Your dog hasn’t heard you call his name for a year or two. His back legs are stiff. He’s developed a fear of thunderstorms that he once slept through. His muzzle long ago turned gray.
These poignant signs of aging may pull at your heartstrings, but may not mean much about your older dog’s overall health. As time goes by, though, signs of aging may become more dramatic: nighttime wandering, disorientation, difficulty with stairs, accidents in the house.
At this point, your dog is entering a twilight time. You can see the horizon—a last illness or that last visit to the vet—but you’re not ready to give up. With a little effort, you can provide your dog with the comfort he needs during the last bit of time you share. (Providing him with love is a given.)
This past summer, we nursed our smallish, mixed-breed dog, Shucks, through his last illness, near the end of his almost-16-year span. Given his age, we were making more frequent visits to our veterinarian, Dr. Arthur Wohlfeiler. Indeed, we made it through this challenging time thanks in part to the moral support and help of our vet, and we accumulated some great tips and helpful products along the way. Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable also provided lots of good advice. Here are some of the things we learned.
Food and Water
If your old guy loses track of his water dish, or is physically unable to get to it, it’s up to you to keep him hydrated. Bring the water to him. You may have to hold the dish in front of him for a minute and wet his mouth so that he gets the idea. And make the water more interesting. Dr. Dodman suggests dissolving sodium-free chicken bouillon in his dish. Both the aroma and the flavor will encourage him to drink. Adding a half-cup or so of water to his food (both dry and canned) will help hydrate him as well; he won’t mind the soupiness.
As with people, dogs’ dietary needs and preferences usually change as they age. Try adjusting his feeding schedule; reluctant eaters can often be tempted by small portions throughout the day. Continue to feed him his regular food as long as he likes it. Switching from dry food to canned, however, may help a dog whose teeth are worn or damaged, and its stronger smell may be more enticing to him.
While your dog’s sight and hearing may decline, his sense of smell doesn’t. If he can smell his dinner, he’s more likely to gobble it. Warm the food slightly in the microwave, and add bouillon or some other flavorful treat to pique his interest. Don’t automatically switch to a “senior dog” diet. This use of this term is unregulated, and, depending on an individual dog’s specific health issues, some of these formulations can compromise his health. (Be sure to talk to your vet about any dietary changes you’re considering.)
You have options when it comes to encouraging your old dog to eat if his enthusiasm has waned. For example, feed him from one of your own dinner plates. For whatever reason, food from a “human” plate is sometimes more appealing than food in his humdrum bowl. Keep the dog’s plate on the table next to yours when you’re eating and as soon as you’re finished, give your dog his dinner.
Some dogs find it difficult to lower their head to their bowl; raising the bowl in an elevated feeder or even on a low little bench helps.
Provide your dog with a buffet. In a casserole-type dish, arrange an assortment of foods in small piles and let him “graze.” After he’s eaten the things that most strike his fancy, combine the leftovers in a small ball or two and handfeed it to him, if necessary.
Take care that you’re not forcing the issue; a lack of interest in food and water is, of course, a sign that your dog is near the end. Respect the message he’s sending.
Don’t stop taking your dog for walks just because he’s old and slow. Dogs need the exercise and mental stimulation, and the sense of still belonging to their pack, that walks give them. Just make sure you don’t overdo it. In warm weather, stop when he slows down, and in cold weather, dress him in suitable outdoor garments—a snug sweater or coat. Revise your definition of a walk. Sometimes, a slow turn down the driveway can be a perfectly good outing.
Improve traction by tacking a piece of outdoor carpet to slippery stairs and using nonslip rugs inside. If you have a neglected yoga mat rolled up in your closet, it can also be used both inside and out as a traction aid; it’s easy to cut to size if you don’t need the entire length or width.
Rearrange your furniture, as much as you’re able, to facilitate your dog’s movement around your home. Keep debris off the floor, as even a stray magazine or slipper can trip up an arthritic dog. Block areas where he might get stuck.
Doggie steps and ramps are available online and in pet stores. Be aware, however, that many older dogs are reluctant to change their habits, and high steps and ramps might scare them. Never force their use.
Towels are great tools. You can use them to wrap your smaller dog up when you carry him outside, or, if your dog is a big guy with mobility issues, you can use a large towel as a sling. (You can also purchase slings at pet stores and online.)
Keep It Clean
During our dog’s last summer, we kept a plastic storage bin filled with water in our yard. The sun warmed the water, and it was always there to rinse him off if he soiled himself. That having been said, keep in mind that your old dog is susceptible to changes in temperature. If you’ve had to get him wet, dry him and warm him as quickly as you can.
Keep rags, rags and more rags handy at all times and check out your local pet store for special drying towels. Your elderly dog can’t shake off the water like he used to and these thirsty towels are a great help.
Believe it or not, there are such things as doggie diapers, and you might want to try them. Other products intended for housebreaking puppies can also help with your elderly dog. Housebreaking pads provide a comfortable bed if he’s having accidents in his sleep; washable waterproof pads are also good for this use. (Get several so you always have one or two clean; medical supply stores and children’s bedding outlets often carry them.) Odor removers will help keep your house livable.
Your dog’s last weeks, trying though they may be for you emotionally, can be a gift. They are an opportunity for you to reach a consensus on hard final decisions and to share your feelings about the approaching loss. Even more important, they give you one last chance to show the best dog in the world how much he or she means to you.