Making the decision to euthanize a pet is the hardest thing a pet parent has to do. However, deferring or avoiding the decision can allow a degree of suffering that no one would deliberately wish on their loyal companion. Natural death is rarely humane. But how do you know when the kindest act you can offer is to plan to say goodbye? How do you know when your beloved companion is ready to cross the “Rainbow Bridge”?
Some people have a difficult time with the thought of euthanasia. They might feel like they’re “playing God,” and feel besieged by guilt. It’s important to remember that the illness, disease, or injury is causing the end of life, not you. Here are some of the key questions to ask yourself:
Has your pet lost his/her quality of life?
Is your animal suffering?
Can you maintain your pet’s normal routines?
Are there behavioral problems that compromise the safety and well-being of your pet or others?
Are there human limitations (emotional, timing, or financial) that you must consider? While it may be difficult to admit that any of these limitations may be the reason you are considering euthanasia, they are among the most common reasons for euthanasia.
What do you think your pet wants?
Quality of Life Assessment Help
Your routine veterinarian, or the Heaven at Home Pet Hospice team, may be able to assist you in assessing the quality of life of your senior pet, but we can’t make the decision for you. Pet parents play a pivotal role in assessing a pet’s quality of life because they are direct observers of the day-to-day signals of their pet’s condition. Your veterinarian team can help you manage aspects of pain, reduce suffering, and make changes that help in daily care.
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Many of Heaven At Home’s clients have found assistance and comfort by using the resources and assessment tools of Ohio State University’s “Honoring the Bond” program. The 2019 edition of “How Will I Know” addresses making difficult medical treatment decisions, dispells many euthanasia myths, and offers a comprehensive assessment questionnaire, together with anticipatory grief advice for pet parents, companion animals, and children.
In addition, our team finds this short “Quality of Life” Scorecard below helpful for our clients.
Contact us if you’d like assistance in your assessment, or feel ready to plan a peaceful and compassionate end to your fur friend’s life story.
Knowing when to say goodbye is hard, but with the right support, advice, and planning, it can be a beautiful final gift to give your beloved pet for his or her years of loyal companionship.
Quality of Life Scorecard
Score patients using a scale of 1 to 10. (1=no/disagree; 10=yes/agree).
1 – 10
HURT – First and foremost on the scale: Is pain control adequate? This includes breathing ability. Is the pet’s pain successfully managed? Are extra measures like oxygen necessary?
1 – 10
HUNGER – Is the pet eating enough and getting proper nutrition? Is hand-feeding necessary? Does the patient require a feeding tube?
1 – 10
HYDRATION – Is the patient appropriately hydrated? Can they drink enough on their own, or do they require supplementation via subcutaneous or intravenous fluids?
1 – 10
HYGIENE – Can the patient keep themselves clean? Does it require assistance? (Patients should be brushed and cleaned, particularly after elimination. Appropriate bedding to avoid pressure sores, keep any wounds clean/dressed, etc).
1 – 10
HAPPINESS – Does the pet express joy and interest? Is the pet responsive and interactive to things around him or her (family, toys, etc.)? Is the pet depressed, lonely, anxious, bored or afraid? Can the pet’s hospice area or bed be close to the family activities and not be isolated?
1 – 10
MOBILITY – Can the patient get up and about? Does the pet need human or mechanical assistance (e.g., a cart)? Does the pet feel like going for a walk? Is the pet having seizures or stumbling?
1 – 10
MORE GOOD DAYS THAN BAD – Do the good hours or days outnumber the bad ones? When bad days outnumber good days, quality of life might be compromised. When a healthy human-animal bond is no longer possible, the caregiver must be made aware the end is near. The decision needs to be made if the pet is suffering. If death comes peacefully and painlessly, that is okay.
*A total over 35 points generally represents acceptable life quality
Adapted from Villalobos, A.E., Quality of Life Scale Helps Make Final Call, VPN, 09/2004, for Canine and Feline Geriatric Oncology Honoring the Human-Animal Bond, by Blackwell Publishing, Table 10.1, released 2006.
