Parenting Perspective: Aging pets

The Murphy's cat, Henry, turns 18 on Christmas Day.
David Murphy says pets can be a vital part of any family's life, which makes it harder when they start showing their age.
December 21, 2011 6:41:51 AM PST
The Murphy's are cat people. It's a generational thing. My wife's parents had cats. My parents bought me and my sisters our first feline when I was about 7-years-old. They even let me help name the thing, which is largely why it was called, "Catt" (a lesson to parents thinking about ceding naming rights). Catt didn't last all that long because back then, most cat owners in suburbia thought it was cruel to make their felines stay indoors all the time. Catt found out otherwise. He got into a fight with some other animal (it could've been anything from another cat to a raccoon, according to the vet) and my parents had to put him down because of the severity of his injuries. The next cat, "Sam", was hit by a car and suffered the same fate, also at age two.

Nowadays, we're generally smarter about this sort of thing. There are few free-roaming pets around. Dogs are on leashes. Cats are usually perched in the window, either soaking-up the sun or watching what I call Cat TV, the daily drama of cars, pedestrians and birds in motion on the other side of the glass. This seems to suit cats just fine, since most of them make vigorous tracks in the opposite direction whenever the door is flung open.

The result of this change in attitude is that our cats and dogs are outliving their predecessors by as much as 10 times. This is mainly good news. It means that our kids get to enjoy Fido or Fuzz Ball for most of their childhoods and develop real bonds with these animals that can carry into young adulthood in some cases. The bad news is that the family gets an up-close and personal look at the pet aging process and can sometimes have a hard time deciding when a love for the animal should be eclipsed by the realities of a diminished quality of life.

In our case, old man Henry has been exhibiting what our vet says are many of the normal signs of pet aging. He doesn't eat as much as he used to, he's been steadily losing weight over the last few years and he's sleeping more and more. He's also lost his hearing. I'll put aside personal embarrassment for the sake of telling the frank truth by also advising you that Henry no longer can be counted-on to make it to his litter box every time the second of the two primary functions of the intestinal tract come into play.

We've been willing to work around these issues because the cat still enjoys our company, is still interested in sitting on our laps and taking a pleasant scratch and is still able to hop on and off chairs without any obvious signs of discomfort. Basically, he still enjoys being a cat.

But based on the information I received during Henry's recent check-up over at Township Line Animal Hospital (Dr. Silverberg's been our family vet for more than twenty years), I thought it might be helpful to some of you parents and kids out there to know some of the protocol for dealing with aging pets.

First of all, as soon as any behavior changes occur, especially if the animal stops eating, stops grooming, or suddenly doesn't want to be around the family any more, it's time to bring the animal to the vet. The same goes for other more obvious symptoms, of course, like if it appears the animal is having problems walking, is unusually aggressive, or is showing signs of being in pain. None of this necessarily signals the death knell, but the changes can be indications that your pet is not feeling well and it's unfair to the animal to ignore that possibility. During a check-up, the doctor will take an oral history from you, do a physical inspection of your pet and may want to run a comprehensive blood test to get to the bottom of what might be going on. I would recommend that you go along with all of it. In older animals, as with people, problems with organ function, circulation and other maladies can develop. Sometimes, a simple change in diet can help with these problems. In other cases, you may learn your cat or dog has come down with a more serious condition, like kidney failure or cancer.

While these more dire prognoses are indeed scary and will be the source of much consternation for any family, it's always better to know than to ignore. It's important for you and your kids to keep in mind that your pet has no one else on which to depend. Also, a dog or cat, unlike a human being, has no expectation of life beyond what's happening to them at the present moment. They're not thinking about that vacation next summer or the mouse they may get to catch in the fall. All they know is that something isn't right, that it hurts, and that existence is now mainly uncomfortable and probably frightening. At this point, no amount of coddling and comfort you and your kids apply can overcome this discomfort. What's more, an injured or sick animal can become defensive and you may be risking injury by not having it treated.

We've been through the adoption and passing of two cats and a few birds since my kids were young. I can tell you that it's never easy saying good bye, especially since we take good care of our pets and they tend to become a part of our family for many years. But we have an understanding with our kids that runs along the same lines as points I've already made. We are the guardians of our pets. It's our responsibility to provide a pleasant, warm environment for them for as long as they live. But we have an equal responsibility to prevent them from any needless suffering. I've found over the years that bringing a good veterinarian into the discussion really helps you and your kids reach the right decision when things start to go bad. Not only do you get good advice about what's going on, how a certain condition is likely to progress and the signs to look for that could indicate your pet's deterioration, should you decide that it's time to make the hardest decision, a good vet will take you through that process as well.

In the case of an old cat named Clarabelle who developed renal failure, I was allowed to hold her in my arms as medication was administered that sent her into a deep sleep, and then the second drug that quietly stopped her heart. This was no easy job, I will tell you, but my kids and wife appreciated that someone was there with her at that moment and were comforted when I could honestly report that she felt no pain and was perfectly at ease as I gently pet her head and sleep overtook her.

When Henry goes it will probably be even harder, given the roughly two decades we've spent together. But for now, he still gets lots of love around the house and still appreciates it as he always has. He still squints his eyes in that sort of dopey way cats do when they're satisfied (I've always loved that look). And he still takes a lot of pleasure grooming his beautiful white coat. He's on some special food now, since his renal function has become somewhat diminished, and we take care to put him down gently after we've been holding him, in case his bones are growing more brittle. He's still our good, old cat. And when the time comes and he can no longer live happily and relaxed, the kids and parents in our house understand that we'll call-in the vet again and take the needed steps to prevent him from being scared or in pain. We owe him that. All pet-owning families do.

---David Murphy

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