Life with an elderly pet brings a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. We all wish for our pets to be comfortable and happy and live as long as possible, but interpreting subtle signs shown by aging pets can be challenging.
I can relate on a personal level. Our 14-year-old mixed breed dog named Oskee was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few years ago. My wife and I did not think he would still be with us today. He has done better than expected for a dog with this diagnosis.
We feel very fortunate that he is doing relatively well. Recently, however, we have been noticing changes that make us wonder if this is the beginning of the end.
Facing the Inevitable
How do you know if he is uncomfortable? Is he suffering? When the time comes, how will our children react? Will we know when it is time?
These are all questions that many clients are faced with, and now my wife and I are the ones contemplating them.
When you are faced with these or similar thoughts and questions, I recommend making a list of things your pet really enjoys. For example, Oskee enjoys going for walks, chewing bones, begging/taking food from our kids. As he has aged and his condition has declined, we have seen his enjoyment in these activities decrease.
Some days he does not seem to have the energy or strength to go on much of a walk. Occasionally his legs slip out from under him. He also spends much more time sleeping and is not waiting by the dinner table like he used to. Noticing these changes helps us determine a “good” day from a “bad” day.
Focus on Quality of Life
Fortunately, his good days still outnumber the bad. An anti-inflammatory pain medication seems to make him more comfortable, and he does pretty well. I recommend clients keep a journal of good and bad days. When the bad days start outnumbering the good days, the pet’s overall quality of life needs to be considered.
For those of you with aging pets or terminally ill pets, I recommend discussing with your veterinarian what medications or therapies may help improve your pet’s overall quality of life. Unfortunately, though, most of us will be faced with a very difficult decision: when is it time to say goodbye?
It is never an easy decision. No matter how sick or old your pet is, the decision is going to be gut-wrenching and difficult. My wife and I are not looking forward to making this decision, but I owe this to Oskee when the time comes. Oskee has been the best dog for the past 14 years, and I would never want to see him have anything but a good quality of life.
Dr. Drew Sullivan
I recently came across the most amazing carrier for producing a calm cat. It’s called the Van Ness Calm Carrier. It has a sliding drawer design that allows cats in the carrier to be very easily taken out, avoids the more forceful removal from the carrier, and allows for quicker and safer unloading. I was amazed by this simple and genius idea and surprised that this carrier wasn’t more widely used.
For many cats, the only time they leave their homes and see the carrier is when they are going to the vet. They associate the carrier and the departure with being at the vet, and they begin to feel heightened stress and anxiety even before they arrive. Once we see many of these cats, it can be very difficult to handle them, and just getting them out of the carrier can be a challenge.
As a hospital that utilizes Fear Free® practices on a daily basis, we at Medical District Veterinary Clinic do our best to lessen anxiety and stress for our patients before, during, and after their visits to the vet. While the carrier choice seems simple, this important step can make a huge difference in creating a calm cat.
Below are tips to help lessen anxiety and stress for your cats when they visit with us:
- The best carriers are hard sided carriers that can be easily taken apart. In a carrier in which the top can be easily removed, more stressful and fearful cats can even be examined while they remain in the bottom half of the carrier where they are more comfortable.
- Make the carrier comfortable and enjoyable for your cat. Ideally your cat will enter the carrier on their own, and even spend time there to rest and play. To help your cat see the carrier as a happy and positive place, fill it with treats, toys, and familiar bedding that they enjoy.
- A product called Feliway® emits a synthetic feline pheromone that helps create a calming environment and reduces stress. It comes as a plug-in diffuser, spray, and wipe. Use of these products in the carrier prior to transport can be very beneficial to limit the anticipated stress and anxiety of going to the vet. We use these products all the time and see positive changes in our patients.
- Consider asking your veterinarian for a prescription medication you could administer before your cat’s visit to the clinic to serve as a mild sedative and help reduce stress and anxiety. Common medications used include gabapentin and trazodone.
By following these guidelines, you can make the experience of going to the vet much more enjoyable for feline patients—and for owners and veterinary staff as well.
—Amber Slaughter, DVM
Throughout this time of quarantine, I have been spending more time outside, as I am sure many of you have, too. Besides the overabundance of cicadas in my neighborhood, currently there seems to be a plethora of mosquitoes looking for a blood meal. Just as we love summer in Chicago, so do mosquitoes. Summer is the time for peak transmission of heartworm disease across the U.S. Heartworm disease is considered endemic in Illinois, and according to the American Heartworm Association, clinics in the Chicago area see an average of 25+ cases per year.
As I sit outside, I think how lucky I am because mosquitoes don’t seem to like me; my wife is not so lucky. Then I wonder if my dog, Oskee, is getting bit as much as we are? And is he getting infected with heartworms?
The importance of prevention makes so much sense once you have a little knowledge about the disease process and how monthly preventive medication works. As described in this short video, the monthly preventive does NOT prevent exposure, but kills off any immature baby heartworms already present in your dog. If the preventives are not given every 30 days, the immature heartworms can mature to juvenile worms before the next dose, thus resulting in heartworm disease.