Nine years ago, a mere 30 veterinarians gathered to discuss ways to help bring comfort to aging pets and help pet parents know when it’s time to say goodbye. That was the dawning of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC). Earlier this month, ten times that number gathered in Chicago to learn about trends in the emerging field.
“Research shows that more and more Americans are opting for pet hospice,” said Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice and early graduate of the IAAHPC’s new certification program.
“I got involved in home hospice in the early days because I firmly believe in pro-active comfort management and helping pet parents make small changes that can greatly improve a pet’s comfort.”
To celebrate the upcoming National Animal Hospice awareness day November 2nd, we’re sharing some of the elements involved in “Animal Hospice.”
It’s More Than Home Euthanasia Services
Animal hospice and palliative care provide comfort to companion animals as they approach the end of life. Services from the veterinarian team may include treatment for pain and anxiety management plus nutritional management specific to the pet’s condition. The primary goal is to relieve – or avoid – suffering.
The veterinarian team can also help pet parents assess the pet’s quality of life and teach pet parents ways to improve end-of-life care. Good pet hospice care is a team effort.
Things to Consider in Pet Hospice
Pet parents can manage many aspects of pet hospice themselves, while they will need veterinarian assistance with other aspects. These are the key areas to consider:
As part of pet pain awareness month, we published an article earlier this month about identifying and managing pain in members of your fur family. In this second installment, we’ll share a handy infographic to help identify pain in cats and dogs and include the American Animal Hospital Association’s article summarizing its guidelines in layman’s terms.
Pain Management Approach for Senior Companion Animals:
The Heaven at Home team takes a “multimodal” approach to helping manage pain in palliative pets. We are firm supporters of the AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, and subscribe to the “Continuum of Care” philosophy inherent in it. This means that pet parents and routine care veterinarians are part of the pain management planning process and that pain management should include anticipation, early intervention and evaluation.
During home visits, one of the team’s veterinarians will evaluate your pet’s condition and assess things that can be changed in the home environment to help your pet stay a part of the family. They will review records from your routine care veterinarian if available, and give you pain assessment guidelines so that you can also monitor and rate your pet’s pain behaviors. Together, we then develop a pain management plan for your pet. The plan may include a number of elements depending on the underlying cause of pain, which could be from arthritis, cancer, or any number of life-limiting illnesses.
From AAHA: 9 Things You Need to Know About AAHA’s Pain Management Guidelines:
Pets can’t tell us when something hurts—in fact, they can be experts at hiding pain. Cats are particularly adept at masking injury and illness because they instinctively hide signs of weakness from potential predators. Too often, “bad behavior” in both dogs and cats—like urinary or fecal “accidents,” aggression when handled, or refusing to follow commands to climb the stairs—actually has an underlying medical cause.
Because pain management is central to veterinary medical practice—and because there have been rapid advances in the field—AAHA collaborated with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) to create the AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.
What you need to know
Behavioral changes are the principal indicator of pain. Pay close attention to any changes in your pet’s normal behavior. For instance, what we sometimes attribute to “old age” could actually be arthritis. A cat eliminating outside the litter box might simply be because he’s unable to climb into it.
Know the warning signs. Your dog or cat might be in pain if you notice decreased activity or appetite, lethargy, vocalization, restlessness, aggression, less interaction with pets and people, dilated pupils, or reacting with a flinch to touch in a sensitive area. Signs of pain in cats may also include flattened ears, an elongated muzzle, decreased grooming, or hiding. If you see any signs of pain, call your veterinarian.
Reduce risk factors. You can help prevent pain with regular visits to the veterinarian for dental care and by helping them maintain a healthy weight, since decaying or otherwise damaged teeth can cause a serious toothache and obesity can lead to aching joints. Nutrition and exercise will go a long way to a healthier pet.
If your pet is in pain, keep everyone calm. Unfortunately, pain can cause a pet to lash out at even the most well-meaning caregiver because fear and anxiety can amplify pain. Be as gentle as possible when handling your pet and speak soothingly, but also be careful not to get hurt in the process.
