What Your Animal Companion Can’t Tell You but You Need to Know

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6 min read

Picture this: You’ve decided to retire in an exotic foreign country, where you don’t know the language. A friendly native looks after you but doesn’t really understand how you feel because of the language barrier. Over the years, you start to get some aches and pains, and eventually everything hurts. Your joints ache so much that it can be hard to stand up and walk—sometimes you even trip and fall, which makes you hurt even more. You used to love to be outdoors, to go for a run, but now that’s impossible—you can hardly keep your balance anymore.

To make matters worse, your eyesight is going and you can’t hear anymore, so you’re out of touch with what’s happening in the world. All you can really do is lie around and sleep, but that’s so boring, and besides, the throbbing pain in your joints keeps you from sleeping well. Your liver is worn out, so you often feel queasy, and you also get diarrhea, but you can’t hold it long enough to get your achy, stiff body to the bathroom. So you have accidents. You feel so ashamed.

You wish you could tell your caretaker all the things that are bothering you—you’ve also got an infected tooth that hurts, an itchy rash on your leg, an ingrown toenail, and a strange heavy feeling in your chest. Sometimes you can’t catch your breath and you breathe harder these days as you struggle to fill your lungs. No one really looks at you much anymore, so no one notices how badly your health has deteriorated and how poor your quality of life has become. You don’t enjoy life anymore and have very little left to live for. But there’s no escape. Every morning, you wake up and have to face that relentless pain yet again …

Senior dog

‘Old Age Ain’t No Place for Sissies’

—Bette Davis

Truer words were never spoken, and they apply equally to our animal companions. As they begin to age, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 9, depending on size, their bodies undergo many changes that can sneak up on their guardians if they aren’t paying close attention.

That’s why it’s vital to put your hands on your animals every day, not only to show them affection and reassure them that you care but also to check them over thoroughly: Peek into their mouths and ears, check under their tails, part their fur, examine their feet, including pads and nails, and run your hands over their entire body. Never assume that a strange new behavior or symptom is “just old age.” Feel, look, sniff, and notice—you are searching for problems that could make your animal pal uncomfortable or be life-threatening. Your animal needs and depends on you to notice and watch for signs that something is amiss. And if something is amiss, every second counts!

Senior dog

Not Just for Seniors: Symptoms That Call for Your Immediate Attention at Any Age

What are the warning signs of health problems that you should look for? Here’s a list organized by body part:

  • Behavior: lethargy, excessive sleepiness, depression, withdrawal, lack of interest, whimpering, panting, grumpiness, nipping, aggression, confusion/disorientation, walking in circles
  • General: bloated/distended stomach, muscle atrophy, sudden weight loss or gain, emaciation, obesity, dehydration (skin does not spring back when pinched up), hunching over, head hanging, increased water intake, increased urination, notably diluted or concentrated urine
  • Coat: matted fur, oiliness, coarseness, bad odor, excessive shedding, dander, dullness, hair loss, patchiness
  • Skin: redness, rawness, oozing, hotspots, lumps, warts, scabs, parasites (fleas, tick), itchiness
  • Skeleton: stiffness, difficulty getting up or walking, inability to groom, limping, limited range of motion, lack of coordination, abnormal placement or positioning of the limbs, abnormal wearing of the toes, reluctance to engage in physical activity
  • Eyes: squinting, cloudiness, filminess, wateriness, dryness, itchiness (pawing), discharge, swelling, discoloration, redness, showing third eyelid, poor eyesight
  • Ears: head shaking, head tilt, itchiness, scabbiness, matted fur, foul smell, redness, crustiness, black or pus-like discharge, thickening of flaps, hematoma, loss of hearing
  • Nose: discharge, scabbiness, cracks, crustiness, congestion, blocked
  • Mouth: bad odor, tartar/plaque on teeth, redness of gums, receding gums, pale gums, broken or cracked teeth, loose teeth, excessive salivation/drooling, difficulty chewing/swallowing, reduced interest in chew toys
  • Respiratory: wheezing, labored breathing, irregular breathing, shallow breathing, rapid breathing, coughing, gagging, reverse sneezing, congestion, open-mouth breathing
  • Digestive: loss of appetite, diarrhea, loose stools, bloody stools, black stools, straining, constipation, vomiting
  • Anus/Genitals: redness, discharge, swelling, unusual odor, excessive licking, chewing, scooting
  • Feet: overgrown or ingrown nails, split nails, lick granulomas (inflamed, raw patches of skin caused by excessive licking), paw abrasions, tenderness, unusual defensiveness with regard to feet

Many of these symptoms are caused by conditions that are highly treatable, so if you see any of them, be sure to get your animals to the veterinarian right away so you can start them on the road to recovery and feeling better.
Senior cat

The Do’s and Don’ts of Caring for a Senior Animal

  • Do elevate your animal’s food and water bowls so that they don’t have to crouch down to eat and drink.
  • Do walk, play with, and exercise your animal—movement and activity are good for every system in the body.
  • Do make sure that your dog gets more frequent bathroom breaks and your cat has access to a clean litterbox at all times.
  • Do help animals stay warm in winter (coats, sweaters, heating pads) and cool in summer (kiddie swimming pools, fans, air conditioning, a shave at the groomer’s, specially designed cooling jackets or beds).
  • Do provide nonskid flooring indoors (cover hardwood floors, tile, or linoleum with rubber-backed rugs or rubber yoga mats).
  • Do provide animals with comfortable, quality bedding to cushion their aging joints.
  • Do give your animal a safe, quiet, and peaceful place to retreat to.
  • Do consider putting a permanent ramp for dogs over your steps and carrying a collapsible one in your car.
  • Do get blood work done once or twice a year, even if you think nothing is wrong.
  • Don’t let your animal jump out of your vehicle or off the couch or bed.
  • Don’t assume that health problems are just an inevitable symptom of old age—seek professional advice from a trusted veterinarian.
  • Don’t put your animal through painful surgeries or other procedures that have little chance of prolonging life, that come with a lengthy or difficult rehabilitation, and/or that will result in a poor quality of life (e.g., amputating a leg in an attempt to cure bone cancer).

Know When to Say ‘When’ on Your Animal’s Behalf

Some conditions are not treatable and cause considerable discomfort. If your animal is in pain every day and/or has a terminal illness, don’t prolong the agony just because the decision to euthanize is hard on you. Put your animal’s pain first. Our animals deserve a dignified, peaceful death—timed to take place BEFORE things become unbearable. When in doubt, consult with someone whose judgment you trust. Get a second opinion and a third if you need to, but if your gut tells you that your animal is suffering, don’t delay—arrange for euthanasia as quickly as possible, preferably at home, surrounded by loved ones.

Aging is inevitable, but suffering isn’t, so let’s do everything we can to make sure our animal companions’ golden years are comfortable, healthy, and happy.


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