Care of Your Aged Animal

As animals age, their ability to maintain health and vitality becomes limited and growing old gracefully can be a challenge! An older animal in the wild becomes slower, less able to hunt or graze, and keep up with their peers. Subsequently their condition deteriorates further and the natural cycle is that they do not survive for very long.

Keeping animals outside of their natural environment places the responsibility upon our shoulders to ensure that their care and maintenance is of a high enough standard to allow for quality of life.

The Ageing Process

A great contributing factor to the ageing process is free-radical damage. Free radicals are produced by the body’s natural metabolic processes through various chemical reactions or they might be introduced into the body as toxins from food or environmental sources.

The damage they cause to cells may be equated to the sparks that are thrown off a fire which eat away at the carpet in front of the fireplace. The cumulative result of this “wear and tear” is usually obvious later on in life as degenerative changes such as organ failures, joint damage, sensory losses of vision and hearing, dental disease and the development of dis-ease such as cancer.

Nutritional Support

Anti-oxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, which are found in nutritious foods and in various nutritional supplements, act as free radical scavengers and help to limit the damage caused as well as help to aid in repair. It therefore follows that, in addition to tender loving care, a well-balanced diet full of optimal amounts of nutrients with low levels of chemicals and preservatives is an incredibly valuable factor in maintaining your animal’s quality of life and to support their immune systems, which are often compromised in older animals.

General Care and Grooming

During cold weather, older animals’ circulation and their ability to thermoregulate and keep themselves warm may be limited. In addition to this, problems such as arthritis and incontinence are more obvious and animals are less inclined to move around stopping regular wear of their nails which can grow long enough to put strain on their nail beds or even grow inward into their pads which is extremely painful. Their decreased flexibility also makes it difficult for them to groom themselves, especially if they are obese, leading to knotted coats which are uncomfortable and also harbour parasites such as fleas.

Some dogs and cats require their nails to be trimmed every six to eight weeks and their coats to be regularly brushed. Feeding a nutritious diet with optimal amounts of essential fatty acids not only helps to lubricate joints but also helps the health of the skin and coat, and fur is less likely to knot.

Warm and comfortable bedding will go a long way to keeping them comfortable and nurtured and regular, gentle exercise as well as massage will alleviate tension in their muscles. Dental care is also of utmost importance to assist digestion and prevent infection.

When the Time Comes

When it is no longer possible to preserve an animals’ quality of life, it becomes necessary to consider euthanasia as it is the quality of their life rather than the quantity which is of utmost importance for our animals. This can be a difficult decision but is often a kind release from the pain and discomfort that some aged animals ultimately suffer from and they take their special place over the Rainbow Bridge!

Keeping animals outside of their natural environment places the responsibility upon our shoulders to ensure that their care and maintenance is of a high enough standard to allow for quality of life.

When animals are old and ill, it can be difficult to know “when it is time”. Some obvious signs are that they don’t want to interact, they sleep most of the time, they are depressed or unsettled and they do not want to eat.  I often tell my clients that they will know when the time comes as they will see it in their pets’ eyes – they look tired, animals “lose their sparkle” and most animal owners / guardians recognise this.

It can also be helpful to have some way to quantify their quality of life by giving them a “quality of life score” each day ie. If they are happy and bright, moving around easily and eating well then they would score a 10/10 but if they are lethargic, not eating and poorly responsive then they would get a 1/10. The trend of this score can be a useful guide to help decide when it is time.

The Process of Euthanasia – A Peaceful Transition

For our patients, we often do a home visit as pets are at ease in their home environments and it is a special time for their family to be with them and give gratitude for their life of companionship with a gentle euthanasia process.

I generally sedate my patients first which involves injecting a small amount of sedative with a tiny needle which is generally painless. This is so that when I give the next injection, an anesthetic with a larger volume to inject, they are sleeping comfortably and oblivious to further intervention. It usually takes a few minutes for the sedative to work and then we raise a vein, inject the anesthetic, which puts them into a much deeper sleep and ultimately stops their heart.

This is generally a very gentle and peaceful process and remembering all the happy memories at this time can often be helpful for the pets’ family to deal with their grief. Although this can be such a difficult time, many pet owners / guardians feel a great sense of relief as they end their pets suffering with love and dignity.

It’s Not About Death but More About Cherishing Life

The finality of death may be harsh but I believe our animals help us to look at it differently; it’s not really about death but about cherishing, revering and celebrating life in the present.

Robert Louis Stevenson said “Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will.” I am always humbled and amazed when I do home visits to put pets to sleep how frequently they come to greet me at the door and almost guide me to their bed or resting place and then peacefully accept the sedative that I give as the precursor to peacefully euthanasing them in the presence of their loving families. It seems to me that animals “know” when it’s time and since they are no longer out in nature where they would have met their demise by starvation or having a predator end their life, it is the vet who does.

Clients often say to me that this must be the most difficult part of my job but I believe that it is a privilege to be present at such an important time in an animal’s life to facilitate a peaceful transition and often to be inspired by the animal and their loved ones who have walked difficult roads. Some of these people share incredible stories of life and death and often provide anecdotes to suggest that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

Sometimes to lighten the atmosphere and provide comfort I may share a comical image of their animal’s special place over the rainbow bridge. Although this provides solace to some, whether there is such a place or not reminds me of words by William Wallace “Every man dies, not every man really lives” illustrating that there is endless potential in the moment to take meaning from life.

Animals certainly know how to live in the moment, be joyous and make the most of life whenever they get the opportunity from the carefree dog running on the beach to the relaxed feline snoozing in the sun. They also seem to appreciate life and those that they love more consistently than many of us humans as illustrated by some widely-printed words “Please help me to be the person my dog thinks I am”

Graham Norton’s Memoir describes his thoughts upon his father’s death, a perspective that I think is helpful to embrace when facing loss: “When he died, the sense of loss was overwhelming, but at the same time we all understood that he hadn’t just left us – he had escaped. To no longer have to watch him suffer meant that in death our father could be reborn. Once someone goes, you no longer think of them as the pale, gaunt old man waiting to die; suddenly he is alive once more in the collective memory in his prime.”