by Caleigh Snyman and Joané van Oudtshoorn, first published in We Love Pets SA and The Dog Box.

It is that time of the year again – time to lug out the firewood and toasty socks and to snuggle down with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate. For many people, winter time is their favourite time of the year.

However, for people who are caring for older pets, there is a certain dread that comes with the shortening of the days. It is a dread born of watching our fur babies struggle, often to such a degree that certain activities may become impossible. For this reason, we have decided to share some information for keeping your older furchildren as comfortable as possible as we head into the winter months.

Before we begin, we need to define the term ‘senior’ when referring to pets. In dogs, this changes slightly depending on the size of the pooch. Small dogs are considered senior after 10, medium dogs between 7-10 years and large dogs, between 5-7 years. Cats are classed as seniors when they are over 11 years old. As in humans, older pets will need more specialized care. By the age of 60, most people will suffer from the effects of osteoarthritis. Arthritis is a degenerative disease process that occurs within joints which have been damaged due to injury or overuse.

These joints are invaded by inflammatory mediators, which can cause pain, swelling and lameness as they damage various structures within the joint. Some studies indicate that 60-90% of cats over the age of 12, and 80% of dogs over the age of 8 suffer from arthritic changes within one or more joints! To make matters worse, the symptoms of arthritis are exacerbated by winter weather. Scientists postulate that changes in air pressure can cause changes in pressure within joint fluid, resulting in increased pain. The cold can also have a direct effect on the comfort of our pets. In order to manage this, we need to ask: what precautions would we take if our pet was a human of equivalent age?

1. Provide the correct bed

Comfortable does NOT necessarily mean soft. Most older people prefer to sleep in beds that are not too high (getting in and out of bed may become gradually more difficult), nor too soft. Special, medium thickness orthopaedic foam works very well to support your pet’s joints, and it doubles as being breathable enough to maintain a comfortable temperature.

2. Raise your pet’s bowls

This simple alteration can make a huge difference for your furchild, especially if they are larger and suffer from arthritis in the front legs. Generally, the food and water bowls should be raised to about chest height so the dog does not have to crouch down to eat and drink, while ensuring the bowls are not too high.

3. Add carpets

Aside from being great insulators, carpets work to keep also not too high. our more fragile friends from slipping and hurting themselves. Navigating slippery floors can also result in muscle tension that might aggravate your pet’s arthritis and serve to damage their confidence.

4. Block those stairs

Although no data exists for animals, 1 million people in the US are treated in emergency departments each year for injuries relating to falling down stairs. The frequency of stair-related injuries is also 5x greater in people over the age of 75. Allowing our older pets to navigate stairs puts them at risk of catastrophic injury and may aggravate existing arthritis. Blocking off staircases with baby-gates and other apparatus provides an easy solution to this problem.

5. Pain medication

There seems to be a negative stigma associated with the use of pain medication in our pets. If your older dog (or cat) is limping or showing signs of pain, please take them to your veterinarian for a check-up and, if your treating vet prescribes pain medication, please do not hesitate to use it as advised. Every medication has a risk of negative side-effects, but it is not fair to expect our older animals to live in pain because we are worried about the potential problems that may occur down the road.

6. Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies such as animal physiotherapy (this includes gentle exercises, manual therapy, electrotherapy and hydrotherapy, heat and cryotherapy) and acupuncture have been scientifically shown to improve pain scores and mobility in people and animals who are suffering from arthritis. Both of these therapies have been gaining traction of late, and the results speak for themselves. It is my firm belief that every old  pet should be on a physiotherapeutic program.

7. Heat packs

A heat pack is an extremely effective tool to help warm up stiff joints and muscles! Simply wrap the warm bag/bottle in a towel and place over the affected area for 10 minutes. This is best done in the morning before your pup gets out of bed, and again in the evening to improve your pet’s quality of sleep. 

8. Nutrition

This can play a large role in the comfort of your older pet, especially those suffering from arthritis. Moving your pet onto a food containing joint supplements (or adding supplements to your pets existing diet) is a great way to bring down inflammation. Don’t forget to do your research though – not all foods/supplements are created equal!

9. Exercise

Controlled exercise is extremely important for the well-being of your older dogs and cats. In winter they may not be as happy to go walkies, but it is important to get them out daily, at least for a short amble, in order to get their blood flowing and keep their minds sharp.

10. Mobility aids

Special devices such as ramps, harnesses and slings can help your pet to navigate their environment more safely and more effectively.

There you have it! A few simple changes that you can make to your daily routine that might help your older fur-friends feel more comfortable when it gets cold! Even if your pet does not suffer from any arthritis that you are aware of, making the above changes will still serve to improve their quality of life.