My Labrador, like many of the best pets, wasn’t a planned adoption. My dog-eating cat had recently passed away, however, and I had decided I was ready for dog ownership just about the time he came along. He was sweet, gentle, and in the words of his foster parent, the kind of dog that was “ready to get up and go if you wanted playtime, but otherwise content to rest by the fire.” Our relationship began in the middle of a particularly harsh Maine winter. I spent many afternoons skidding on ice-slicked back roads and cursing fervently under my breath as we learned the delicate dance of leash walking together. Eager to please and highly food motivated, he caught on before long. It was even easier to train him to stay off the furniture (well, so long as we don’t count stealing food from counters and tables). This seemed to be almost built-in. My brother-in-law, who finds the no-dogs-on-furniture rule to be offensively species-ist, confessed that he had once coaxed Loki onto the couch when I wasn’t around; when he reluctantly complied, he just sat there looking confused and miserable.
So when almost a decade later I came home to catch him sleeping on the sofa, I knew something was up. Although his expression indicated he knew he was in trouble, he didn’t get off right away, either. After a few repeat offenses and scoldings, he tried sneaking onto my son’s bed instead. Stopping to think about it, I realized Loki had indeed been looking rather stiff when he first got up lately.
Being both a nerd and a veterinarian (can those two be separated?), once I decided his bed was the problem, I got busy on the internet, researching orthopedic beds and and poring over reviews. I finally settled on mail-order purchasing a Kuranda cot despite my skepticism about the looks of the thing. It resembled the uncomfortable fold-up cot I was forced to sleep on when camping as a kid (if I was lucky enough not to have to sleep on the ground). The price struck me as steep for something constructed of PVC pipe and canvas, but users raved about them and how much their big dogs loved them. And what do you know…he took right to it and hasn’t been on the couch since (to you skeptics- he sheds. A LOT. I would know!).
So what was up with that? Even on a soft bed, the hard floor underneath can become a problem for large dogs with joint pain. I often point out a change in sleeping location as a sign of arthritis, and this is a classic example. With attentiveness and a healthy dose of creativity, we can make life for our aging pets much happier and enjoyable with some simple changes to their environment.
Mobility is particularly challenging for larger pets. A small dog or a cat can readily be carried from place to place, lifted onto their favorite couch, and taken outside to do their business. In fact, this is often the case already for a lot of small dogs, whom we in the profession lovingly joke about having feet that “never touch the ground.” However, even our short-legged buddies can benefit from a little extra help sometimes. Let’s look at some of the changes we might observe in an aging pet, and what we can do about it.
Change in Sleeping Location
In addition to large dogs having difficulty being comfortable on the floor, smaller dogs may find it increasingly hard to get themselves onto the owner’s bed to sleep at night, or onto the couch to cuddle with the family. If their bed is in an elevated location, they might abandon it altogether if getting to it becomes too painful or even impossible. They may even forgo time with the family to find a sleeping spot that they can access more easily.
Luckily, there is no shortage of clever products to help pets overcome these obstacles; the DIYers amongst us can have some fun constructing their own mobility solutions for the family pet. Easy examples would be portable stairs and ramps. Here are some options to consider (Products mentioned in this article are affiliate links to Amazon.com for your convenience. Please click here for more information on what this means.):
For the aging pet, a soft orthopedic bed with plenty of padding can be a welcome addition. Egg crate foam or memory foam can be purchased in the form of mattress toppers, and cut to create a homemade bed. There is, of course, also a wide variety of pre-made beds to fit all budgets and styles. My early skepticism cast aside, I am a big fan of our easy-to-clean and much loved Kuranda cot, which has held up well for almost three years of heavy use now. Since Kuranda cots are raised off the ground, your pet should be able to get herself into it without assistance. If it is too austere for your taste, Kuranda also sells covers and cushions as accessories.
If your pet is unable to leave the bed unassisted or has accidents, the bed should also include a waterproof covering as well as a removable / washable layer. Finally, an absorbent layer (disposable or washable) on top will help keep him clean and dry. The bed should be placed where your pet most enjoys spending time.
Other Orthopedic Beds
Waterproof Covers and Blankets
Puppy Pads – a good option for the absorbent top layer, if needed. Or if you prefer something washable/reusable, I have used and like these whelping pads.
Difficulty with Stairs and Getting into the Car
Dogs that are too heavy to be lifted into the car or carried up stairs may miss out on enjoyable activities. Most of the ramps linked above are designed to be portable for travel, and some are modified to attach to stairs in the home. Any ramp should be stable and have good traction on the walking surface, so if you DIY this, it will take a little more sophistication than a long piece of plywood to do the job, but they aren’t too complicated. You can find instructions online.
Slings or harnesses can also be helpful in assisting a large dog to his feet, or up stairs: See these Assistive Devices for Lifting
For pets that have so much difficulty with stairs that they could stumble and possibly fall, or if they are generally weak and unstable, a baby gate or other stable barrier should be used to protect them when unsupervised. Gates can be found in most box stores and come in many styles, such as these Baby Gates.
For pets that have hind limb weakness, it can be vexing to gain traction on tile and hardwood flooring. Fortunately, you don’t have to do a full renovation and switch to wall-to-wall carpeting. Thoughtfully placed throw rugs and carpet runners can provide the needed traction where your pet frequently travels. Note that the backing must be non-skid (usually rubber), or you will just make the traction issues worse!
Here are some examples of non-skid carpet runners – quality varies, so choose carefully. Expecting it to take some abuse, I went ahead and purchased a cheap one, figuring it wasn’t going to last long anyway. The cats, as well as one foster puppy, have done a number on it, but it still does its job well.
Many dogs love nothing more than going for a jaunt around the neighborhood. They get mental stimulation as well as exercise from this activity. If walking is no longer possible, a stroller or even a wagon for a bigger pet may allow them to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells around the neighborhood, beach, or park. If car rides aren’t traumatic or associated with stressful vet visits, consider going for a drive instead. If none of those things are practical, you can still just spend some time petting and talking to your companion, either inside or out. It’s often this “together time” with you that’s the most rewarding aspect for your pet.
Boredom is a serious concern for pets that don’t get around well. This is particularly true for working dogs, who are highly intelligent and need to have their “job” in order to feel that all is well with the world. You can create or buy “food puzzles” that will provide entertainment. Some research suggests these games help treat or prevent cognitive dysfunction, and they’re fun to use and watch. Some puzzles, such as the Nina Ottoson line, are intended for you to use along with your pet as a bonding activity, while others are more “set and forget” for times that you need to be away. The television, radio or even a recording of your voice may also be soothing in your absence.
Check some of these out:
Nina Ottoson Interactive Dog Toys – many of these have small parts that could be a chewing hazard. They are meant for you to use together with your pet and range from easy to difficult.
Nylabones – You can drill holes in a Nylabone, stuff it with peanut butter or cheese, and then freeze overnight. Just be aware that enthusiastic chewers have been known to break teeth on these.
Kong Toys – The classic rubber toy can also be filled with peanut butter or cheese, then frozen.
Other Treat-Dispensing Toys – Some of these must be rolled around to get the treat, which can encourage healthy exercise, but may be frustrating to a pet who has a very hard time getting around. (Note, we tried the Kong Wobbler listed on this page, and my Lab was able to knock it over in about three seconds. He then pushed it into some deep dark corner, never to be found until we move again, no doubt.)
With patience and creativity, we can often find workarounds for the challenges we and our pets face as they age. These ideas just scratch the surface, but hopefully they will give you a starting point to helping your pet enjoy his or her golden years to the fullest.