We expect our dogs to be the same forever. Leaping joyfully and playing with utter glee, curious, bright-eyed and eager for anything. Instead, their joints stiffen, their senses of sight and sound diminish, and they spend an increasing amount of time sleeping.
It may seem that older dogs are content to snooze the day away, and with our busy lifestyles, we are happy to let them do so. Walks become fewer, car rides infrequent, and entertaining playtimes go by the wayside. Veterinary behaviorists identify this as the “shrinking world syndrome”. As the dog gets less enrichment, there is a decline in mental and physical stimulation. As pet parents we tend to change our behavior toward our aging pets, and oftentimes these changes take away many things that keep their minds and bodies youthful.
Tamara Smith of Portland takes Katie, her 14-year-old Lab/Basset Hound mix, on walks twice a day, with longer hiking adventures on weekends. Rescued 13+ years ago from Bonnie Hays Animal Shelter, Smith says, “Regular exercise has always been a priority.” She also credits glucosamine and fish oil supplements for Katie’s youthfulness. “Bassets have a tendency to have bad backs, and she had some skin allergies, so I started giving her supplements when she was just 3 years old.” Katie also recently began acupuncture.
In addition to acupuncture, another successful modality for seniors is hydrotherapy or pool time. “It is one of the best things we have found for our senior dogs,” says Cheryl Yoshioka, founder and president of My Way Home Dog Rescue, which finds homes for many senior pups. “It feels good, and it makes them more limber and helps with joint issues.” Yoshioka adds that she hasn’t seen a single dog they’ve treated with hydrotherapy who didn’t love it. Hydrotherapy isn’t free, though, so only about half of the seniors in their care (those who need it most) are able to enjoy it.
Many oldsters can’t walk as far or as fast as they used to, some due to underlying issues such as arthritis or heart problems, but they still benefit greatly from getting out and about. Small outings — such as a jaunt down the block in a stroller for smaller dogs or a cart for larger ones, a brief car ride, or a slow stroll with you to the mailbox — may not mean much to you, but can be huge for your old buddy who gets to sniff the grass, feel the warmth of the sun, and breathe fresh air.
“When dogs come into our rescue, we try and find out what they love,” Yoshioka says, adding that seniors depend a lot on their noses and love small walks in new places. They also love cuddle time, she says. “Just like with younger dogs, they want to be by their person and feel loved.”
And just like with humans, exercising the mind is equally important. Happily, contrary to the old saying, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! Make it a goal to teach your grey-faced pal a new trick once a month. Make the training sessions short and a positive experience. Tricks needn’t be complex — bark on cue, high-five, give a kiss, push a ball — it’s the learning that’s important. And really, who cares if they never quite master the high-five? What matters is the quality time together, and mental stimulation.
“Every dog delights in finding new things” says Yoshioka, pointing to Kongs, puzzle toys and treat-dispensing balls as great ways to get their noggins thinking and spice up their lives. Protect their aging choppers with softer versions of toys made just for seniors.
Also important is regular exposure to other pets and people. Short sessions of socialization and playtime in a controlled environment, taking care not to over-stimulate or include overly rambunctious playmates, is ideal for enriching mental health. As with humans, if your four-legged best friend doesn’t stay active and involved in life, the desire to do so can fade.
In some ways it may seem they age overnight. Because we see our dogs every day it’s easy to miss subtle changes. Barring medical issues, we can do so much just by adjusting the ways we connect with our pups to keep the spark bright in their wizened old eyes.
Let’s not forget the kitties when it comes to physical and mental activity. They may not pounce like they used to, but exercise is important to help prevent obesity and other issues. Create an enriched environment with items such as a cat tree for climbing, stretching and lounging. Or ever-popular among the kitty crowd — boxes! — entice most felines to play and investigate. Time outdoors in catios (cat patios) or walking on leash help keep seniors entertained and active, burning excess calories and keeping joints healthy.
Interactive toys and food puzzles and activities that spark kitty’s stalk and hunt drive are all gifts you can give your best friend. Studies show the most popular cat toys are those that involve human interaction … so get out and play! Always tailor toys and activities to fit your cat’s age, mobility and health factors.
Cats are social by nature, so be sure to continue to provide companionship and love through gentle petting, stroking and grooming.
Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of Pet Stop Pit Stop pet sitting services in SW Washington. She resides in Vancouver with Jessie (a yellow Lab), Pedro & Lorali (parrots), six chickens, and memories of Jake, her heart dog.. Vonnie is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events, and the voice of Spot in social media outlets.