As our pets age, we face many different challenges and changes in our relationships with them. Part of this comes with the transition from companion to caregiver – older pets often require more support, medical care, and supervision, leading to a change in how we spend our time with them and how our pets behave around us. But there’s also the fact that frequently older pets aren’t interested in, or able to, take part in shared favorite activities. Dogs may be less interested in going for car rides or long runs; cats may not sleep in our beds or chase their toys anymore; and these changes impact our bond with them at the same time that we’re facing fear from difficult diagnoses, stress from changing care schedules, and frustration from struggling to medicate our pets or manage the symptoms of their illness or aging.
In times like this, it’s incredibly important to find ways to maintain and support that bond, and to engage with our aging and ailing pets in ways that make them happy and remind us of our love for them and the joy they bring into our lives. Older pets can still be active parts of our families and our lives, and can still be incredible sources of love and happiness, if we’re willing to work with them.
Every pet is different, but there are almost always ways to adapt their favorite activities to fit with their current levels of energy, mobility, and strength. For dogs with arthritis and mobility problems, the change can be as simple as adjusting your walking routines. Shorter walks can still be fun and bonding – or, if your pet isn’t able to walk all the way to the park and back, it may be easier to drive to the park and walk around there, then drive home. Adapting your route can help as well; walking on level ground instead of hilly areas or on surfaces with more traction can help an older pet still enjoy their time outside.
Dogs who used to love to chase toys but aren’t able to run anymore can still engage in their favorite toy by walking after a slowly rolled ball, or a toy that was gently tossed a short distance. If your pet used to love car rides but now gets anxious in the car or can’t jump in anymore, mobility aids may help – a ramp or stairs to get into the car, and a seat belt harness once they’re inside, may help them enjoy this shared activity again.
Older cats may withdraw from family due to unrecognized joint pain – if your kitty isn’t hopping up onto the bed or sofa, talk to your veterinarian to see if they’re actually in discomfort and if there’s anything that can be done medically to treat them. Also, stairs or ramps up to furniture can make it easier for an older pet with arthritis or limited strength to get back to their favorite perches. Older pets also often have diminished senses; toys with brighter colors, bells, or scented with catnip may be more appealing and more likely to encourage them to play and interact – and just like dogs, a few shorter play sessions may be more fun for a pet that tires easily.
Ultimately, think about what you and your pet loved doing together, and talk to your veterinarian. Together, you can put together a plan to keep that shared fun in you and your pet’s life, and keep your relationship with them positive and rewarding at this new stage in their life.