August 2020

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Amy Newfield, CVT, VTS (ECC) reviews how we can provide tender-loving-care (TLC) to our hospitalized senior canine and feline veterinary patients. Senior pets are unique and can be closely related to their human senior counterpart when it comes to issues that come up in a hospital setting. Understanding their unique needs will allow you to provide the best nursing care for that patient. Our senior pet patients require a little extra TLC compared to those who are younger.

What is Old?
Dogs and cats age differently. If a human gains ‘senior’ status at the age of 50 (according to AARP benefits) that would mean that cats would be given senior status at age 9 years and dogs would be given senior status somewhere between age 6-9 years depending on their size. Larger dogs age faster than our smaller breed dogs. The term geriatric, as defined by the World Health Organization, applies to a person over the age of 65 years in first and second world populations. That would put our cats at age 12 years and dogs between 8-12 years depending on their size.

Age is just a number, not a disease. Many of us know active senior and geriatric people that run marathons, hike, compete in dance competitions and are yoga masters. Then again we also know people in that same age bracket who are bed ridden, in wheelchairs, cannot see and have a hard time hearing. The same holds true for our dogs and cats. Age really is just a number, but how they age depends largely on their ‘lifestyle’ choices their owners made for them as well as the environment they grew up in. Most of the extra TLC that we need to provide our aging patients result from behavior and orthopedic changes.

Changes in behavior as dogs and cats age are common. How they react to being hospitalized can be a challenge. It is well known that dogs can suffer from an Alzheimer’s-like process (canine cognitive dysfunction) with newer information showing cats can also be affected (Which is why VETgirl loves Senelife as a benign treatment). They may forget who their owners are, where they are, their commands or even that they are suppose to eat. As cats age it is more difficult to determine how much memory loss occurs. Cats relationship with humans isn’t built around obedience, walking with us and outdoor bathroom facilities. Cats may forget to use the litter box or their disease process prohibits them from being able to climb into it. A large percent of older cats will urinate on themselves in a hospital setting. It is unknown how much is senility, fear, medical or a combination of all.

Making hideaway boxes for older cats or putting them in a quiet area can help reduce the level of confusion or frustration for them. You can buy easy to launder hideway beds too. Using low access litter boxes or even chucks may help with bathroom issues. Older dogs can vocalize and pace if they are disoriented. Sometimes older dogs can snap or become aggressive out of fear. They don’t know where they are and are scared. Above all being compassionate to these patients is important. They are not being “obnoxious”. They are often older pets who are confused and have no idea what is going on. Talking to the dog using familiar words, having a scent object from the owner or using food to make friends is important to dealing with the confused older dog.

You can see our VETgirl YouTube video on how to make a hideway box for your feline patients here:

Both dogs and cats suffer from arthritis. Cats and small dogs are smaller so they carry their weight easier than an older larger breed dogs. Overweight pets suffer the most with arthritis. Pets are amazing when it comes to dealing with arthritis. Both dogs and cats rarely cry out because of sore joints. They may be slower at getting up or moving around, but vocalization is rare. That being said owners at home are moving and manipulating their arthritics pets like veterinary personnel are.

Older cats have thinner skin so pulling up on the cat’s scruff around its sore arthritic neck is never appropriate. Pulling on back legs to get a blood sample from the medial saphenous may be painful and lying the cat on its side for a radiograph may elicit aggression.

Small dogs may try to bite when picked up out of cages or from floors. Older dogs may yelp when forced into a sit or down position. Rolling a vein on a front leg for a catheter may be downright painful in a pet with elbow arthritis. Buy floor runners for older dogs who are slipping on the floor so they can walk better.

Older dogs and cats need to have plush bedding. It’s not okay for them to lie on one tiny towel. A nicer bed equals a happier more comfortable pet who is more likely to sleep and therefore heal faster. Clinics should consider investing in foam or orthopedic beds for their older patients.

Most important remember to take the time to spoil every senior pet rotten. Sit with them, pet them, enjoy their company. Every moment is special with our older pet patients.

  1. I like the information about providing senior pets with things that will make life easier and more enjoyable for them.

  2. Absolutely love and agree with all of this! Seniors deserve extra gentility, soft cushy beds and extra kisses!

  3. I have a special spot for our senior patients, the cat cave box is a great idea as well, a lot of times we have cats that try to hide in our cages, definitely will make one of these for our clinic.

  4. I like using boxes as places for cats to feel comfortable We have a few premade “cat houses” out of boxes that we can use when needed

  5. Low entry litter boxes are great! A side can be cut down on a higher sided box too (I had an old arthritic kitty who found “squatting” difficult, and higher sides kept her from splattering walls–problem solved by cutting down a small space she could step through).

  6. Very informative. I agree about how over weight animals will make it difficult when they become seniors

  7. This is written is so much compassion and eloquence. Nursing to me is so important, and the older guys will most definitely get special treatment for various reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I do not neglect my young healthy patients LOL. I know that I would treat my sick and elderly patient as if it were my own

  8. I absolutely love this article because this is how WE would want to be treated in old age…with respect and dignity! And everyone deserves comfort =]
    Do you have a preference for a specific brand or type of rubber/vinyl/etc. mat to put down in the large kennels or runs under the padded bedding? I’ve been trying to figure out what to use that would be non-slip, so our patients also have that extra footing.

  9. In my clinic I am the queen of comfort. I make dog beds and can relate to older pets and having chronic pain. So I always take special care for my older and even some younger patients, when thinking of their comfort, which can help the recovery process and decrease their hospital stay.

  10. I loved the hideway box “Cat Cave”. If you have volunteers, sitting with the pet works well. I sat with a large dog in my lap the whole time he was there, and the owner gave me a big hug for loving their pet.

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