems and solutions (once you’ve ruled out any underlying medical problems, as usual).
“The Double Walk” can get the dog to focus on the job at hand. After the first walk, come in for a few seconds. Then head back out the door. The second walk will be less interesting. The walking will have stimulated the colon, and the dog may have more success.
The Four F’s of Fecal Incontinence
You may immediately think of an F-word that I will not mention here, when fecal incontinence is discovered. It is often the first word uttered, but here are four other F-words that can help you recover your sanity and your dog’s dignity.
Food. You will see a decrease in the amount of feces if you can decrease the amount of filler (prevalent in kibble) in your dog’s food. This is where canned and raw food excel.
Frequency. Animals that are fed more than once a day will have more trouble with incontinence. When they digest their food all at once, an animal will more likely know in advance that she’s ready to defecate. This is because the amount in the colon can send a good signal.
Focus. There are constant distractions from the outside world when an animal goes on a walk. The signal to defecate may not be strong enough to override all the fun stimuli to the brain during a walk.
Floor. This technique is based on the principle that you can cause a dog to defecate by taking their temperature rectally. Before your last bedtime walk, use a thermometer, or a gloved finger or a Q-tip to stimulate the pelvic floor. Sometimes it just takes a mild tapping around the anal opening to make a dog poop. Be ready to go right outside. If you’re not squeamish, this is an effective method to prepare you and your dog for a good night’s sleep.
Feed once a day and feed canned, home-cooked, or pre-prepared raw food, if possible.
“She doesn’t know when she is defecating—although it can be several times a day—and often wakes lying in her poop.”
I hear this scenario from owners with pets that are very arthritic and losing sensation in their rear end. After an exam ruling out anything more serious, this common problem can be resolved with a change in diet. Canned, home-cooked, and pre-prepared raw foods have less filler and fewer carbs. You’ll find smaller, firmer, less frequent poop. If the main meal only comes down the throat once a day, that is how it may come out in poop—once a day. You can work out a predictable schedule for your lives.
Psyllium fiber helps keep stool even more regular and firm (about 1 tsp mixed in wet food for a 50-pound dog, or ⅛ tsp per wet meal for a 10-pound cat).
There are many medical reasons for urinary incontinence, but once they are ruled out, feeding a diet with proper moisture content can help avoid overdrinking. There’s a huge advantage to evening out water intake with moist foods. Unlike dry food, canned, home-cooked, or raw foods don’t require a gallon chaser. Bladders don’t bulge, and urinary accidents decrease.
KEEPING THEIR FIGURE—WATCH THEIR WEIGHT!
FRIENDS DON’T LET PETS get overweight!
To recap: In addition to watching your pet’s weight, actively make him slim. If your dog is overweight, believe me, it’s the food. Decrease the amount you feed. Even cut the amount in half.
An overweight pet faces many health, mobility, energy, and mental issues. Remember, for every pound your dog loses, they feel four pounds less torque on each leg. This is a good incentive to keep your older pet thin. Every pound truly counts!
HARNESS THE BODY’S ENERGY
USE A COMFORTABLE HARNESS to help your dog on walks and stairs and to help your own back. I recommend harnesses that support along the chest and have two straps that go around the chest in front and back of the leg. These straps are best when they attach to two separate points on the strap that goes down the back. If they meet at the same place on the back and make a triangle around the front leg, they can cinch around the base of the leg when pulled (not good!) and press on a nerve plexus in the armpit. You’ll find that moving them more like a suitcase helps save your back. This is more sustainable than trying to lift them with your arms and carrying them up and down stairs multiple times a day.
We can’t make our pets live forever, or extend their life span to match ours. However, there are many simple, commonsense actions we can take to mitigate the effects of old age. I still miss Tundra, but I am comforted to know that she enjoyed her golden years.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Not true. Dogs, like most species, can learn throughout their lives, at any age.