Growing old gracefully: Tips for helping a senior pet

ST Meeks Blog Logo Image 2016 01 28There’s something so rewarding about living with a senior pet. You’ve spent years developing a bond, so of course you want to do everything possible to ensure your pet’s golden years are happy and comfortable.

That’s the case for Diane Robbins, who wrote to me about her senior pug. She’s 12 years old and both her eyesight and hearing are greatly diminished. She’s also having urine accidents on occasion. Diane wants to know what she can do to help her beloved companion continue to have a good quality of life.

The great news is that advances in veterinary medicine mean pets are living longer, happier lives. The most important step pet parents can take to ensure a better quality of life is to schedule regular examinations with your family veterinarian. Most pets over age 7 require twice-a-year exams with full bloodwork. This can help catch some of the more common health issues pets experience with age, including urinary tract infections, diabetes and kidney disease. Early detection is the key to better treatment and a more successful outcome.

Although many of us assume that incontinence is an age-related issue, it’s typically not. In most cases, there is an underlying health problem. So if your pet suddenly starts having accidents in the house, I would strongly recommend you schedule an appointment with your family veterinarian.

Just like in humans, pets tend to experience failing eyesight and hearing as they age. Because these changes aren’t painful, and pets don’t grieve physical losses like we do, they typically adjust well to their changing circumstances.

While diminishing eyesight is common as an animal ages, blindness is not and can represent a disease process. In some cases, such as cataracts, blindness can be reversed if diagnosed early. This is another reason to visit your family vet if you feel your dog is losing eyesight.

Pets who do go completely blind may bump into things for a month or two. But a majority will memorize the layout of their home and yard and can function normally, or very close to normally. They can continue to lead very happy lives with a little help from you.

Here are a few things you can do to help a pet with failing eyesight:

  • Confine your pet to a smaller area and then gradually expand it. This allows your pet to memorize one area at a time and then slowly add to his or her mental map.
  • Be very cautious around stairs. Work with your pet, placing treats on the stairs as encouragement. Be patient during the learning process.
  • Keep furniture as consistent as possible, and consider padding the edges of sharp furniture while your pet is learning.
  • It’s not unusual for a pet to display some behavioral changes after vision loss. Avoid stressing or scaring blind pets. Ask family members to say the pet’s name and approach slowly. A pet’s fear usually diminishes with time.

Thanks for writing, Diane. We hope you have many more happy years with your pug!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.