It can feel so unnatural to watch our pets grow old. It’s just not what we imagine when they first come into our lives. I was in high school when I got my first dog—a Lhasa Apso puppy I named Opus. I loved him dearly. He became part of my identity through college, vet school, and the start of my career in Charlottesville. He was the common thread that ran through so many changes in my own life. After all those happy and healthy years, I wasn’t prepared to see him become a tiny old man. He was supposed to keep playing with toys and chasing his tail, forever oblivious to such trite human concerns as aging. But there he was, losing his sight, sprouting little growths all over his body, and repeatedly turning up lame in his left front leg. Ready or not, he had gotten old.
These changes are hard to grapple with at first. They are sad and unwelcome. But our pets should be sources of comfort and happiness, not sorrow. It may take some time to refocus in the harsher light, but there is a lot of joy to be found in caring for older animals. It is, in many ways, a privilege to see them whole—to know them in all their stages of life, to meet them where they are right now, and to be with them when they need us the most. To live with an aging animal can be bittersweet, for sure. But it can be beautiful all the same.
There is no magic moment that a pet becomes old. We know this, of course, but we struggle to quantify it anyway. Most people know the equation that grants seven “dog years” for every real one. But with small breed dogs aging so much more slowly than large breed dogs, this simplistic formula leaves much to be desired. And anybody’s guess is as good as mine when it comes to cats, some of which seem old by their tenth birthday, and others which reach voting age without a gray whisker. So when asked if an animal is old, my reply is simple enough. Does he seem old?
I’ve never diagnosed an animal as “old.” Age is not a medical condition. But as animals age, they naturally become more prone to health issues that chip away at their quality of life. It seems so unfair—these animals who have lived their entire lives in an effortless state of happiness are faced with such an awful dose of reality. We are charged with protecting that happiness. Challenging? Often. Rewarding? Always.
As animals age, the way they interact with their environment changes. Just like people, many pets suffer some degree of hearing and vision loss. And some will unfortunately develop cognitive dysfunction, altering their very perception of the world. Although most animals seem to tackle these challenges with remarkable cheer (they really are amazing), some can become stressed or frightened. These pets find great comfort in consistency and familiarity to help them keep their bearings. There is security in a dependable schedule of walks, playtimes, and feedings. And if they are losing their senses, remember that you may need to develop new ways of communicating. Deaf animals may try harder to maintain eye contact, and depend on you to return the favor. And simple touch may be the most reassuring thing in the world, so get cuddling.
It is important to keep the layout of your home consistent. If you live with an aging pet, this really may not be the best time to renovate the living room. And take care not to create unexpected obstacles. It used to break my heart to see Opus tripping over a carelessly abandoned shoe in the middle of his otherwise clean hallway. It’s not his fault he went blind while living with a slob. Animals are incredibly adept at navigating a stable environment, even when their senses are failing, and keeping surprises to a minimum can go a long way toward making them feel safe and comfortable.
Take particular caution if you have stairs in your home. Even when older animals can see the stairs just fine, the pain and weakness that come with arthritis can make them dangerous to navigate. Blocking off stairwells isn’t a bad idea—it may be time to break out those baby gates you haven’t needed since housetraining. And laying down carpet runners can be really useful for older dogs that are having more trouble keeping their footing on slick floors.
Don’t forget how well you know your own pet. After all these years, you’re intimately familiar with any habits and idiosyncrasies. If something seems “off,” it may well be your first signal that a medical problem is brewing. And don’t underestimate the value of routine veterinary examinations. Burgeoning problems like heart murmurs may be completely invisible at home, and finding them early can help head them off before they get out of hand. Many owners are understandably concerned about putting elderly animals through extensive testing and treatment. Rest assured, most veterinarians share that concern. Many diseases of old age can be managed very simply and effectively, but that can’t happen until they are properly identified.
It is a sad truth that our pets age too quickly, even under the best circumstances. But old animals have a charm all their own, and taking care of them brings its own set of rewards.