How to Boost the Quality of Life for Your Aging Pet

By Dr. Marty Becker

ThinkstockWe all know how hard it is to see pain, illness, or just the aches and stiffness of old age affect someone we love. That's just as true when it's our pets who are suffering - they are beloved family members, after all. There are some simple things that you can do, though, to help a sick or elderly animal feel better.

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Encourage Eating and Drinking

Is your cat or dog underweight or uninterested in his food? Many illnesses can cause pets to lose their appetite, and age can decrease the sense of smell. To encourage your pet to eat, warm his food slightly to make it more aromatic. If he can smell it, he's more likely to eat it. Additionally, scratching your pet's head and neck or feeding him by hand can also increase his interest in food. The extra attention from you may be just the incentive he needs to chow down.

Medication may work for cats or dogs who don't respond to warming food and feeding it by hand. Ask your veterinarian whether an appetite stimulant is an option for your pet. With that as a jump-start, many pets start eating again on their own.

If all else fails, talk to your veterinarian about a feeding tube. It sounds drastic, but pets often do very well with feeding tubes. A feeding tube can be placed very quickly under anesthesia, either through the esophagus or directly into the stomach. You can put food into a blender to make a slurry that is given through the tube. (For short-term help with feeding, some tubes can also be placed through the nose and into the stomach, and a liquid diet may be used.) If your pet regains his appetite, he can still eat on his own, even with the tube in place. Once he starts to do that, you can decrease th e meals through the tube and have it removed when it's no longer needed.

Make sure your pet drinks enough water - he might not feel well if he's dehydrated. I recommend pet drinking fountains for a couple of reasons. Some pets, especially cats, prefer to drink running water, rather than water that has been sitting in a bowl. A fountain can make drinking more appealing for these pets.

If your dog or cat turns up his nose at drinking more water, you may need to learn to administer subcutaneous fluids at home. They can be a lifesaver, especially for cats with chronic kidney failure.

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Focus on Physical and Emotional Comfort

We always think of cats as self-grooming machines, but stiff joints or oral cancers can make it difficult for them to clean themselves. And dogs who are incontinent may also need help keeping themselves clean and dry. Gently brush or comb your pet daily, bathe the urogenital area so urine doesn't scald the skin if your pet wears diapers and check for dingleberries on fur around the rear end.

Can your pet get around without assistance? Portable steps and ramps are an easy fix to allow dogs and cats to climb in and out of the car, or get over the edge of the litterbox. For a dog who still enjoys getting out and about but doesn't have the get-up-and-go of his younger or healthier years, consider purchasing a pet stroller or a child's wagon that he can ride in. A harness with a handle to lift the chest or rump or a mobility cart can also help your pet move around better.

We know our pets are enjoying life when they greet us and welcome petting or other interactions. If your dog or cat seems depressed or anxious or shrinks from your touch, ask yourself if there have been any household changes that could be causing the problem. Dogs and cats like routines, especially when they are older, so try to keep them on a regular schedule of meals and activities. If a sick pet has been isolated because he needs to rest but is normally social, try moving his bed or crate to an area where he'll feel more involved in family goings-on (as long as he's not contagious to other pets). Conversely, make sure he has a quiet place to recuperate if he's more of a loner.

Don't forget that physical problems such as osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia could cause your pet to suddenly dislike being touched. Ask your veterinarian about pain-relief medications that can help.

Helping your dog or cat out in any of these areas can give a big boost to his quality of life. It's special for me to be able to help you do that, and I know it will be extra special for you when your pet once again expresses joy and interest in life.

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