How To Ethically Care For Your Senior Animal Companion

October 21, 2021

My dog Nitro is about 12 years old now. Last year he got his first tumor, which was benign, but the underlying takeaway from the experience was loud and clear: Nitro is a senior.

And I suppose for some dog-people, such realizations aren’t profound. But Nitro has always been a healthy, high-energy dog. When he was younger, he would play fetch for literally hours at a time. We could hike miles on end. Requiring multiple exercise sessions per day, Nitro has always been my walking companion.

In the year since his tumor, Nitro has slowed down a bit. He developed some signs of arthritis. And he is generally more susceptible to skin irritation and infection. I would like to share some of what I have learned, in hopes that perhaps other dog-people won’t find caring for their senior animals daunting.

Veterinary Care

Nitro’s vet visits have increased to twice yearly now that he is a senior. My poor Nitro doesn’t like the vet, despite seeing the same doctors for many years. In fact, all my animals receive care from the same two doctors. And it’s been really helpful.

If you have animal companions and don’t have a vet you trust, I recommend finding one. Not only does the familiarity minimize stress for the animal during exams, but it can have perks. For example, my vets are happy to chat on the phone with me if I have any questions or concerns. And in the past they have prescribed medications over the phone, without requiring an exam, because they are so familiar with my animals and their care.

Supplements

Just because I trust my vet doesn’t mean I’m eager to medicate. I try my best to balance holistic remedies alongside medical care. When Nitro was recently diagnosed with arthritis in his hips, the vet provided an anti-inflammatory medication. But I didn’t want to rely solely on that, so I started incorporating supplements and specially formulated foods into his diet to help manage his comfort as well. After a few weeks of supplementing and special food, he no longer needs the anti-inflammatory medication at all!

The vet also advised I may consider physical therapy, acupuncture, and massage. All that to say, there are myriad approaches to animal healthcare, and often, utilizing several treatment modalities yields the best results. Doing research and asking questions is critical.

Grooming

I underestimated the importance of grooming when Nitro was young. I would splurge on the occasional blow-out for him, but he groomed himself just fine. And if he rolled around on something gross, I would stick him in my own bathtub. But as he has matured, grooming has become an essential part of his wellness. I found a local groomer I trust that sees Nitro every 8–10 weeks. Many groomers like mine are trained to notice aspects of skin, ear, tooth, paw, and anal health that are demonstrative of overall wellness. Earlier this year, my groomer noticed that Nitro’s right ear didn’t smell good and was waxier than usual. I took him to the vet and sure enough, he had an ear infection. Nitro didn’t act unwell whatsoever. If my groomer had not alerted me of the signs of infection, it could have gone untreated.

Exercise

Nitro is more tired than he ever has been and requires frequent rest. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy his exercise. Rather than walking 4 miles at once, we often split it into 2 or 3 shorter walks.

Sometimes he doesn’t want to go, and that is okay. Sometimes he wants to walk for longer or head home sooner, and that is okay too. I like to let him tell me what he needs. Nitro is a gentleman and will simply come sit in front of me with wide eyes to let me know he is ready to go. If your animal companion isn’t communicative, offering to take them out several times a day is a great alternative.

To keep Nitro’s life interesting, we walk several different routes around my neighborhood, and also visit the 130 acre off-leash dog park in my town about five times a week. Because I understand how small a domestic animal’s world is, I want to provide as many different smells and sights as possible. Just because our animal companions are seniors, doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy new parks and trails! Plan an adventure with your furry friend and explore somewhere new together.

Changes to home environment

Fortunately, I haven’t had to invest in a doggie staircase or anything yet. But I won’t hesitate to do so should I feel the time has come. I have considered orthopedic dog beds, heated beds and staircases.

To help keep Nitro’s brain sharp, I like to introduce mentally stimulating games such as treat scavenger hunts around my home. (This works across species of course!) I smile widely while I watch him rummage around and look for the yummy hidden treasures.

As our animal companions age, it’s important to keep our minds open to changing our environments and routines to accommodate their evolving needs.

Have a worst-case-scenario plan

I am scared of Nitro’s death. But I love him more than I love having him, and he will not suffer. I am prepared to help him move on, should I need to.

Try and hug an animal today, dumplings <3

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Photo: R. Coker

R. Coker
R. Coker is an animal lover, runner, writer and yogi. She is passionate about leaving the world better than she found it.

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