Your pet may be experiencing several pathways of pain. Your veterinarian may recommend multiple pain medications to be given at the same time. That’s because pain can be controlled in many ways to decrease soft tissue, bone/joint, and nerve pain.
There’s more to pain relief than medication. Modern veterinary medicine involves an integrated approach to pain management, not just prescribing analgesics (painkillers). Cold compression, therapy lasers, acupuncture, physical therapy, weight optimization, and adjustments to the home environment can be complementary options for alleviating pain.
Lifestyle changes can have a huge effect on chronic pain. When a cat or dog suffers from chronic pain, changes in your home can make life easier for everyone. Soft bedding, easy access to food bowls and litter boxes, gates to limit access to stairs, and nonslip rugs can make a big difference in your pet’s day-to-day wellness.
Your veterinary team will routinely evaluate pain at every appointment. Recording a pet’s pain score is considered the “fourth vital sign” after the standard temperature, pulse, and respiration measurements. Be sure to mention any unusual or concerning behavior.
Pain management is a team effort. At home, you are the eyes and ears of your veterinarian, and you’re always the voice for your pet. Never overstep your role by administering pain medications meant for people or another pet, as there can be life-threatening consequences. By recognizing pain quickly and seeking treatment as soon as possible, you’ll alleviate your pet’s suffering and strengthen the bond you share.
Contact the team at Heaven at Home if you need help managing your senior pet’s pain.
Whether you’re heading to the Lake for a summer vacation or staying closer to home to enjoy the great outdoors, be on the lookout for the increasingly pervasive Black Legged (Deer) tick, purveyor of Lyme disease.
Frequent pet checks will help keep your pet – and your family – safe from Lyme disease, which has increased five-fold in the past decade throughout Michigan and is reaching what the CDC is calling epidemic proportions across America. The CDC estimates 300,000 cases last year, making Lyme the fastest growing vector-borne illness.
While lower Michigan had historically been spared a heavy infestation of Black Legged ticks – theoretically preserved from Illinois population due to Lake Michigan – migration continues from several counties in northern Indiana, which have reported ticks infected with B. burdorferi, the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease.
Black Legged ticks have become established throughout the entirety of the Lake Michigan shoreline in the Lower Peninsula. But tick populations are not staying confined to coastal counties, and are becoming established increasingly to the east in the southern part of the state, including Grand Rapids.
According to the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, clinical Lyme disease in domestic animals may involve many organ systems. Fever, loss of appetite, depression, lethargy, swelling and pain in one or more joints, kidney disease, heart disease, and nervous system disorders have all been reported.
“An accurate diagnosis can only be made by a veterinarian. A Lyme disease vaccine is available. Consult your veterinarian about the appropriateness of vaccinating your pet and also to discuss recommendations for avoiding ticks,”
– Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice.
Last year, the FDA granted Nexgard the right to label the medication for Lyme disease prevention after clinical trials showed that the acaricide killed ticks before the disease could be transmitted, which typically takes 24-48 hours. Pet parents should discuss the risks and benefits of parasiticides with their routine care veterinarians because these types of medications all have the risk of possible side effects.
Other Ticks & Diseases Becoming Prevalent in Michigan
In the last decade, diseases spread by ticks, fleas and mosquitos tripled, according to the CDC. While many research papers point to climate change and milder winters for the rise in vector-borne illnesses, our highly mobile population also plays a role. Despite Michigan’s historical “protection” by the surrounding Great Lakes that slow the rise, the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) is predicting increase prevalence of diseases carried by ticks in the Great Lakes area in 2019.
Tick populations mate in the summer, increasing to peak populations in Fall.
Nationally, prevalence rates have risen each of the past 5 years and are now up 20% from 2013 levels, according to CAPC. The organization maintains an interactive map of diseases detected across North America:
Tick Types In Michigan:
Ticks to be on the lookout for include:
American Dog Tick
Black-legged Tick (Deer)
Lone Star Tick
These ticks can carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichia canis, and increasingly, Anaplasmosis.
