“An old dog has a beauty and dignity all her own, with her graying muzzle and soft, knowing eye. Her silliness gives way to serenity; more time is now spent in sleep than in play. In a perfect world, we would die, man and dog, as we lived: side by side, simultaneously. No one who has given his heart to a dog should have to walk in the door to this deafening silence.” –Thom Jones
Unfortunately for us two-legged creatures, our pets have much shorter life spans than we do. We are more often than not required to care for them through their golden years—and to experience the sharp sadness of losing them when they die.
According to Eva DeTolve, director of veterinary services at the Dumb Friends League, cats generally outlive dogs. Although there are definitely statistical outliers, she says the average lifespan of an indoor cat is 12-16 years (but that number drops to a mere 2-5 years for an outdoor cat!)
A dog’s longevity depends on its breed; smaller dogs, such as Chihuahuas or terriers, typically live an average of 12 to 16 years, and some can live up to 20 years, whereas larger dogs, such as Great Danes, typically only live for 7-8 years. While there are correlations between breed/size and life expectancy, of course every animal is an individual.
Illnesses and Conditions among Elderly Pets
DeTolve says certain illnesses and conditions are more prevalent in both cats and dogs as they age.
Three of the more common diseases among elderly pets include diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, and hyperthyroid disease.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin is impaired, resulting in abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates and elevated levels of glucose in the blood and urine.
Symptoms: a pet that was formerly overweight is losing weight, although still eating as much as ever; may be going blind; can’t control his or her urine output; and in more advanced cases can have difficulty ambulating—sort of “stumbles around.” Drinking a lot and urinating a lot are the classic symptoms, and often appetite also increases.
In the case of kidney failure, fluid is running through the excretory system but the kidneys are not successfully detoxifying it. This condition is more common in cats than in dogs.
Symptoms: pet is drinking a lot of water and seems constantly thirsty. Dehydration, poor appetite, and poor muscle tone or muscle wasting may occur.
Many varieties of malignant cancer can afflict elderly pets.
Symptoms: rapid, unexplained weight loss, muscle wasting, lack of appetite. Sometimes a visible tumor is present, and sometimes there are not obvious signs of disease.
Much more common in cats than in dogs, hyperthyroid disease is caused by the overproduction of a thyroid hormone that increases the metabolism in the body, especially in elderly pets.
Symptoms: Onset is most often after 10 years of age. Weight loss, increased appetite, hyperactive or unusual behavior such as loud meowing in the middle of the night, and increased thirst/urination are all possible indications.
As in aging humans, conditions such as blindness, deafness and dementia can also occur in animals.
In dogs, old age per se does not cause blindness. Some actual causes include stroke and diabetes. Lenticular sclerosis (characterized by a white sheen on the eyes) and cataracts can decrease visual acuity. Older cats, however, can experience vision changes, and can also become blind due to diabetes, stroke, kidney failure or hypertension (high blood pressure).
More elderly dogs than elderly cats experience deafness, which is generally more of an inconvenience for the owner than for the animal, because pets often can rely on their other senses. “If pets remain in the same home and experience no major changes in their environment, they can usually manage blindness or deafness quite well,” says DeTolve.
Dementia (cognitive dysfunction)
This is more common in dogs than in cats. “As with people, some pets with this condition appear unfazed and quite happy-go-lucky,” she says, “whereas other pets seem to experience fear, agitation or confusion. At times symptoms can come and go. Obviously, unlike humans, animals can’t articulate what they are feeling or what treatments or care is working or not working.”
Health Care and TLC for Elderly Pets
To best evaluate and monitor your elderly pet, begin with your veterinarian. If the pet finds trips to the veterinary clinic exceptionally stressful, veterinary house calls are an option. Sometimes one illness can mask another illness, so it’s important to have a professional exam (including a dental exam) and have blood work done.
“Special diets can make a huge difference and the veterinarian can advise you on what’s best,” notes DeTolve. For example, feeding high-protein kitten food to a pet with kidney failure makes the condition worse, because of the pet’s inability, due to its condition, to process protein. Companies like Hill’s Pet Nutrition offer a range of prescription and science diet pet foods designed for specific medical or physical conditions.
In addition to specific illness-related medications, treatment with pain medication and/or anti-inflammatories can provide relief to animals that are suffering. Physical accommodations in the home may also be helpful, such as installing a ramp or low stairs for an older dog.
“Owners of elderly pets need to be a little kinder and more understanding,” says DeTolve. Children, in particular, should be taught to respect the pet’s needs when playing with a dog or cat. Older pets should continue to be exercised, but owners should adjust their routine to the pet’s abilities and most comfortable pace.
The Difficult Decision to Euthanize
Veterinarians view their job as preventing animal suffering, and that commitment sometimes includes humanely ending the life of an animal that is severely diseased, injured or in pain. Says DeTolve, “It may be difficult to tell whether or not pets are suffering both because they can’t tell us in words and because they tend to behave in a way that we would consider ‘stoic.’”
Possible signs of discomfort in cats include ceasing to groom themselves (a red flag because they are naturally inclined toward this behavior); incessant meowing or vocalizing in a strange way; apparent fearfulness or disorientation; and having new litter box issues.
For dogs, signs of discomfort include ceasing to enjoy things that were pleasurable previously (e.g., going on walks, eating favorite foods); increased sensitivity to touch; reluctance to get up, climb stairs or jump up; and elimination issues (for example, a dog might begin to dribble urine, which is stressful because the dog knows it shouldn’t eliminate in the house and may act ashamed or fearful of punishment).
“Here is one consideration when thinking about your pet’s condition,” says DeTolve. “Would you be comfortable having a stranger or a guest in your home meet or see your pet? Taking this perspective might provide a more objective look at your pet’s quality of life.”
In the end, each pet owner must decide if and when it is appropriate to euthanize a pet to relieve its suffering. In-home euthanasia is an option that more and more pet owners are choosing. Following the death of a pet, it may or may not be comforting to think about owning another pet in the future. Some owners will choose to find another pet right away, others may need some time before they consider doing so, and still others may never choose to own another pet. Memorializing a pet through writing poems, telling stories or sharing photographs can help pet owners grieve.
What’s most important is to respect each person’s unique timeline and process for dealing with the aging and loss of a beloved family member and friend.
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