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Old friends: how to care for aging pets

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Owning a pet brings love to and builds empathy and compassion for animals. Pets become our best friends and part of our families. But saying goodbye to an aging or sick animal — and knowing when to do so — is a challenge. With advancements in technology and veterinary medicine, a pet's life can be prolonged even in the face of a chronic illness. But when it's time to let go, there are several options for paying final respects and memorializing your pet.

  "One of the most important things for pets as they age is to receive preventive care," says Dr. Rita Akers, a veterinarian at Magazine Street Animal Clinic. Preventive care is instrumental throughout a pet's life, but Akers says as pets get older they should receive regular screenings to diagnose or identify problems.

  "Sometimes you can catch [diseases] while they are still fixable," Akers says, adding that proper dental care throughout a pet's life also is key.

  Dr. Allison Wegmann, a veterinarian and partner at Metairie Small Animal Hospital (MSAH), encourages pet owners to develop a long-lasting relationship with their veterinarians before a pet reaches an advanced age.

  "Early detection is so important, so having a good relationship with your vet going into the senior years is huge," she says.

  The risk of cancer, arthritis, organ failure and discomfort increases as an animal ages, but Akers says age itself isn't an illness. "I always tell people that being old doesn't mean unhealthy," she says. "Age is not a disease. There are lots of things we can do to keep pets happy and healthy. There are a lot of ways to keep pets comfortable as they age."

  Even if a pet has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it can have a good quality of life with proper care.

  "We start to see senior pets — generally 8 years and older — for physical exams and wellness lab work every six months," Wegmann says. "Once we detect something, we may see them every three months, so we can fine-tune their care."

  There are advancements in treating pain, she says, including acupuncture, cold laser therapy, physical therapy and new and improved drugs. Keeping a pet at a healthy weight also can increase quality of life.

Some pet owners choose hospice care during the last months of their pets' lives. Dr. Ashley Tahir of Fur De Lis Mobile Veterinary Services says it's an option for people who understand that their pet is dying and want in-home care.

  "Generally, by the time a client comes to me, they've already received the diagnosis, so we work on short-term care," she says. This can include opiate-based or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain management treatments. Tahir also connects her clients with professionals who offer alternative or homeopathic treatments to manage pain and discomfort. Tahir's business is mobile — she operates out of her Jeep — and she sees most of her clients for about an hour twice a week.

  "I show the owner how to perform certain therapies and provide them with materials," including medications, she says.

How do you know when to let go? Euthanizing a pet is a deeply personal decision.

  "It really depends on how much people are willing to put their pet through," Akers says. "When they've been diagnosed with something, people have different thresholds."

  Akers and Wegmann recommend pet owners monitor a pet's general happiness — and have empathy for pain or discomfort it might feel.

  "I tell people to pick three of their pet's favorite activities to do," Akers says. "If they are only doing one of them, then their quality of life might not be good."

  She also suggests daily tracking.

  "Keep a calendar and mark off whether your pet had a good day," she says. "Did he or she seem to enjoy their day? When those not-so-good days start to outnumber the good ones, it's time to consider euthanasia."

  "I try to determine what the pet's quality of life is," Wegmann says. "Can they get up and walk and go to the bathroom on their own? If we can't get the pet to eat, that's a big sign that it's time. Each situation is unique, so there is no black-and-white answer, but we do our best to guide the owner."

  There are gray areas. "We've had patients that are paralyzed that still have a good quality of life," she says. "Do they respond to you? Are they aware that you're there? A lot of older dogs can't hear or see, some of them don't know where they are, but they can still smell their owner."

  Many local vets, including those at Magazine Street Animal Clinic and MSAH, make house calls when the time comes to say goodbye.

  "Our job is to prevent pet suf- fering, so when we know that there's nothing left, we speak up and recommend humane euthanasia," Wegmann says. "We offer that service at home. We often go to the owner's home and do [the procedure] in a non-stressful environment." She notes that some pets get upset upon entering vet clinics, so owners often don't want to make the pet nervous during its final moments.

  "The typical procedure involves an IV catheter," Wegmann says. "That way the owner is able to hold them. And then we give them a sedative and it relaxes them. It is generally a peaceful process and it usually takes less than a minute."

  The final step is determining what to do with a pet's body. Heaven's Pets at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home and Cemeteries offers a range of services. Pet owners can opt for a communal cremation service or a private cremation in which a family keeps a pet's ashes in a box or urn. Heaven's Pets also offers memorial tokens, such as paw prints, nose prints or a lock of the animal's fur.

  "Some people choose to bury their pets if they are small, but most people don't elect to do that," Wegmann says. "We stay out of that decision-making."

  Many veterinary clinics also offer options for dealing with the body, and there is a variety of pet cemeteries in the state. Some people choose to scatter a pet's ashes at its favorite play spot or keep the ashes in their home.

  Other owners want to have their pets buried with their human's remains, which isn't legal in Louisiana. State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, introduced a bill in April that would have allowed such burials, but cemetery owners opposed the proposal and it remains in a Senate judiciary committee. Appel says he will revise the bill and may reintroduce the measure during the 2017 legislative session.

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