The major vector of RMSF in Michigan is the American Dog tick, D. variabilis. It can also transmit the bacteria that causes Tularemia, and can harbor the Ehrlichiae bacteria.
In this video by the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), the council explains why the prevalence of the American Dog tick is of such grave concern. Essentially, as a tick that also infects animals in urban areas, it carries great potential to infect not only pets with diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but also another zoonotic disease (which means they can be transmitted to humans) that’s on the rise: Tularemia.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Dogs are very susceptible to RMSF. Other small domestic mammals that are allowed outdoors or have contact with infected ticks may also contract this disease. Signs of RMSF include combinations of fever, lack of appetite, arthritis, shortness of breath, coughing, abdominal pain, nervous system disorders and swelling of the face or extremities. Small hemorrhages on the mucous membranes occur in severe cases. Transmission from dogs to humans does not occur, but people should exercise caution when removing ticks from pets, as the fluids from the tick can carry the RMSF organism.
Ehrlichia canis is the disease in dogs, caused by Ehrlichia canis, and other Ehrlichia species, mimics RMSF.
Tularemia is a bacterial disease caused by Francisella tularensis and is often referred to as rabbit fever. Tularemia is most commonly found in rabbits and rodents, and it survives by creating tumor-like masses and abscesses in the victim animal’s liver. Tularemia is often self-limiting although some dogs experience short periods of poor appetite, lethargy, and mild fever. Less frequently, dogs may show conjunctivitis, uveitis (inflammation in their eyes), draining abscesses, and enlarged lymph nodes.
Anaplasmosis, aka dog fever or dog tick fever, is a tick-borne disease that infects a dog’s bloodstream. The most common form of the disease is transmitted by deer tick bites and infects white blood cells. A second type, carried by the brown dog tick, affects the blood-clotting cells known as platelets. This disease can also infect humans and is common throughout the United States. CAPC predicts it will be highly active in the Great Lake States this year.
How to Check Your Dog for Ticks – What AKC Recommends:
1. Inside of Ears – Ticks sit themselves on tall grasses and shrubs, waiting for your dog to walk by, so they can attach themselves to him. With so many crevices and hiding places, the ears make a perfect home for a hungry tick. When checking your dog, make sure to look deep into the ear, because the ticks can get attached and go unnoticed for a long time. If your dog is shaking and scratching at his ear, it’s a sure sign that something is off, and you’ll want to take a look.
2. Between Toes – Since ticks like to hide in places where they won’t be found, crawling in-between your dog’s toes and attaching there is a common occurrence. You can find them in-between the toes or even on the bottom of the foot near the pads.
3. Under the Tail – Ticks like dark, moist areas, so the underside of the tail makes a great home. If your dog has thick fur, you’ll want to make sure to comb through it and search thoroughly. A fine comb will likely catch a tick that’s attached itself under the tail.
4. In the Genital Region – Most dog owners aren’t keen on checking their dog’s genital regions. However, this area is another dark, moist region on the body that attracts ticks.
5. Around Eyelids – Ticks go unnoticed near the eyelids because they’re mistaken for skin tags or eye discharge. Unfortunately, by the time many owners realize there is a tick on their dog’s eyelid, the tick has been attached for quite a while.
6. Under the Collar – Many dogs rarely have their collars taken off. Ticks can become attached underneath your dog’s collar without anyone noticing, usually until the tick is large enough to be seen — which means it’s been there for a while. Remove the collar to do a thorough check for ticks.
How to Safely Remove a Tick
1. Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick by the head as close to the skin as possible.
2. Then gently, but firmly, pull it straight out. Do not: twist or jerk the tick, apply petroleum jelly, a hot match, or other irritants. This can lead to infection because the tick’s mouth parts may remain embedded, or you may be burned. Use your fingernails and tissue paper if tweezers are not available.
