As dogs age, they need more protection from us — protection from the elements, from other dogs, from their own increasing infirmity and developing disabilities. Keeping Sheba, my beloved 16-year-old Border Collie, safe and comfortable has become top priority for me. Even as her gait slows, her face grows whiter, and her eyes become dimmer, to me she’s still the loveliest creature, and I want our last years together to be enjoyable, stress-free ones for her. Here’s what I’ve learned from caring for my sweet granny dog.
It’s element-ary. As dogs age, they need protection from the elements. If it’s cold outside and your senior pet has a short coat and very little meat on her bones, don’t make her brave the chill without a sweater and/or jacket. Likewise, in summer, if your senior dog spends lots of time baking in the sun — something seniors love to do, because it feels wonderful on their tired old joints — be sure to limit their time in direct UV rays, and protect the skin on their underbelly from sunburn with pet-safe sunscreen.
Protect seniors from their junior packmates. It’s one thing if you live in a multidog home and everyone is roughly the same age — the senior K9s are traveling through life at the same slow speed. But with a range of ages, the seniors need protection from their more active housemates. “You wouldn’t have Grandma play tackle football with junior high kids,” points out author and expert dog trainer Sarah Wilson, “no matter how much she says she can!” Wilson is right; often, while aerobically wrassling, my young dogs Magnus, Cupcake, and Desiree would inadvertently body-check Sheba, whose frail old bones felt the pain of sudden impact. She either cried out in pain or barked and nipped at them in outrage. So I’m careful now to close Sheba in a different room while the terrible trio exhausts itself with playtime.
Provide an all-access pass. Senior dogs can no longer leap up to the sofa, bed, or any of the other cozy nesting spots in your animal house. And if they try, they could easily injure themselves quite seriously. Give your dog a leg up by providing a ramp or small set of folding steps, to help him feel like he’s still welcome to make himself at home in the home you share. Likewise, unless you want to lift him and place him in your vehicle, you’ll want to get a ramp so he may walk up and into the car. (You should also add a travel dog bed back there to cushion the bumpy ride.)
Doghouse decor. One dog bed may no longer be enough for your elder statesdog, especially if there are stairs in the home. Accommodate a senior dog’s increased desire to snooze by keeping dog beds in several places, so your pup can always find a cushioned nest to relax in. (Spot would appreciate if you chose the orthopedic kind of dog bed that really supports senior joints.)
Slip-proof footing. It’s often hard for senior animals to stand up on slippery floor surfaces — especially after they’ve been lying down for a while and their leg(s) have fallen asleep. If the flooring in your home is slick, like bare wood, arrange a pathway out of modular carpet tile to provide safe, secure footing. This flooring option is attractive, inexpensive, and easy to place, replace, and remove, as the tiles attach to the floor with low-tack adhesive.
The joy of socks. If your dog will tolerate footwear, consider outfitting him with stretchy treaded socks made just for K9 feet. I learned about these when dealing with my beloved senior dog Tiki, whose hind legs were gradually giving out because of a degenerative neurological condition called conscious proprioceptive deficits. These socks will help your dog feel less helpless while ensuring that he has a better chance of sure footing in your home.
Don’t eat that! You’d think older dogs would be wiser dogs and wouldn’t eat stuff that’s toxic to them. You’d be wrong. You still must protect your senior dog from harmful ingestion. In fact, you may need to protect your senior even more, because metabolic changes and certain medications may give them an increased appetite for hazardous foraging. Incidentally, this also includes overfeeding, as excess weight gain overtaxes seniors’ creaky, arthritic joints. Take extra care to measure out food portions strictly according to the directions on the package.
See the light. Failing eyesight is common in senior dogs, so don’t change the furniture around, as Spot has grown accustomed to it and navigates your home mostly by memory. If you want to be super-considerate, place glow-in-the-dark markers at various points in the room — on the sofa and table legs, for instance — to help light the way. And consider rigging your senior dog with a glow-in-the-dark collar, to help him as he moves about your home.
Delay dog dementia. If a previously sweet dog begins displaying aggression, it could be a result of the onset of dementia or the stress of blindness, so you’ll need to protect the more vulnerable members of your family from an accidental bite. To prevent dementia in dogs (and humans), everyone in my animal house — myself included — takes a loving spoonful of coconut oil every day, plus a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon and turmeric in our food bowls.