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There is something endearing about older pets. Although they lack the vitality of youth, their more settled state invites the same sweet caring that one usually reserves for the very young. There are exceptions, but it seems that older pets enjoy taking life a little easier. There is a sweet sadness that surrounds older pets in part because we realize that their time on this earth is drawing to a close.
Saying goodbye to a beloved friend is always heart wrenching but it can be an incredible growth experience, especially for our children. Enjoying and celebrating your pet’s final years is part of that process. When my boys were very young, both my Labrador and my setter were in their latter years. The boys absolutely adored my geriatric gang partly because they didn’t move that fast. The boys were able to toddle around with the dogs. When the boys played with their action figures, the dogs were content to be a mountain or tall building. The boys understood of course that they should be gentle, this tenderness transferred to their future interactions with all animals.
Although the pain from the loss of a pet is deep, it should never prevent you from opening your heart again to another furry friend. The incredible lessons of life and love that are learned from animal relationships leaves us with a richness not experienced in any other way. Parents may be especially tempted to shield this pain from their children but death is part of life and something that we all will experience. It is better to help your child through the grieving process, then to make them try and figure it out on their own.
Part of the aging process is a decline in the way the body functions. Older pets often lose their hearing or eyesight requiring special attention on the part of their caregivers. Their sense of balance is often affected and can make negotiating stairs or getting into the car a challenge. Some pets develop a kind of dementia where they may seem confused by normal household routines or bark at nothing. Unusual behaviors may crop up but most of the time these are due to aging. Because of that, they are best handled with a combination of management and a sense of humor.
A family can diminish the effects of aging by keeping their pet both physically and mentally active. Daily exercise, and some sort of mental activity is as good for your pet as it is for people. You can add the mental challenge to simple games like fetch by asking your dog to sit, lie down or stay before throwing the ball. Be aware of the physical limitations your pet may have because of age and adjust the activity accordingly.
One of the hardest responsibilities that we endure as pet owners is deciding the time to help our friend cross-over. If we are lucky, that decision will not be ours but Mother Nature’s. However, we are often the ones who must make the call. It is not fair to ask our pets to live with permanent pain because we cannot bear the finality. You don’t need to make these choices entirely on your own. A veterinarian is a wonderful asset in helping to determine your pet’s overall health and to give guidance, but the final decision will be yours. As caretakers, we must not let the pain we feel when saying goodbye get in the way of doing what is best for our pet. Easing a pet’s suffering is our responsibility and our ultimate duty as their friend.
The very first dog I owned was a shepard/spitz mix named Sonja. She and I found each other during a time when we both needed a friend. She was my constant companion. She attended eight years of college, helped me find my husband, attended our wedding, helped me open my training business and saw me though my first pregnancy. The day I had to say goodbye to Sonja, I realized that I was also saying goodbye to parts of my youth. It was as though her death made me realize that a part of me was gone as well. I think that part of the pain that we feel when a loved one passes is the realization of our own mortality.
I am again faced with a clan of older girls, one of which is almost seventeen, a good long life for a lab. She still gets excited about breakfast and dinner. The running joke in the family is that she won’t die because then she’d have to miss a meal. In truth, I know her final day is drawing painfully close. I pray that her peace will come during her sleep but if it doesn’t, I will be there for her. I will be the loving friend to help her take that final step.