Fading memories: Coping with senility in aging pets

Watching a pet age both physically and mentally is never easy, but local veterinarian Mike Fietz advises owners to be proactive.  File photo Watching a pet age both physically and mentally is never easy, but local veterinarian Mike Fietz advises owners to be proactive. File photo

Pets, just like their human caretakers, face a great variety of health problems as they age. The physical sorts, while awful in their own right, seem easier for us to grasp. There is a sad kind of sense to it. The aches and pains, blindness and deafness, organ dysfunction—we recognize these as the unavoidable price of living inside biological machinery. We reluctantly accept that any machine, no matter how well built or cared for, breaks in time.

I find that my clients struggle more with the non-physical aspect of watching their pets age. I think we understand—intellectually, at least—that senility has the exact same cause. The brain is also a machine, however intricate and arcane. But unlike a leg or a liver, it is intimately bound to identity. It is what makes your animals who they are, and it is painful to see it fade.

Senility is a complex development with no single cause. It is the sort of condition for which the knowledge we do have only serves to highlight the vast amount we don’t. But it is chronic, progressive, and can present in a number of different ways.

Affected animals can be disoriented or confused, even in familiar situations. They may become less playful or more irritable, and they can forget things they’ve known for a long time, including simple commands and housetraining etiquette. Disruptions in sleep schedule are common, and I hear from owners who are kept awake through the night while their animals roam restlessly. Others find their pets engaged in spooky behavior, staring blankly at walls or barking at nothing at all.

It is important to stay on top of concurrent medical problems in senile animals. If your dog has become irritable, then her painful old hips only make it more likely for her to lash out. And if your cat has grown disoriented, the inability to see or hear you clearly does nothing to light his way. Some medical problems are easier to address than others, but your veterinarian can help you sort out which ones are present, and which might be treatable.

Mental stimulation and exercise are known to help slow the process, and it’s important that senile animals aren’t just left to stew in their confusion. Toys and games can give pets something to focus on, and will bring you closer at a time when it’s easy to drift apart. Exercise can keep them mentally engaged during the day, and wear them out so they’ll get to sleep at night. Structure and ritual can help them to make sense of a world that, for them, has been twisted around.

While there is a lot of theory about the ways in which different drugs and supplements interact with the underlying process of senility, the disorder is too complex and variable for tidy solutions, and I have found that much of what sounds promising on paper falls short in real life. Treatment, as a result, is frequently symptomatic and case-specific. I have a great pref-
erence for environmental and behavioral management of senile patients, but I have seen animals that are far happier after medical treatment of associated problems like anxiety and sleep disorders.

For me, the goal with senile animals isn’t to rail against the process, but to help shepherd pets through it. I know it can be hard to see them through the fog, but they are still there. And they need you.

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