If you miss a dose or are late giving a dose, give the dose as soon as you remember. While uncommon, an infection may develop within your dog from a single missed dose. Multiple missed doses, especially during peak transmission months, puts your dog at high risk of infection.
The heartworm test performed at annual wellness visits screens for adult heartworms. It takes 6 to 7 months after infection for the heartworms to mature into the life stage detected by the heartworm test. Therefore, if you miss a dose, start up prevention as soon as possible. Then have your dog tested within the next year to be sure that infection did not occur during the unprotected period.
For less than $10/month your pet can be protected. While there is a treatment for heartworm disease, it is more expensive and more painful than monthly prevention. The average cost of treatment for a medium-sized dog is $1,500 vs. $10/month for prevention.
If your dog is not currently on prevention or you need a refill, give us a call today. If you have questions about the different preventive medications on the market, please reach out as we would be happy to discuss your questions and concerns.
—Dr. Drew Sullivan
Because I am a human being living in the third-largest city in the United States, the coronavirus is on my mind. It’s scary, and we all are dealing with our newly realized pandemic anxiety in different ways. Turning to our pets for comfort is natural and nice, but with that also comes a possible increased focus on their every move and well-being.
Some of you have the luxury of being able to self-quarantine with your loved ones, and we all thank you. Some of us still need to be out in the real world saving people, and we all thank you too. This blog post, however, isn’t to inform you about anything related to COVID-19 and human health. For that you can look here. This blog is meant to address your animals’ health during this time.
I know that some of you are worried about your animals getting infected. Though we don’t know everything about this virus, veterinary experts say it is highly unlikely to infect or sicken pets.
What I want to discuss is the quality-of-life needs for your pets, particularly dogs, which depend on social interactions with other dogs and people to relieve boredom and anxiety. All the basic points are applicable to cats too, though the cats that go outside and meet people and other cats are rare.
We are all home (hopefully) now. As much as social interactions need to be at a minimum to help flatten the infectious curve, being outside is not unsafe. Walking your dog is not something you should avoid. In fact, strolling through the streets offers a great opportunity for quiet and reflection. What you need to be careful about, though, is stopping to talk to others and going to dog parks or places where humans congregate. Which in turn means that your dog’s social needs may go unmet.
So how can your dog’s and cat’s cabin fever be remedied?
- Attention. Because you are managing your two children who are home from CPS, trying to keep up on how many celebrities are positive, and Google-deep-diving whether coronavirus can be transmitted through ESP, you may not think that spending 10 minutes here and there playing tug-o-war with your dog is a priority. But don’t underestimate the stress dogs can pick up on. Even a small amount of attention can help them through this.
- Respect boundaries. Though most of your cats and dogs love having you around, it also the case that the sudden increase of bodies home at all times can be a stressor for your 18-year-old cat that is used to the quiet and freedom to sit on the couch alone during your work day and actually enjoy some alone time. I’ve heard from numerous people over recent weeks that they think that their dog and cat may not actually miss them as much as they assumed when they were at work every day. If your animals separate from your space to be alone, it may not mean something is wrong; you just may be annoying. Let them be and make sure there are places for them to retreat to without the clatter of your new bread-making hobby and experimentation with rave-reggae dominating your shared environment.
- Toys. Please don’t run to the store and get a bunch of toys right now, but make the existing toys in your house nice and clean and available. Make toys out of your old clothes or use a discarded water bottle, toilet paper rolls (especially you hoarders), etc. If you Google DIY dog toys, you’ll see a lot of ideas. But be careful you don’t use anything toxic or things that your dogs can swallow. I like this page: https://www.wisebread.com/10-diy-dog-toys-you-can-make-for-pennies
- Train/Teach your dog new tricks. Don’t give up on your sometimes jerk of a dog who stubbornly will not generally or ever listen to you. Don’t as it’s literally and figuratively never too late to try to teach your old dog new tricks. Maybe this is the time you spend teaching her to sit, shake, solve geometry puzzles, speak Turkish, etc. There are tons of trainers who are helping to do things remotely. I plan to have my dog braiding my hair by the summer.
- Go outside. Go outside. Go outside. It may seem contrary to our brains’ frenetic power to actually go in our yard (if you have one) and sit down, but leave your house, walk outside, even though you may need to cross the street to avoid people. You can check Twitter on your front steps with your dog as well as in your living room.
- Divide and comfort. Not all households with multiple animals live in harmony. We have an upstairs cat and downstairs cat. Both are annoyed at the upstairs and downstairs dog. Maybe your herd is split up in different ways. Just like playing tug-o-war with your dogs for 10 minutes could go a long way in fulfilling her needs, try to spend some alone time with each of your animals for a bit. Go upstairs and have a 10-minute pet-fest with your shy cat that hates your power hungry younger cat that generally hogs all the attention.
We all hope this passes soon, though that seems doubtful right now. Read books, play farm hustle, calm yourself, distance. Goodbye.
—Brett Grossman, DVM