3. Immediately wash the bite area and your hands with soap and water then apply an antiseptic to the bite wound.
If in doubt of tick identification, place the tick in a small vial containing a damp piece of tissue and submit it to your local health department for examination.
Tips from Tufts University on Reducing Tick Risk:
1. Take care of your yard. Mowing the lawn regularly will make your backyard less attractive to ticks. Be sure to pull tall weeds and to remove leaf litter, particularly from under shrubs and around the perimeter, because that’s where ticks hide. Secure your outdoor trash cans to discourage rodents that carry deer ticks.
2. Use a tick preventive on your pet. Make sure you choose a veterinarian-recommended product that is safe for all the animals in your household.
3. Check your animals for ticks daily. If your pets spend time outside, feel them for bumps, parting their fur so you can see where the coat meets the skin. Pay particular attention to under the legs, around the neck and inside the ears.
4. Talk to your veterinarian about a canine Lyme vaccine. Some research suggests that vaccination appears to work well in preventing infection in dogs not previously exposed to the Lyme bacterium. However, it’s still important to use a tick preventive on your pet.
5. Protect yourself. Use repellent, wear treated clothing, shower after being outside and regularly check yourself for ticks. They can hop from you to your pet.
Since it can take 24 to 48 hours for an attached tick to transmit an infection to its host, prompt and proper removal is helpful in preventing disease onset.
Fido finds himself in a corner and seems confused. Lately, he’s spent hours staring into space. He doesn’t feel like playing with his human. Other times, he gets stuck behind furniture or acts afraid of people he once greeted joyfully. Sometimes he barks for no reason, and paces at night. And then there were those “accidents” on the living room floor, right after he’d been outside…
Fido’s loyal human thinks these are just symptoms of old age. But Fido knows something’s not right.
These symptoms, among others, could point to Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCD), a disease similar to Alzheimer’s, where tissue changes in the brain block normal communication between neurons. Both Humans and dogs can develop beta-amyloid plaques on their brains.
As many as 85% of CCD cases are undiagnosed, according to the Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. And while there is no cure, there are things you can do to help.
“The goal is to slow the disease’s progress and improve the quality of life. Treatment may involve medication, an enhanced diet, and management of the environment and behavior,” said Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice.
“For example, ensuring play, structured social interaction and exposure to sunlight will help with engagement and regulation of the sleep-wake cycle.”
The first step, she said, is to see your routine care veterinarian to rule out any other medical cause for the symptoms, which might be reversed. But if your pet is diagnosed with CCD, the following tips may help:
Similar to puppy-proofing, senior-proof you home by making sure there are no spaces where he or she might get trapped. This may include gating off safe areas.
Use runners to help your dog remember the layout of the home. Dogs with dementia often end up in corners.
Place food at optimal heights to see.
Use night lights to minimize night time anxiety
Engage your dog with games and activity to stimulate his or her brain.
Even if you need assistive devices, include daily outdoor exercise, sunlight and play sessions.
Be aware for some dogs, dementia can also cause failure in animal-to-animal communication or increase aggression.
Most importantly, give yourself, and your loyal companion, the most pleasant present moments you can, and enjoy those sunset years.
Need help with a fur-friend suffering from CCD? Contact Us for an appointment.
Many pet parents struggle to know the best food, and method to feed their companion animals. Commercial pet food recalls can be scary, as can news about the FDA investigating boutique & grain-free dog food as a potential cause of hidden heart disease.
Veterinarians typically recommend commercial or prescription foods that meet these guidelines developed by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association:
Food is formulated by full-time, board-certified Ph.D. veterinarian nutritionists.
Food is manufactured by a company that conducts extensive live feeding trials.
Company’s R&D team publishes peer-reviewed research.
Yet well-meaning pet food stores often direct pet parents toward heavily marketed boutique brands that do not meet these guidelines. Read the rest of this entry »
Few topics inspire as much controversy as (faux?) fashion for our furry friends. Do they really need coats and booties, or is this a classic case of anthropomorphism? Inquiring minds want to know!
