Pets are living healthier lives, thanks to the advances in veterinary medicine and better understanding of their needs, both behavioral and emotional. Healthier also means longer, and that has implications that families might not have expected with their current generation of pets: challenges surrounding age-related decline. Having seen many families through what is now their third generation of pets, and walked with them through their pet’s fourth life stages, there have been so many advances in medication and complementary therapies to enhance comfort — which in turn supports mobility — along with tools in helping that go more smoothly.
All pets experience age-related decline. And I’m going to focus on talking about one area that invariably comes to the forefront: how dogs and cats are able to manage changing mobility and independence with the use of products and tools.
With cats, we know they have certain spots in the house that they really love to hang out in, and they’re usually not floor-level: up on their human’s bed, on a favorite piece of furniture or other spot that’s elevated. The increasing weakness, especially in the rear limbs due to decreased muscle mass and painful osteoarthritis that our feline friends develop often result in not finding them in the places we expect to. Helping them make that transition from jumping up aplomb as we’ve been accustomed to seeing for so many years, to getting a little help to do so independently is as easy as pulling a chair or ottoman next to the desirable area, or investing in a set of portable stairs.
Litter boxes can be another frustration for geriatric kitties, and so getting a vessel that is low enough for their less-able legs and sometimes bigger cabooses to maneuver into and out of, can keep everyone happier. I recommend a few ideas for my families, including a box designed for senior and geriatric cats. For cats with really troublesome mobility, some families find using a boot tray or lid from Rubbermaid-style storage container lined with a disposable pee pad to be ideal, or simply using pee pads on their own.
For dogs, though they’re typically not hopping up on the counter like their feline counterparts, things can be a bit more complex, and that’s for a few reasons. We’re so accustomed to our canine pals simply hopping into the vehicle with relative ease and accompanying us on outings for so long, that its easy to see how we might take that ability for granted as the years go by. Dogs also need to get outside to do their business, and outdoor entries involving stairs can begin to be troublesome to navigate. We start to notice, much like with our feline friends, that dogs do things like hop up on favorite pieces of furniture with less frequency. And as time goes by, some dogs, especially medium and large breeds, need a bit of help getting up and walking about due to hind limb weakness, which has various causes, and the effects of osteoarthritis.
Portable stairs, just as with cats, can be incredibly helpful for dogs in aiding them to get up on furniture, like their human’s bed. Portable ramps, with their durability and sturdiness, can be a boon for getting in and out of a vehicle and with varying designs can be an option to accommodate getting from ground level to a porch or deck and inside so much easier. Some of my families, who are very handy with carpentry, have designed their own for a custom look and grade that have fit in well with their dog's needs without being obtrusive. Ramps are made for indoor use as well. Harnesses designed for mobility-challenged dogs of all sizes (my favorite is the Help ‘Em Up Harness) are probably the most used items in my lending library of tools and products that I have on hand for families-of-record whose pets are in my Animal Hospice Palliative Care program.
And we can't call it a day there.
These items are all helpful in making the lives of companion animals easier and more manageable, every bit as much as for all of their caregivers. But they’re only so if the pet is willing to use them, and as with anything else, we need their cooperation and consent to make that happen.
Pets, just like us, are really good with having a sense of predictability in their day to day. It’s one of the ways they’re able to adapt to subtle changes and those that are not so. And the novelty of these newly-introduced products can often throw things off for them significantly, even though they’re designed to help. I’ve had many a family whose pet is already experiencing markedly-reduced mobility by the time we connect report that the harness, ramp or other product I’ve dropped off is met with not just reluctance, but flat out refusal by the pet – usually a dog. Sometimes we can use positive reinforcement to grease those wheels, but in a lot of cases, there’s no movement. And that’s hard to see happen, because that one tool can make all the difference in a pet being able to negotiate getting outside and back in with the help of a ramp, or a human being able to assist their dog up 3-4 stairs more safely without worry of injuring themselves in the process. And when the pet isn’t able to let it happen, sometimes there are no other options and families need to make different and hard decisions about what makes most sense for their pet’s care options going forward.
Can this be hurdled? Yes.
My advice to every family, is that while their pets are younger, healthier and emotionally more resilient to novelty is to plan ahead – far sooner than they think they’ll ever need to. Do it now. Sitting down and deeply considering a pet’s habits, their size, and their abilities is a start, as well as considering what the floor plan where they are living is like. How about access points to the outdoors and hardscape – do they pose any foreseeable challenges? I encourage families do this every time they move.
Getting some insight from a professional can help tremendously. It’s not uncommon for me to identify possible issues early on, and make recommendations since I’m someone that has the luxury of seeing how a pet does inside and outside the home for myself. Now, the same is true for housecall vets and their teams, but brick-and-mortar vets, since they don’t have the opportunity to see things firsthand, they can be caught rather flat footed if they’re asked for advice. However, they can also give as good of guidance if you snap some footage of the pet’s home living environment with your mobile phone and give them a virtual tour.
Doing all of this early in their life, and then re-assessing as time goes on, can help you identify possible trouble spots and ease your pet into using these tools and products while they’re at their absolute best stage of accepting them. In fact, it tends to be a fun, positive experience, if not neutral. This is especially helpful with a cat’s litterbox arrangements, since they tend to be fussy about that sort of thing.
Onboarding these strategies sooner also has a hidden side benefit: caregivers will be in a mindset where having implemented their use will be far less of an emotional beacon that a pet is declining and instead, to reframe, they’re simply changing and adapting as needed. I’ll note that families who do this experience less anxiety about navigating their companion animal’s fourth life stage, and they are able to better focus on meaningful shared experiences with their furry friends since they don’t see the ramps, harnesses and other tools as reminders of their pet’s inability, rather a transition that results in maintaining their independence and happiness.
As we know, that ability to adapt – for both the pet and the humans – is an asset as a pet ages and promotes resilience and helps maintain the human-animal bond.
With over 20 years of experience in pet care and 8 years focused on animal hospice, Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Fear Free Professional–pet sitter, and CXO of Telos Companion Animal Services, LLC. She is currently in the midst of an Internship with Animal Hospice Group in their Animal Hospice Palliative Care Practitioner certification program. She can be found at lorrieshaw.com.