Australian shepherd with toy
Schrader. Photo by Charlotte Waack.
If you’ve had even one pet, you know they do not live as long as we would like. For many of us, it is hard to watch our pet grow old, but I am a cup half full type of person so I try to see the upside of living with an older pet. My Australian Shepherd, Schrader, is now 12 1/2 years old. We brought him to our home when he was just eight weeks old, and he has lived his whole life with me and my husband.
Even though we know Schrader’s time on this earth is limited, we find humor in living with an old dog. He still plays with toys whenever he can grab them before our terror of a Corgi manages to steal them right out of his mouth. He still loves to chase tennis balls, but during the winter when we play in the house, we turn on all of the lights so he can see where the balls go. Of course, he still loves to play Frisbee but we now just toss it a couple of feet instead of flinging it an acre away. He passes gas whenever he lays down, long loud farts that make us laugh. Schrader likes to attempt chasing the four-wheeler and the golf cart, but he poops out a lot sooner than he used to, and the next day he is a lot slower getting up as his chasing has made his joints a bit stiff. Some days he is just an old man wandering around his kingdom and taking stock.
We cherish the days that he acts like a puppy whether it is because he feels good or maybe because his brain is not firing on all cylinders. Why he does doesn't matter; I just love it when he does.
Veterinary medicine has come a long way since when I entered the field back in 1990. We have treatments and medications to help our pets live longer lives. Physical rehabilitation and acupuncture are used to help manage pain. Medications and diets may help with cognitive dysfunction. Very cool stuff! Working with your veterinarian to come up with a plan to help keep your pet healthy is an important step in owning an older pet. Checkups and blood work twice a year can help to catch some of the health issues and any issue is easier to turn around or slow down when treatment is started early. Life is good for our seniors compared to what used to be available.
Making small changes in your house to accommodate your elderly pet can help too. You can buy steps or a ramp to help dogs get up on the bed or in the car, and with those dogs expend less effort than jumping and less risk of causing back issues. Orthopedic beds are also sold or can easily be made. Not changing the layout of your furniture is important for dogs who are losing their vision. Using raised food and water dishes can help with their digestion and make it easier to reach. We now have several dog beds for Schrader to choose from as he moseys throughout his day. We also have those daily pill dispensers to ensure he never misses a dose. The happier he is, the happier I am!
We love him so much at this age, and I think about what’s happened in all the years we’ve been together.
There is no denying that puppies are cute, but they are also a lot of work! Before you bring a puppy home you have to puppy-proof your house.
Once the puppy is at your house there is house-training, which can take four months to accomplish (some dogs grasp it immediately, some never quite get it). You have to start training from day one so your puppy learns manners and can become a good companion instead of a chewing, leash-pulling monster. You have costs involved with the vaccination series, neuter or spay, basic obedience and socialization classes, replacing chewed shoes and socks, and for those with carpets a carpet shampooer because – don’t kid yourself about this – there are accidents. Perhaps some of us can get away with just renting one a few times. Then there’s money spent on necessary items such as leashes, collars, bowls, toys; useful items such as crates, beds; and even unnecessary items, such as clothes and baby blankets.
Once you get through what I term “puppy hell,” you get to the fun part. With Schrader we had a lot of fun his first 10 years. Australian Shepherds are herding dogs and they can be quite intense, especially when it comes to playing. Schrader could run and catch Frisbees for hours if we had the time to throw them for him. We chose the floor plan of our new house because it had a tennis ball-throwing path for indoor play during our cold Midwest winters. We named him after a favorite NASCAR driver, Kenny Schrader, and he used to run in circles in our yard going about 100 miles per hour. If we could have bottled his energy, it could have been used to build our house! Schrader is a true clown of a dog, providing hours of laughs in his youth.
As the years went by though, he started developing what I term old dog issues. All of that jumping to catch Frisbees and tennis balls was hard on Schrader’s joints. He developed arthritis in his front carpi (equivalent to the wrist on humans). He started having a little trouble going up steps at night and seeing the tennis balls we threw inside the house due to age-related cataracts, Schrader had always been pretty good about loud noises, but the last couple of years he’s started to show anxiety during storms, Fourth of July fireworks, and hunting season. He would pant, panic, try to hide in closets or the bathtub, shiver, and drool. These panicked episodes broke my heart because there seemed to be nothing I could do to comfort him. All of these issues are part of the normal aging process for some dogs.
Over this past year, we have also seen Schrader have some cognitive issues, such as barking for no reason while staring into space, licking his feet almost obsessively, becoming restless, and sleeping a lot deeper than before. Much like the noise aversion issues, there is not much we can do to stop these old-age behaviors. When he gets into his barking fits, it is like he is deaf and does not respond to commands to stop. I try hugging him and gently petting him to remind him I am still here and that he is safe, but he does not respond. It is almost like he is in a trance and does not see, feel or hear anything outside of his mind.
As a veterinary technician, I know that all of these are common changes for older dogs. But some days are harder than others because I want Schrader to live forever and always be the happy puppy we brought home 12 years ago. Some days are better than others because he acts like the dog I know so well.
Other age-related issues dogs may experience, which Schrader may or may not get in the future, include:
We also know that one day we will take him on his last car ride and help him cross over the Rainbow Bridge. Modern veterinary medicine offers us treatments to help keep our pets around a lot longer than we could 20 years ago. My main concern with Schrader is to keep him comfortable and happy as long as I can. I have fears that my husband and I will hang on too long, keeping him around because it will hurt so deeply to let him go, hurt as though our hearts were punctured. My veterinary technician education and experience helps a little there, but veterinary medical professionals can lose objectivity when it comes to their own pets. When it comes time for Schrader to leave us, I will be right there with him and the last thing he will feel are my arms around him. It's a kindness I can give him in partial repayment of all the happiness and laughs he's given us. Losing Schrader will be especially difficult for my husband because Schrader is his buddy, his constant shadow.
I have lived with and taken care of many old dogs in my career. I always find joy in these creatures because they are such a large part of who we are. Their time with us is limited and it is our privilege to share that time.
January 10, 2020
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.