Caring for a senior dog with dementia (and yourself) in the final stages of life
As a person with a deep love and respect for animals I have been working in animal welfare for over 15 years and been a pet parent since I was born. I can’t imagine ever not having a dog…they bring SO much to our lives. Unconditional love, compassion, understanding, fun, frustration (many of you know my dog Daisy…this one is for her) and just pure JOY. With pet parenting comes other emotions as well, such as sadness, fear and worry. Without the ability to speak we can only guess what can be happening with them by watching their body language and knowing them well.
Our oldest dog Lacey was over seventeen years old and this past year has been a huge change for her as she started to really slow down, experience more infections and had developed dementia. So many times this summer I thought it was time to put her to sleep but with the help of my amazing vet Lacey sprung back to life every time….I used to joke that she is a cat and her 9 lives are not yet used up..until a couple days ago.
It was with a heavy heart but some peace at the same time, that I sent her on to her next adventure. Her dementia was worse (she walked in circles and stands at the door hinges, she peed in her sleep sometimes, her back was hunching over from her discs collapsing (much like an old woman…my vet said this is part of aging for them too but as she is a dachshund it was hard to see). She wasn’t in pain and she still wanted attention and love from me but the sparkle in her eyes was gone.
With the many changes in her condition and an increased need for my attention a lot of changes happened in our home and in my schedule too. With four dogs to care for (three of them seniors and one crazy young one!) I had to learn how to look at stress in a different way and practice present moment living even more to maintain my sanity.
Here are some tips for caring for an aging dog with dementia.
1. Make sure the house remains the same….try not to move furniture around. Many times they get lost or stuck in corners and can’t find their way out and this can cause anxiety and fear.
2. Create a routine and stick to it as much as possible.
3. Know where they are. If you are gone make sure they are confined to a familiar space so they can get out of situations they may get stuck in. I used to find lacey under a chair and in the corner of a door jamb before putting up a baby gate for her to stay in a certain room. Reassure them when they DO get stuck and hug them and tell them it’s ok while putting them back in their favorite space.
4. Keep lots of water bowls around and remind them where the bowls are.
5. Keep soft comfortable beds available. Tempurpedic beds are great but dogs can pee in their sleep and those can’t be washed, so I use those squishy bath mats under the dogs beds for more cushion.
6. KNOW your dog. What does pain look like to them? What is their eating habit like in the past when they have not felt well? Watch for change in bowel movements and make sure they aren’t constipated.
7. Keep lots of grain free, quality wet dog food available. Lacey loves it unless its cold. Once it’s been in the refrigerator she won’t eat it. So we go through a lot of new wet food. I use leftovers to fill the other dogs bones and Kong toys. Bone broth and fish oil were staples in my home and remain so for the other dogs health. I attribute this to part of the long life Lacey had. She even kept every single tooth!
8. Take your dog outside to get some sun and fresh air. This will help to keep the circadian rhythm somewhat stable. They can start to get confused with night and day so even taking melatonin can be helpful at night.
9. Make a nighttime potty trip part of your schedule. Lacey drank much more water and had trouble holding her urine longer so I always took her out when I got up for my own trip at night. This kept my bed dry (she sleeps with me) and her from having an accident and laying in it all night.
10. Just sit with your senior and let them feel the sun on their face, massage them gently in their old muscles and tell them how much you love them. You can never know when the end is near but every single moment I had with her I remember and cherish now that she is gone.
How to take care of yourself while caring for an aging dog:
1. When you have a long night make sure and rest the next day when you can. Even if its just for a few minutes.
2. Eat nourishing whole foods.
3. Laugh…find things to do that are fun and heart filling. Being the caregiver for an older dog can be emotionally draining and sometimes burdensome. Even if we love them more than anything there is added stress in caring for them.
4. Try to maintain a schedule that works for you while setting one that helps care for them. For example when I wanted down time I started watching my movies in my room with my computer so I could be with her and not worry from the other room if she was going to fall off the bed.
5. Ask for help with your other animals or kids. Take a break from caregiving others if you can.
6. Have a vet on board that KNOWS you and knows your dog. Lacey would have been gone last summer if I didn’t have my vets knowledge and deep understanding when I would go through emotions about her not feeling well or worry about whether she was too sick to go on. She saved my sanity…that is not putting things lightly. I am forever grateful.
7. Read books and websites on preparing for the decisions that lie ahead. It’s so so helpful to know what to expect, to know others are going through the same.
8. Don’t blame yourself if the time comes to make the hard decision to euthanize your pet. It’s a gift to prevent or end suffering for your dog.
9. Have a support group around you. Friends that understand your deep love for your animals and who will be there for you when you need them without judgement of your decisions.
10. Be grateful….gratitude can help change our perspective on change and loss in more ways than we know.
Lacey’s sister Josie died Nov. 5th 2013 and Lacey died Nov. 4th 2015. I have a feeling they had a plan all along to meet back up. We are establishing a new normal in our home and learning how to live without her.
She was the love of our lives and we are so grateful to have had the time we did with her.
Thanks for reading…health isn’t always about food. Sometimes it’s about what fills our spirit with joy and love and the ways we can learn to cope with sadness that create health in our hearts.