I have dogs. I have four dogs. I have four dogs in New York City.
In my defense, it happened by accident. See, I had two and my husband had two, so we Brady Bunch-ed them when we got married. I love them equally but this piece will focus on the eldest, Gixer, who’s 10½. (I may refer to him here by one of his many nicknames: Jiggy, JigPig, Gixy, Jiggy Pie, Jiggus McPiggus, Jiggus M. Piggus Attorney at Dog, Bird, Turd, Bubba. He might have a couple more by the time I finish writing.)
A few weeks ago, I was in the park with Gixer when a man and his young daughter walked by. “That dog looks so old,” the man said as he passed. I felt a pang in my chest. Despite my best efforts to freeze time, my boy is aging and it shows: his beard and eyebrows have gone white, he moves with arthritic stiffness, he’s got a bum knee that causes him to limp sometimes. His eyes are a bit cloudy, though his vision is still good, and he has a few fatty lumps just below the skin — benign lipomas that come with age. His anxiety, especially at nighttime, has increased, and his unpredictable grumpiness is directed at everything from skateboards to shopping bags.
Gixer, otherwise, is in good health. In all likelihood, we’ll have several more years together, which still doesn’t feel like long enough — not even close. But I’ll get to enjoy his pre-dawn snuggles under the covers, and his gentle licks on my hands and nose as we fall asleep. I’ll get to watch his hilarious bursts of energy, reserved for “walk,” “eat” and “I’m gonna get you,” a game in which the outcome is belly scratches (inevitably, he lets me get him). He’ll surely follow me to the bathroom every time I shower or bathe, sitting on the tub’s edge to watch over me. We’ll share many more special treats, like rotisserie chicken, pizza crust and ice cream, and we’ll take lots of car rides so he can hang his head out the window and let his tongue flap in the breeze. We’ll walk to his favorite baseball field, and he’ll sniff every blade of grass as he has a thousand times before. He’ll lie on my chest for plenty of afternoon naps, and I’ll make up songs to sing him to sleep, replacing popular lyrics with his name and all the things he likes.
We’ve learned how to best manage Gixer’s mental and physical ailments: special freeze-dried food, a daily dose of CBD oil (more on that later), weighted blankets and Thundershirts, steps so he can access the bed, regular exercise at his pace, massages, a heating pad and routine checkups.
But as anyone with an aging pet can relate, I always wonder if there’s more we could do to keep him happy and healthy. So I spoke with some experts — an animal behaviorist, two veterinarians and a certified dog trainer — to find out how to give our best buddies their best golden years.
First, know what symptoms to look for and keep track of them.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman is co-founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies and a professor emeritus at Tufts University. He offered a thorough list of common medical problems to watch out for in older pets, including: arthritis (especially of the knees and hips), kidney disease, dental disease, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, urinary incontinence and cancer.
Some of these are easier for us humans to notice than others, which is why it’s important to note even seemingly insignificant changes in your pet.
“They can’t tell us when something is bothering them, and we’re often only able to discern that something is wrong when it hits a tipping point,” Denise Herman, founder and lead trainer at Empire of the Dog in New York City, said. “Some things become harder to treat by the time we see them physically manifest.”
Jot down anything you notice in a journal (for example, changes in thirst or appetite, bodily functions, sleeping patterns, energy levels, mental awareness, lumps or bumps) and then take it to your veterinarian appointments.
Speaking of vet visits, your senior pet needs to go more often than before.
Dr. Dodman told me that aging pets should see their vet no less than twice a year for checkups, and Ms. Herman agreed: “If you really want your pet’s health on point as they age, it’s important to have regular visits with a vet who is super knowledgeable about elderly animals.”
These appointments get expensive as a pet ages and requires more care than a younger animal. Pet insurance can help offset some of these costs, and comes in especially handy for unplanned expenses and emergencies. (Pro tip: Before you decide on an insurance plan, be sure your vet accepts it.)
Physical ailments can be easier to treat than mental ones.
