Comfort care for older pets

With regular check-ups, you can help your older pet age gracefully.  While these include a physical examination of the pet, there are limitations as to what can be detected on observation, palpation (feeling) and auscultation (listening).  Blood tests allow veterinarians to have a “window” into the body’s function. However, bloodwork, while helpful in determining organ function, does not tell the whole picture and often, radiographs of the chest and/or abdomen along with abdominal ultrasound are needed to detect diseases.  Such diagnostics such as these must be made before the appropriate treatment can be initiated.

The goal is to find and treat diseases in the early stages and they sometimes can be readily managed with diet changes, nutritional supplements and medications.  Many pets cope with diseases and only show clinical signs when it is at an advanced stage and past the time of easy management.   So it is ideal to treat early, not when the pet is debilitated since this is often too late.  While a pet’s geriatric phase is defined as the last 25% of an individual’s life span, many animals remain active and healthy, but most will experience some degenerative changes to their organs.  But a pet’s end of life stage can occur before even entering the geriatric phase because life-limiting disease or trauma can occur at any age.

A healthy well care for animal is alert, moves freely, eats and drinks normal, keeps itself well-groomed and interacts normally with other pets and humans in the household.  During aging, the pet may develop geriatric-related diseases that cause pain and result in altered behaviors.  Most commonly, musculoskeletal-related pain can impede mobility and decrease appetite.  Behavioral changes can provide measures of pain and help determine the pet’s state of well-being.  Indicators of a diminished quality of life can include: a decreased appetite, urinary or fecal incontinence, reduced physical activity, disrupted sleep cycles and irritability.

Mobility issues afflict the majority of older pets due to the presence of arthritis, muscle weakness and/or neurological diseases affecting the spinal cord and/or peripheral nerves, all leading to decrease muscle strength and resulting in difficulty getting up, down, negotiating stairs and slippery floors (especially, hardwood floors, tile and linoleum) and getting in and out of the car for dogs.  Helping a pet can be done in a variety of ways:  simple measures to help the pet negotiate inside the home with non-skid rugs (bath mats or yoga mats) around the house where the pet travels most, carpet strips on the stairs, sandpaper adhesive strips on outside stair, ramps to negotiate outside steps and car, trimming fur on the underside of the paws and/or booties, harnesses  as well as treatment options that can be provided by the veterinarian such as Tui-Na massage, acupuncture and medications including pain killers, joint lubricants, anti-inflammatories, supplements and herbs.

Like people, aging pets can experience the physical changes of impaired vision, hearing and/or sense of smell which can result in disorientation and confusion.  These changes to sensory perception can occur alone or may happen along with mental changes.  Mild to severe dementia can result in night time restlessness, pacing, panting, agitation, all of which can occur due to pain, anxiety and changes in cognitive function.

In cases when conditions have progressed past the point of curing, the goal is to help the pet to cope and manage.  As the disease progresses, palliative care and pain control may be the primary focus in order to minimize discomfort and stress to the pet.