In actual fact, the suitability of pet outerwear depends on a number of variables, including your dog’s breed, coat, age and body condition, plus outdoor temperature and duration of exposure.
“Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing’s disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature, and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes,” said Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice.
As a general rule, if your dog will only be outside for 10 minutes or less, they typically do not need any clothing.
Once temperatures drop under 20° F, all owners need to be aware that their dogs could potentially develop cold-associated health problems like hypothermia and frostbite. Watch for signs, including shivering, anxiety, and slowing down. Beware of the wind chill factor.
Double-coated dogs such as Siberian Huskies and Newfoundlanders are very unlikely to need clothing.
Shorter-haired breeds, senior dogs, puppies and dogs with medical conditions do benefit from the additional warmth.
One of the biggest threats to healthy paw pads is the salt used to melt ice on driveways, roads and sidewalks. Prolonged contact with deicers can lead to chemical burns on dog paws. Use pet-friendly salt, and cover your dog’s paws when out on walks with paw wax or booties.
Booties offer the best protection: Options include rubber-sole styles with double Velcro straps, waterproof nylon socks, and disposable rubbers.
For elderly dogs who are more prone to slipping and falling on ice, you may wish to try booties with a grip.
Bed Warmers for Arthritic Dogs and Cats
If your feline friend or canine companion is elderly and/or suffers from arthritis you may wish to offer a heated orthopedic bed. Styles range from simple heating pads to luxurious heated lounges. Use caution with external heat sources, ensuring your pet is able to get up and move off the heat source if he/she becomes too warm. You may wish to discuss the type of heat source you should use with your veterinarian.
You might think holiday stress is confined to last-minute-shopping humans, over-burdened hosts or folks with in-laws they secretly refer to as “outlaws.” If the holidays are stressful for you, imagine how your aging pet feels. Your own stress plus the bustle of the holiday season compounds pet stress, and it takes elderly animals longer to bounce back. Follow these tips to help your pets have a stress-free, happy holiday.
Many pet parents are confounded by conflicting advice on pet food in general, whether it’s commercial, grain-free, biologically appropriate and/or raw. This confusion can be compounded as your pet ages and is faced with medical conditions that require special consideration when it comes to diet. Many diseases that are common in older dogs and cats may be nutrient-sensitive, meaning that diet can play an important role in the management of the condition. As a general rule, dogs and cats 7 years of age or older are at risk of age-related diseases, though specific breed size, genetics, and physical condition influence the aging process.
Dr. Laurie Brush, founder of Heaven at Home Pet Hospice, says senior pet nutrition can be a complicated issue but that conscientious pet parents can help their senior pets enormously by dialing in their pet’s diet to prevent obesity.
“It’s important to work with your routine care veterinarian and adjust your feeding approach as your pet ages,” she said.
“Obesity aggravates many conditions, such as arthritis and diabetes, and accelerates the aging process. At the same time, if your pet is underfed or receives inadequate protein, waning muscle mass may reduce the effectiveness of your pet’s immune system. It can be a tricky balance,” she said.
In the course of the home visits that Dr. Brush and her staff make to provide palliative care for senior and terminally ill pets, she sees the product of both ends of the spectrum: overweight pets who suffer ailments and mobility issues exacerbated by overfeeding, and pets who’ve lost interest in the foods they once loved.
“Every senior pet can benefit from extra attention to nutrition,” she says. “It can make a real difference in the quality of life a senior pet enjoys.”
Understanding Energy Needs in Senior Pets
Just like humans, companion animals have individual and specific Resting and Maintenance Energy Requirements (RERs and MERs) that vary based on genetic potential, health status, and whether the animal is intact or neutered. RERs refers to the metabolic resting state; MERs refers to maintenance and is dependent on activity level. Research suggests that MERs decrease with age in dogs just as it does in humans. In one study of English Setters, Miniature Schnauzers and German Shepherds, the MERs of 11-year-old dogs were approximately 25% less than 3-year-old dogs.