“I find that the metabolic, cardiac and endocrine issues are the easier ones to treat,” said Dr. Natara Loose, a Brooklyn-based veterinarian and board-certified emergency critical care specialist. “The emotional, mental and financial changes with supporting” an aging pet “are most difficult for clients.”
“Senility in pets is very similar to Alzheimer’s in people: They have good days and bad days but the bad days can be tough to get through,” Dr. Loose explained. “Pets may pace constantly, vocalize, get stuck in random places in the home, not recognize you, or eat things they shouldn’t.”
The good news is that there are more treatment options than ever, including medications and special diets, for dogs with cognitive issues. Dr. Loose praised gabapentin, a nerve pain medication “that has become more widely used in vet medicine for a wide range of purposes, like situational anxiety, fear of traveling, senility, pain control and even some mild seizure control. It’s becoming a staple for numerous ailments.”
Other treatments for senility include melatonin, CoQ10, acetyl L-carnitine, and moderate exercise and socialization, Dr. Dodman said. (As always, discuss with your vet before starting any new treatment.)
Puzzle games and toys keep an older pet’s brain engaged, Ms. Herman suggested, like “hollow rubber toys and hollow bones that you can fill with things” — like treats or peanut butter — “that they can hang out with and chew.” These puzzle toys also provide exercise for senior pets who can’t sustain much aerobic or impact-driven exercise.
Take advantage of “alternative therapies,” with guidance from your vet.
CBD and hemp oils are all the rage for humans and pets alike, touted as a panacea for things as varied as headaches and insomnia, but the science doesn’t exist yet to back up any claims. (This is changing, though, as animal studies regarding arthritis, anxiety and seizures are underway.)
“I think CBD holds great promise, especially for treating anxiety and for pain,” Dr. Dodman said, “but check doses with your vet.”
The CBD and hemp oil markets are largely unregulated, so it’s important to thoroughly research products before giving them to your pet.
“Technically it’s illegal for any vet to discuss or recommend because it’s listed as a D.E.A. Schedule 1 drug, even if it’s just hemp-derived,” Dr. Loose said. “Ironically, though, any local pet shop or online store can dispense and discuss these things without any real quality assurance or medical knowledge.” She recommended reaching out to the manufacturer for further information on how its products are sourced and measured.
“For a lot of years, people have been using acupuncture with their pets to treat joint stiffness, energy and pain,” Ms. Herman said. “I would lump CBD in with acupuncture as an alternative therapy that’s a ‘do no harm’ and the potential to help seems more than incidental.”
Another popular alternative therapy for older pets, especially if they’re dealing with arthritis, pain or mobility issues, is aqua therapy. Dr. Francisco DiPolo is a New York-based veterinarian and director at Water for Dogs Rehabilitation Center, which offers swim therapy and underwater treadmills, as well as laser, ultrasound and more traditional physical therapy.
“Any organized rehabilitation program designed to strengthen the body has a positive impact on the quality of life of an older pet,” Dr. DiPolo said. “Most older pets have chronic debilitating diseases like arthritis, and a good exercise regimen can slow down the progression.”
Just as science is helping humans live longer, it’s helping pets live longer, too.
But longer doesn’t always mean better. It’s important to pay attention to pets’ quality of life as they get older and to be sure we aren’t keeping them around for our own sake when they’re in pain or suffering.
“That last loving decision you make for your beloved friend is going to be the hardest day of your life,” Dr. Loose said, “but they are depending on you to make the kindest, most loving decision for them.
The Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope wrote a wonderful piece about knowing when to say goodbye to her dog, based on what’s called the HHHHHMM scale. You can read about the indicators and how to rate them in her article.
When I asked the experts what one piece of advice they’d each give to a pet parent with an aging animal, the sentiment was similar: love the crap out of them.
Now excuse me while I go do just that.
Tessa Miller is a health and science journalist who’s contributed to Lifehacker, The Daily Beast, Vice, Self, The Cut, and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow her on Twitter @tessajeanmiller.