NASHVILLE — It’s 2 in the morning, and it has just started to rain. It’s a gentle rain, with no threat of high winds or lightning. I know this without having to get up to peer into the dark night or put on my glasses to check the weather app on my phone. I know the facts of this meteorological reality without even opening my eyes because there is a large dog with halitosis now standing beside my bed, panting.
I’m grateful it’s only a rain shower. If this were a thunderstorm, Clark would be pacing the house, climbing into bathtubs and struggling to get out again, hunching under desks and overturning the chairs pushed up to them, knocking guitars from their stands — seeking shelter. He’s afraid of the rain, but he’s driven mad by thunderstorms.
On stormy nights, my husband gets up to force a tablet of dog-strength Xanax down Clark’s throat, and for an hour we will both lie in the dark, sleepless, while the dog staggers around the house in a state of now-drunken anxiety. Eventually, the human tranquilizer will override the canine despair, and we’ll all go back to sleep.
Thirty years ago my husband wanted to establish a ceiling for any veterinary bills that might be incurred by the cat he had just acquired by marriage. He said, “If the cat needs something that costs more than a hundred dollars, I say we opt for the $40 shot and go get a new cat.”
It was my cat, so my vote counted more than he did, and the cat lived to a ripe old age. But in my husband’s defense, I should mention that his formative years were spent in the small-town South, where humane people went out in the yard and shot an animal if it was suffering. I should also mention that, in 1988, we were paying student loans on the salaries of first-year schoolteachers, and $100 was more money than we spent on our own food or medicine.
My husband would have found it impossible to believe that 30 years later he would be running around the house in his boxers, trying to tackle an ancient 70-pound mutt in the dark and shove a pill down his throat.
Clark is also deaf, and he suffers from crippling arthritis. So far we have been able to manage his pain with medication, but at his checkup last year, when he turned 13, the vet had some sobering news. “With big dogs, there’s often a huge difference between 12 and 13,” he said. “One day Clark won’t be able to get up, and when that happens it’ll be time to let him go.”
The very idea is unthinkable. Clark has been our family protector, making political canvassers and religious zealots think twice about knocking on our door. He was the dog of our sons’ childhood, the pillow they sprawled on during Saturday-morning cartoons, the security blanket they returned to after an impossible test or a classroom bully or, later, a broken heart.
At 14, this big dog has now surpassed his life expectancy, but he is not the oldest dog in our house.
We are also the custodians of my late mother’s ancient miniature dachshund, Emma, who is seven months older. She obliterated any thought of vet-bill caps in her first three months under our care.
Emma has survived countless trips to the emergency clinic because she is the most accomplished food thief her canny breed has ever produced. She dragged an entire pound of dark chocolate bonbons under the guest bed and ate them before anyone noticed a lone fluted paper wrapper in the middle of the floor and wondered where it had come from. Rummaging through visitors’ purses, she has consumed whole packages of gum, pouches of dusty Tums and, once, a zip-lock bag full of prescription medications.
There’s no room here to tell the whole story of the time Emma ate a tray of rat poison at a rented fishing cabin on Kentucky Lake, but it involves a manic drive down a twisting highway as the whole family peered through the trees for a sign of any kind of store that might sell hydrogen peroxide. You don’t know the real value of the human community if you’ve never poured hydrogen peroxide down an eight-pound dog’s throat in the parking lot of a Family Dollar store with half a dozen rural Kentuckians offering advice. Let me tell you, country people know what to do when a dog eats rat poison. NYTimes.
Caring For Your Older Dog
As you know – well, as you should know, and need to find out if you don’t – all puppies eventually become grown-up dogs, then very grown-up dogs. Just like older humans, dealing with older dogs carries with it a unique set of challenges, needs, and responsibilities.
So he’s got a few gray hairs! Don’t we all? What’s the big deal?
Just because your pooch doesn’t show you all of the effects of his increasing age doesn’t mean they’re not real.
Dogs aim to please and would rather play than nurse a sore limb, so why would you think they’d make their pain in aging obvious? Many times, owners realize that their dogs are suffering from the effects of aging before the dogs themselves, particularly dogs that have a very playful, rambunctious nature.
Your pup doesn’t really have a concept of time (ever wonder why he’s just as happy to see you after an hour apart as he is when you’ve been gone for a week?), so he doesn’t understand what’s happening to his body.
He may be confused about the pains he’s feeling, and he’ll look to you to help him deal with them.
Even though modern veterinary medicine can help your pooch live a much longer, healthier life than he could have even 20 years ago, he’ll still eventually make it to the last few years of his life.
While the most obvious signs of aging occur on the outside – lighter fur on his snout, face, and throughout his coat – there are many changes going on inside his body. Although you can’t see the changes themselves, you’ll probably start to notice the symptoms.
You may just notice that he’s slowed down a bit, that his reflexes are a little more sluggish. He may stop eating quite as much but, mysteriously, he still gains some weight. You call and call his name, but he won’t pay attention unless you’re within five feet of him. Then there are the symptoms that can trouble even the most stoic dog owner.
The eyes that once lit up and sparkled so much you thought you could see them from miles away are now slower, dimmer, and maybe even cloudy.
He may run into walls and doors every now and then, and his teeth and breath are getting progressively nastier. Maybe he’s started having accidents on the carpet or seems to forget that he’s not allowed in certain rooms. Not a pretty picture, huh? Well, think about your older human friends and family.
It’s not fun to watch them get older, but it’s inevitable. The important thing is to remember that this is your pup, he doesn’t understand what’s happening to his body, and he needs you. What can I do? I’m not Father Time. No, but you can certainly make the years you have left with him more comfortable. Make it a priority to spend more time with him.
During that time, give him casual examinations by running your hands over his coat and checking for lumps on and below his skin.
If you notice discharge from any area – particularly if it smells or has an odd texture – call your veterinarian immediately.
Check his joints routinely for swelling, as arthritis and other joint problems can make an elderly dog feel even older. Unlike his younger years, your pooch won’t be able to recover as quickly from illness and injury.
This means you need to be quicker on the draw when contacting your vet, as even the most severe problems can often be cured or improved if detected soon enough. Keep his stress level at a minimum by reducing the level of outside activity and turmoil in his life.
Refrain from things that seem simple, like rearranging the furniture, as the extra commotion can turn up his nerves and reduce the amount of good his immune system can do against outside invaders.
If his vision is deteriorating even a small amount, he can easily lose track of new furniture locations and bump into more and more things as he walks around. If you suddenly started losing your vision, would you want people changing the layout of your home without consulting with you?
Because his energy level is lower, it may seem rational that his activity level should reduce with it.
This isn’t the case. Aging can be slowed down substantially or made less painless by regular exercise and good health. While he may not chase Frisbees or cats like he used to, he’d still love daily brisk walks with his owner. These can have a great effect on his overall health, too.
Since they’ll keep his muscle tissue up, his metabolism will increase and help burn off that extra fat. Regular exercise can also help alleviate joint problems (as long as it’s not too strenuous).
Just as with overweight dogs, swimming is a fantastic workout option for the aging pooch. It’s low impact, fun, and burns a ton of calories. Don’t worry if he seems to need to rest a bit longer after workouts, he’s just listening to his body.