Among the veterinarian community, it’s generally accepted that senior dogs require approximately 20% fewer calories than their younger peers due to this reduction in energy requirement coupled with lessened activity. To reduce weight in an overweight dog or cat, vets use a formula to calculate 80% of the calories required for RER.
On the other hand, some senior pets can suffer malnutrition and weight loss that aggravates their conditions. Veterinarians may prescribe appetite stimulants to improve nutritional intake. In this case, it is also helpful for pet parents to familiarize themselves with energy requirements to help ensure their senior pet is receiving adequate nutrition.
The case of cats is more complex when it comes to senior energy needs. Short-term research suggested that aging cats did not experience the same kind of reduction in energy requirement, but long-term studies indicated a reduction of approximately 3% per year through age 11. From ages 12-15, however, the energy requirement per pound of weight actually increased in cats.
The Importance of Caloric Makeup –
Research on Protein
One belief that has long circulated in the pet food world is that senior dogs and cats need a low-protein diet to protect against kidney disease. The belief originated from rodent research performed in the 1940s that has since been disproved. Instead, numerous research studies have confirmed that protein does not adversely affect the kidneys in either healthy older dogs or cats.
In fact, research by veterinarian nutritionist Dr. Delmar Finco, among others, suggests that the need for dietary protein may actually increase in senior pets by as much as 50%. His research also showed that higher protein diets were associated with greater life spans.
One study comparing protein requirement in 2-year-old Beagles versus 13-year-old Beagles found that the senior dogs needed at least 50% more dietary protein.
Research also suggests that L-carnitine, a vitamin-like compound made from amino acids found in red meats, fish, chicken and dairy products, may help the body use fat for energy.
“High-quality protein with good amino acids should make up a healthy portion of a senior pet’s daily caloric intake, at least 25%. A pet parent’s veterinarian is the best resource for help ensuring this is the case,” Dr. Brush said.
Watch Fat Intake, Take Care with Carbohydrates
“Fewer of the pet’s calories should be from fat because fat leads to inflammation, which can be problematic for arthritic pets.” Dr. Brush said.
Carbohydrate percentage in pet food has been in the spotlight in recent years, with many consumers trending toward grain-free options. While Dr. Brush has heard anecdotal evidence from clients who’ve elected grain-free options, she cautions pet parents to fully discuss the implications with their veterinarians. Recently, the FDA launched an investigation into unusual cases of DCM – dilated cardiomyopathy – in pets who were fed boutique, grain-free foods high in legumes like lentils and peas. The current (and early) theory is that the legumes may interfere with the production of the vital amino acid, L-taurine. Some manufacturers have responded by supplementing taurine, which is essential to pet metabolic health, but there are still many unknowns.
“In general, it’s best to ensure that the high-quality protein is coming from meat, not protein-dense carbohydrates,” she said.
Other Nutrient Considerations:
Apart from avoiding high-fat foods and ensuring at least 25% of calories are coming from good protein sources, there are a number of supplements that are reasonably time-tested to improve health in aging companion animals, such as Fish Oil and Glucosamine. However, all supplements are not created equal, and are not tested by the FDA. Pet parents should discuss supplements and brands with their veterinarian, and consider using supplements formulated for veterinary use.
• Fish Oil – 1,000 mg twice daily for dogs < 50 lbs, 2,000 mg daily for dogs > 50 lbs.
• Glucosamine – Many veterinarians recommend approximately 500 mg of Glucosamine and 400 mg of Chondroitin per 25 pounds. For oral Glucosamine for dogs, a typical dose may be: Dogs 5-20 pounds: 250-500 mg. Dogs 20-45 pounds: 500 mg.
• Prescription Cat & Dog Food – Most veterinary clinics supply special formulations for pets with specific health conditions. For example, pets with renal (kidney) disease should avoid foods high in phosphorus and calcium, which can exacerbate their illness.If your pet does not find one particular brand of prescription pet food palatable, there are multiple others that can be tried. Work with your veterinarian to find a food that they like and that will make them feel better.
