Year of Wally: Aches, Pains and Canine Aging

Wally’s life started out in a puppy mill, but 12 years later, he’s still going strong and loving life.

Careful on the stairs, old man.
Careful on the stairs, old man.

I am officially calling 2013 “The Year of the Wally.”

Wally is my geriatric Cocker Spaniel. He is sweet. He is loyal. He loves everyone. He is an epileptic. He is arthritic. He has a bionic knee. And he is becoming  an old dog before my very eyes.

Watching my Wally age, I can’t help thinking about all my geriatric patients and their dedicated caretakers. It has always been my experiences with my own pets that helps me better understand my clients and my patients. Wally helps me keep it real and renews my compassion for the aging pet.

Wally: The Beginning

My little ball of white and buff fluff was born in a North Carolina puppy mill 12 years ago. Transported to a crappy mall in Western Massachusetts at a mere 7 weeks old, nobody bought him. For most of his puppyhood, until he was 4 months old, Wally lived in a tiny cage in a pet store sandwiched between a cheap hair salon and a discount nut house. I fear Wally was probably going nuts too. “How much is that puppy in the window?” turned into “Cocker puppy reduced, $200.”

You think I made a sympathy purchase and bought him to bust him out of the mall, right? Wrong, but close. My technician had a momentary lapse of purposefulness while shopping for some pantyhose and came home with a puppy.

“Cockers have so many medical problems, Dr. Deb. Wally should be owned by a vet. He needs to live with you.”

And 12 sweet seizing years later, my puppy-mill-mall-rat puppy that I would never have purchased on my own is still kicking. I am so happy my tech said she took too much headache medicine twelve years ago and made an impulse buy to spring Wally from that sad, pathetic pet prison, commonly known as a pet store.

The Middle

From day 1, Wally was the perfect puppy. The perfect dog. He stayed glued to my side from the first day and has been there ever since. House-trained within a week, meek and mild with adults and children, intuitively aware of how to learn from but not bug his older dog brothers, he was perfect.

No behavioral or health problems, I thought Wally was too good to be true. Then he had his first seizure at 9 months of age. Honestly, until that time, I felt guilty being Wally’s human. So many of my clients had such problem dogs and had to be seeking my advice all the time. My veterinary expertise seemed wasted on Wally. At least when he turned out to be an epileptic, I had something to treat.

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Bad gingivitis, early onset arthritis and hypothyroidism were added to his medical problem list, but all in all Wally has been an easy keeper. His seizures have remained manageable and his quality of life has been good.

The Golden Years

As the years have flown by, Wally and I kind of look the same in the morning. Joints aching, he struggles to get his butt up and I struggle to get my butt down to the kitchen. He lumbers down the old colonial stairs kind of sideways, protecting his bad shoulder and his reconstructed knee. I take those old steps one at a time too, knee creaking along with the old stair tread.

Wally’s cataracts make him more cautious in the dark mid-winter morning, but he has no problem finding his breakfast. Same with me. I may have left my glasses upstairs but I’m never too blind to find the refrigerator. Our sniffers still work just fine. Nothing like the smell of real Vermont maple syrup mixed with geriatric low residue dog food in the morning to get us both going.

As Wally and I stretch out by the wood stove to warm up our degenerating joints, his hazy lenses tell me it’s not so bad growing old if you’re warm, fed and happy. I have to agree.

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Losing Our Minds Together

Wally still has a few years, I hope, before he shows serious signs of doggie Alzheimer’s, commonly known as Canine Cognitive Disorder (CCD). Still, I wonder from time to time how sharp those synapses are in the wacky Wally brain. Wally sometimes walks into a room and the look on his face says, “Why the (bleep) am I here?” Same with me.

I amaze myself when I try to stuff a milk carton into the microwave because I mistake it for the refrigerator, or open the silverware drawer and have no idea if I need a scissor or a fork. Then I look at Wally staring into space and figure we both better go for a walk and stimulate those brittle brain cells.

There are lifestyle changes, drugs and supplements that can help the aging canine and feline brain, but you need to talk these treatments over with your vet. If your dog seems to be on aimless prowls or your kitty is letting out blood curdling yowls at 4 am, a vet visit is in order. Your vet will need to take a look at your geriatric friend and rule out medical problems before arriving at a diagnosis of cognitive impairment.

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I Can’t Sleep

Do I see sleepless nights in the future for me and my Wally? Insomnia is a common problem in older canines, felines and “humines” alike. Wally and I are still sleeping like bugs in a rug thanks to those lucky winter stars and full, active lives, but sleeplessness and pets exhibiting nighttime anxiety can be a most unnerving problem for pet parents. Sleep deprivation is not pleasant.

When your 16-year-old dog is walking around the house in the middle of the night asking to go outside in the subzero temperatures, what do you do? Most caretakers go out in the knee-deep snow in nothing but a bathrobe and hopefully some boots to see if a quick trip outside is what Midnight Rider needs. But the darn dog is acting like he’s out for a midday stroll and when you get him back inside from the frozen tundra, he’s pacing and whining and just not right!  Truly, you are worried about his mental state but also resentful of your lost sleep.

These 2 dogs know what I mean. Instead of a quick potty break, it turns into time to play:

There is help out there. Drugs are often the answer to this challenging canine geriatric problem of insomnia. Talk to your vet. As for geriatric cats who have given up sleep in favor of nighttime vocalizing and odd behavior, check out my post, “Why Does My Older Cat Yowl All the Time? (I’m Trying to Sleep!)

Are You Deaf???

Wally has lost a bit of his hearing, but he hears me most of the time. Same with my own hearing. I definitely damaged those otic nerves at one too many Who and Led Zeppelin concerts. This mild handicap is my excuse to ignore my husband when he begins to talk to me as I walk out of a room or tries to tell me something important when he has his head in a closet.

Selective hearing is one of the pleasures of growing gracefully old. Or being a cat. Felines exist in a world of selective hearing. It’s one of the traits that makes them special.

To many caretakers, their dog’s hearing seems to disappear “overnight.” Of course loss of hearing is gradual,  but many dogs react quite normally until the majority of their hearing is lost. But when hearing loss occurs, your dog can also seem old overnight.

It’s important to distinguish deafness from canine cognitive dysfunction. If your dog has lost some hearing, he should be mentally alert in all other aspects. If you are worried about a generalized lack of interest in your aging pooch or if he seems mentally dull, consult with your vet.

Aches and Pains

Arthritis, degenerative joint disease, stiffness, aches and pains. These problems begin for some pets even in middle age. Again, how our pets mirror our own aging process! But this is a major topic for another time. There’s a lot to say about diagnosing canine and feline arthritis and getting your aching friend some great relief.

Wally and I need to take a nap soon but before we snooze, I want to thank my beautiful aging puppy for all the great years he has given me so far. May we both enter this new year taking care of ourselves and looking forward.

With age comes wisdom. Wally has settled in front of the fire again, contemplating the good choices he has made in life. He just winked at me and let me know that he had his eye on my technician when she walked into that pet store twelve years ago.

Like a Dickensian orphan, Wally made his soulful Cocker puppy eyes even bigger when she looked in his cage. “Take me home,” those brown bowls of puppy hopefulness said. I’m ever so glad she did…take him home to me.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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