Holistic vet, Vicky Simon BVetMed VetMFHom MRCVS, gives a vet’s eye view on how we can help our aging pets. This article was first published on her own website here
If you are lucky, your pet will get old whilst still with you, and you will end up caring for a geriatric pet. I think that in many ways our pets become more and more precious to us the older they get, as not only have they been through more with us, but we know our time together is getting closer to its end. Once an illness, or age-related decline occurs, this feeling becomes even stronger and all we really want is for all their remaining time with us to be as happy as possible. Most older pets, like older people, are left to age as nature decides for them, with maybe some drugs added in to help with major disease as it begins to negatively affect them on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t necessarily need to be this way, as there are many ways holistic medicine can support the ageing process to make it as painless & enjoyable as possible, for both pets and owners. Geriatric patients are some of my favourite to manage as it is so rewarding.
GENERAL MANAGEMENT OF THE AGEING PET
There are a few simple things you can do about your house and in your lives to help support your ageing pet. You may know, or think of, many others depending on your individual pets’ needs, but here are a few from me:
- Non-Slip Runners and Rugs – I mentioned these in my arthritis article but they can be so useful, not just for pain, but for weakness in the hind limbs. Standing up can be a bit of a struggle for the oldies so help them out a little.
- Multiple Shorter Walks – These aren’t just helpful for arthritic dogs, but also those with heart or lung disease, or who just get tired quicker and easier than younger dogs. You may want to slow your walking pace too, so they get all the benefits of sniffing and stimulation for a similar time, but a shorter distance so they can manage better.
- A Good Harness – Even if your dog never wore a harness before, they can be very useful in their older years. Depending on the harness, they offer varying levels of support all along the body in case you need to help your dog stand up, climb up a steep slope or out of a pond or stream, for example. They also spread the pressure across the body if they pull on the lead at all, minimising pressure on the throat and neck. This helps in spondylosis or other neck and back problems, as well as ensuring normal breathing without stress or crushing of the windpipe.
- Mental Stimulation – The older a dog gets, often the shorter a walk they can cope with. This means they end up sitting around all day resting and sleeping. Although this is fine, it can lead to a quicker decline in brain function due to a lack of mental stimulation. Playing little games with them, based on scents or treats can be a great way to stimulate the mind without tiring them out – think of it like a dog crossword or sudoku, where they have to work it out.
- Care on Warm Days – Obviously care is required with all dogs on warm days, to ensure enough water is available & walks are taken early or late when its cooler. Older dogs need extra thought as sometimes, especially with heart disease, even lying in a slightly warm room is too much. They may need fans or cool mats or similar to help them cope.
- Comfy Padded Beds – As pets age they like to sleep more, and so pressure sores can develop, particularly over bony areas like the elbows. This can be helped by making sure pets have thickly padded beds or places to rest in various locations over the house. If they like the floor, it may be that they prefer the cool, so try to position a bed near a draft or in a cooler area of the house.
- Careful Handling – Like older people, older pets need a more gentle approach to being handled. They may struggle to stand on 3 legs whilst you clean or dry one paw at a time, especially if you try to extend or flex the limb too much. Sometimes stroking them over painful joints, their spine or tense muscles is uncomfortable. It’s important to emphasise this to children in particular, as a kind beloved pet could snap if they were suddenly in pain.
Regular Checks – Ageing pets are more prone to developing issues, so regular checks by yourself and your vet will help pick up any problems promptly. You can feel for lumps and bumps, painful areas, tension in muscles and changes in body condition. Your vet can check for these issues, as well as monitoring their heart, lungs, eyes and abdomen. In entire bitches and dogs, the mammary glands and testicles are important spots to keep an eye on.
DIET FOR THE OLDER ANIMAL
As some pets age, their digestion becomes slightly less effective than it was in their youth. They can also become a bit more fussy, sometimes due to underlying age-related disease. This means you may need to adjust their diet or feeding regime slightly.
The liver and kidneys commonly develop an age-related functional decline, either causing symptoms or not. If you have no symptoms, the following changes will not harm your pet so might be worthwhile regardless. Feed smaller meals more frequently, so 2-3 times daily (or even 4 if diagnosed with dysfunction), rather than 1-2 times. This gives the liver and kidneys less to deal with at once if they are struggling, and can be easier on the digestion too.
For the diet itself, it is important to feed high quality protein and not reduce the protein levels too much as this can exacerbate muscle wastage. Meat and fish (not derivatives or vegetable proteins) are best. Tripe is a great regular addition if you feed raw, as it is easily digestible and can help the digestion too. Carb levels should be kept low as carbs feed inflammation, which tends to be higher in oldies.
Joint supplements and omega 3 oils are important for arthritis, but should always be added as extras at feeding time, as heat processing or freezing makes them less effective.
PAIN RELIEF FOR ARTHRITIS
If your pet gets old, then they will inevitably suffer from some level of arthritic pain. For a detailed overview of arthritis, see my blogs about arthritis and helping your pet with arthritis on my own website.
HERBAL SUPPORT FOR AGEING ANIMALS
This is one of my favourite ways of using herbal medicine – helping geriatric patients. There is so much you can do to support older patients, and in so many different ways. The function of all organs declines with age, whether noticeably or not. Herbal medicine can offer support to encourage normal function of the liver, kidneys, heart & circulation, lungs, brain & nervous system and immune system, as well as giving patients a general boost in vitality. All of this contributes to just generally feeling better in themselves, as well as helping to relieve the symptoms of any diseases they may be suffering.
You can buy lots of different herb mixes online, but usually you have to choose a specific aspect of your pet to treat or support. This is where seeing a veterinary herbalist is really beneficial – they can make up a bespoke herbal mixture exactly suited to your individual pet and their needs.
We hope this has given you plenty of food for thought on how to make your furry pal’s later years more comfortable. To find more age-related articles here, use the “Elderly” tag in our tag cloud.
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Vicky Simon BVetMed VetMFHom MRCVS
Vicky is a veterinary surgeon practising integrated veterinary medicine by combining her knowledge of conventional medicine, with that of various complementary approaches. These include herbal medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture and species-appropriate feeding.
Vicky spent her first 7 years in two small animal integrated veterinary practices, where conventional medicine, surgery and diagnostics were used alongside herbal medicine, homeopathy, natural feeding and acupuncture. Holistic medical approaches have always appealed to her, so she was lucky to be able to pursue these immediately.
Having qualified as a veterinary surgeon in 2012, Vicky established ‘Holistic Vet Vicky’ in 2020 in Wiveliscombe, near Taunton, Devon. She takes referrals for holistic veterinary medicine, and offers general holistic health advice. Vicky always aims to work closely with referring veterinary practices to optimise the health and well-being of her patients. She mostly treat dogs and cats, but also sees horses, rabbits and guinea pigs and other small furries, as well as the occasional chicken.