Senior Feeding Problems
Depending on the age-related disease or condition of your pet, you may find that Fido has lost interest in food, has trouble chewing, or difficulty with digestion. Here are some things pet parents can do to make feeding more palatable to their senior pets.
Warm food slightly – it releases the aroma and heightens interest
Supplement with soft foods for pets that have difficulty chewing
Dental disease can sometimes be ameliorated with antibiotics if your pet is not healthy enough to undergo anesthesia for a dental procedure
Elevate the food and water dishes to make it easier for your pet to access them
Hand-feeding may work with some dogs
Adding low-sodium broth to food can make it more palatable
Feeding your senior pet an ideal diet for his or her age and condition can be complex, but help is available. Heaven at Home Pet Hospice can work with your routine care veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to help you manage your senior pet’s nutrition and give your fur baby the highest quality of life possible for his or her final chapter.
A pet parent who wants to optimize their aging pet’s health by preventing weight-gain but maintaining a healthy weight has two avenues to success – controlling the inputs and measuring the output. In other words, “Read, Feed and Weigh.”
In this guide, we’ll help you gather some tools to figure out how much food your fur-baby needs to stay fit, from calories calculators and activity trackers to the Body Conditioning chart that helps you assess your pet’s score.
To get a rough idea of calories required by your pet, you can use this embedded calculator from Plato Pet Foods, which is based on Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center data. However, you can also consult with your routine care veterinarian for breed-specific and diet-specific advice. See our companion article about Feeding Your Senior Pet.
Online Pet Tracking for Weight & Calories Consumed
One tool pet parents may find helpful is a new Pet Calorie tracker developed by PetSci in the UK. HealthTrak (https://petsci.co.uk/healthtrak/) is a (beta) online system that allows you to track the caloric intake of your pet against the ideal weight sought for your pet’s breed. If your current brand of food is not in the database, it’s easy to add it by looking up the nutrient profile online or on the bag. By tracking calories and weighing your pet weekly either at your veterinarian’s office or at home, you will be able to tell how well you’re doing with a general balance between MERs (Maintenance Energy Requirements) needed and Calories consumed.
Fitness Trackers for Pets – Show Calories Expended
Another new device can give you further insight as to your pet’s caloric expenditure based on activity level. FitBark (https://www.fitbark.com/) is one of a few new Fit-bit style canine trackers that has a nice app interface that will show you Fido’s activity level, sleep quality, and approximate calories expended each day. The lightweight device is attached to your pet’s collar and shows results on your mobile phone. The data can be shared with your vet.
But you don’t have to go high-tech to get the job done. Reading the label for true calories per cup and then feeding according to weight management charts available from your vet or online will help you manage your pet’s weight.
A Body Scoring Chart (BCS) is your vet’s “go-to” chart for identifying obesity in dogs and cats. Charts are graded on either a five-point or nine-point scale, and are available for both dogs and cats.
A BCS is based on four criteria: how easily felt the ribs are, how obvious the waist and abdominal tuck is, how much excess fat is beneath the skin and how much muscle mass is present. For a dog to score in the healthy range, the ribs should be easy to feel (but not see) and a defined waist, or “abdominal tuck,” should be evident when your dog is viewed from the top and side respectively. Depending on the thickness of your dog’s coat, you might have to feel for a defined waist or tuck if it is not readily visible.
The Science Behind Calculating Energy Requirements
If you’re interested in the formula vets use to calculate Resting Energy Requirements or RER, it’s this: The animal’s body weight in kilograms raised to the ¾ power by 70.
For example, a 10kg (22lb) adult neutered dog of healthy weight needs RER = 70(10kg)3/4 ≈ 400 Calories/day. The RER is then multiplied by factors to estimate the pet’s total daily energy needs. Eg. Active, working dogs require 2.0 – 5.0 the RER; puppies 4 mos. to adult require 2.0 the RER, and inactive/obese-prone dogs require 1.2-1.4. Senior dogs typically need 1.2-1.4 RER, and cats approximately 1.5.