People have a wide range of attitudes about getting older, ranging from optimism to pessimism. But when it comes to pets, people tend to have a negative attitude about aging. The tragedy of getting old is that we attribute the problems pets face to old age, and don't bring them to the veterinarian. Most owners think that pets can't be helped if it's just old age, often overlooking symptoms that could be treated or eased.
There are a series of physical changes affecting aging pets' bodies. These may include graying of the muzzle, thinning of the coat, brittle toenails, arthritis and lameness, whitening of eyes (cataracts), difficulty hearing and dental problems.
Pets entering their golden years face two types of changes--those that can be relieved with the help of a veterinarian, and those that cannot. Veterinarians can prescribe medication to ease the pain of arthritis and even perform surgery to replace painful hips. Veterinarians don't have means to treat deafness; however, surgery can cure cataracts. There is also medication that can be prescribed to alter mental status, making older pets less senile.
With aging, there are also behavioral and mental changes that take place. Older animals have more difficulty getting around. They lose self-confidence and tend to stay close to their owners and close to home. Fear of strangers and new surroundings may be more pronounced in an older pet as well.
Older dogs and cats usually sleep more, pay less attention and don't tolerate the cold weather as well as they did when they were younger. The aging process begins and ends differently for each animal. It's just like humans. There are people in their 70s who appear young and there are people in their 60s who appear old. On the average though, small dogs and cats begin to exhibit signs of aging at 9 to 10 years old, while large dog breeds begin to age at about 7 years of age.
Owners need to prepare themselves mentally as their pets undergo the aging process. Emphasis should be placed on quality of life. This means that owners should have their older pets examined by a veterinarian. Annual (or even semi-annual) veterinary examinations are recommended. This way, any potentially serious problems can be diagnosed (early and treatment can be provided that may slow the progression of the ailment and, if possible, cure it.
Some pet owners try to avoid the fact that a pet won't be around forever. As a pet ages, it's best to accept the process and try to provide him or her with a good and happy quality of life.
When a pet is very old and has severe medical problems, an owner must confront the decision of putting him or her to sleep. Many owners have a common misconception on this topic. People always hope their pets will die peacefully in their sleep, but this rarely happens. Very often, owners wait too long and the pet incurs too much pain and suffering. When an animal loses bowel control or can't move its legs, owners should interpret these signs and make the appropriate choice.
Making the decision to euthanize a pet that has been a member of the family is never easy. Owners need to know that it is the final step in the human - pet relationship. Putting an animal to sleep is the last act of love from a good owner to their loyal companion.