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Aging with grace

Home modifications and other tips for caring for older pets

All Animals magazine, November/December 2017

by Ruthanne Johnson

Illustration by Jill Carmody/The HSUS.

Moving slowly on shaky legs, Chloe, a shepherd mix, padded across the hardwood floor, circled the coffee table and stopped in front of the dog bed in the corner of the living room. She stared at the bed for several long seconds, then turned away and made another circuit of the room.

“She did this six or seven times,” says Kathleen Cooney, a certified hospice and palliative care veterinarian in Loveland, Colorado. “And I said to the family, ‘She is telling us something. This isn’t normal behavior.’ ”

Cooney grabbed a carpet runner from the hallway and placed it in front of the dog bed. Chloe immediately stopped pacing, walked up to her bed, climbed in and lay down. As Cooney had intuited, the old girl had likely been nervous about slipping and falling as she stepped into her bed. The carpet runner gave her the traction she needed to feel safe.

For more than a decade, Cooney has specialized in home consultations for terminally ill and geriatric pets. She checks them out physically and often prescribes medicines for pain relief, but she spends most of her visit looking for ways to make the pet’s life easier, safer and more enjoyable.

The home environment is particularly important for geriatric patients, Cooney says. While pets with cancer and other terminal illnesses typically experience a sharp, sudden decline, those who are simply feeling the effects of old age tend to go downhill at a slow, steady pace. Changes to their living space can greatly affect their quality of life during their remaining months or years.

Even if your senior pet still chases squirrels, pounces on toys and bounds down steps, Cooney recommends making home modifications sooner rather than later, because change is more stressful for older animals. Here are some tips for rendering your home more old-age-friendly and easing your best friend through her golden years.

Bodies in motion

Geriatric pets have many of the same health concerns as geriatric people: arthritis, reduced motor and cognitive skills, balance problems, hearing loss and vision impairment. Other signs can include muscle and weight loss, social withdrawal, an unkempt coat, confusion, fatigue and sunken facial features.

The primary goal with geriatric patients is to “keep them moving,” Cooney says. Activity helps loosen stiff joints and reduces the risk of pressure sores, and mobility is also key to animals’ emotional health. “It can be stressful if they can’t get up and move where they want to go,” Cooney says. “We know that our animals thrive on routine, and as soon as they’re limited in their mobility, stressors start to take hold.”

Traction equals action

Observe where your pet likes to sleep or perch, the activities she enjoys and the pathways she uses around your home, then think of modifications that will help her maintain her routine. Use nonslip carpet runners to provide stability on hardwood, tile and linoleum floors. They “should be everywhere,” Cooney says, “leading to the pet’s bed, at the base of stairs, on the stairs, leading up to their food—anywhere they could use traction and support.” Runners should be visually consistent and have a vibrant pattern to help vision-impaired pets identify safe spaces, Cooney adds.

Ginger Suttle, one of Cooney’s clients, used bright blue carpet runners with white geometric patterns throughout her home in Greeley, Colorado, when her senior Great Dane, Simka, had trouble walking due to a pinched nerve. “With the carpet runners and pain medication, she wasn’t afraid to walk,” says Suttle.

For help navigating spaces outside the home (like your vet’s office), you can try a commercial pet product designed to give paws some added traction. Many of Cooney’s clients have had success with ToeGrips, rubber rings that slide over a dog’s nails.

Accessibility issues

Make sure your geriatric pet has easy access to her food and water bowls, litter boxes and pet beds, and consider placing these basics in each of the rooms she frequents. Litter boxes should have low sides or ramps, and food and water bowls should have nonslip bottoms.

Ramps—“the gentler the slope the better,” Cooney says—are typically easier for older pets to negotiate than stairs. Use them to provide access to a backyard, your car or a favorite napping spot. Cover the ramp with carpet or another nonslip material, and add rails or other physical barriers, if needed, to prevent falls.

Commercial vehicle ramps are often too steep, Cooney says, which is why many of her clients create their own. Suttle’s dog Simka refused to use any kind of ramp, so she built a set of shallow, elongated steps leading from her deck to the backyard.

Creature comforts

Geriatric pets sleep a lot, so their beds are important. “They should be easy to get in and out of,” Cooney says. “They shouldn’t be too hot or cold. And they should be soft enough to prevent pressure sores.”

Designate sanctuary spaces where your pet can escape the activity in your home. Place beds against a wall, furniture or in a corner to help them feel safe. Since older animals are more sensitive to heat and cold, be sure to keep the space at a comfortable temperature.

Safety concerns

If your pet is taking several medications, you’ll need a system to avoid missed doses or double-medicating. Cooney recommends that caregivers use a tracking chart and pill organizer to keep things straight.

Another safety issue with geriatric pets is their increased susceptibility to falls. As their mental and physical faculties decline, they can even encounter trouble in areas they once navigated with ease. “It’s not uncommon for people to come home and find their dog has been trapped behind the toilet or under the furniture all day, super stressed out and not doing their health any favors,” Cooney says.

Use baby gates to block stairs, and restrict access to other potential problem spots. Check your backyard for danger zones, and make sure swimming pools, fire pits and window wells are covered. Even little things—like making sure your pet’s nails are trimmed—can help ensure safety, says Cooney.

The ideal strategy is to modify the environment so that your pet can keep to her normal routine, Cooney adds, but sometimes you need alternatives. For example, the top of a floor-to-ceiling cat tree may not be safe for an elderly cat with balance issues; you can provide an alternative perch by creating a ramp that leads to a wide window ledge or table top. “Address the home environment as best you can,” Cooney advises. “Our mission is to try and keep our older pets as comfortable and active as we can throughout their end-of-life time.”

LEARN MORE: Watch a free webinar, “Household Modifications for the Geriatric Patient,” presented by veterinarian Kathleen Cooney and sponsored by the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. (Continuing education credits are available for veterinary professionals.)


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