The Senses Diminish

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Changes in the senses are obvious in most geriatric pets. The retinas at the back of the eyes loses rods and cones and the lenses loses elasticity and clarity. Both of these changes result in poorer eyesight. All pets develop cloudy lens changes by the time they are ten years old. This change may look like cataract formation but it’s not. It’s caused by an age-related connective tissue change called ‘lenticular sclerosis’ and it increases a pet’s natural nearsightedness. Like us, older pets need reading glasses but they usually retain a good ability to see slight movement at a distance of say six metres (20 feet).

Elderly Pets May Lose Hearing

Impaired hearing is very common in older pets, especially in dogs. Degeneration of the physical structures of hearing such as the cochlear ossicles, hair cells, ganglia and blood vessels, results in a decrease of high frequency hearing, as well as a general loss in hearing. Full hearing loss often occurs very quickly, over a six month period or less, especially in breeds prone to age-related hearing loss such as Labrador and Golden Retrievers. (Although no one yet knows exactly how, two different pigment genes, white (piebald) and merle, are associated with deafness in the young. How your pet responds to hearing loss or full deafness varies with each individual. Reactive pets such as terriers might respond with a startle. If a cat is startled or disorientated it may respond with a hiss and a swipe. Take care when touching deaf pets!

It’s not difficult to train an older pet not to be startled by being unexpectedly touched and as with so much else with the elderly, use food treats. This is what to do.

  • Accustom your deaf pet to take a food treat from your open hand.
  • After it has learned to associate your open hand with the food treat, when it’s awake, walk up behind it, gently touch and when it turns around instantly offer the treat in your open hand.
  • Once it learns to associate unexpected touch with a food reward, graduate to a different exercise. While it’s sleeping, put your treat-filled hand in front of its nose.
  • Just the smell of the treat may awaken it but even if it doesn’t, with the treat by its nose, touch very, very lightly on her shoulder or back.
  • Gently increase the light touch to a gentle stroke. As your pet awakens give her the treat and continue stroking in a way you know likes.
  • This works well in both cats and dogs

Getting A Deaf Pet’S Attention

All pets, including deaf pets, are acutely aware of your body language. They quickly learn to respond to hand signals. It’s your choice whether to use “proper” sign language or make up your own. I made up my own signals for Honey – showing her the flat palm of my hand when I wanted her to “Wait”, giving a beckoning arm wave when I wanted her to “Come”, pointing my forefinger down and moving it towards the ground when I wanted her to “Sit”. Both thumbs up, a smile and a pat meant “Good girl”. All of these can be taught in virtually the same way you teach verbal commands. You just substitute the visual signal with the verbal command. But to do this you need your pet’s attention in the first place and this takes no more than a little ingenuity and common sense. Indoors do what I mentioned I did. When you’re outdoors with a deaf pet, keep her on her lead unless you’re in a fenced area. Get her attention by throwing a toy or tennis ball across her eye line or equip her with a vibrating collar. In dark weather, a flashing light (or laser light) is useful. (Amend her name tag with the word “DEAF” just in case she gets lost, so that the finder will know she needs special attention.) The website www.deafpets.org has practical instructions for more advanced forms of obedience training older deaf dogs.

Elderly Pets Don’T See Well

Once a pet’s natural nearsightedness gets compromised by the hardening of the lenses that accompanies age she may find it difficult to do simple things, especially if they involve depth perception at close range such as jumping up or down off sofas or beds. A typical older pet now becomes tentative when jumping up, not just because the joints hurt but because at some point it tried, missed and hurt itself. Some older pets go completely blind because of hereditary cataracts or progressive retinal atrophy in dogs, sugar diabetes in dogs and cats, and high blood pressure problems in cats. Some blind pets cope amazingly well, continuing to act normally in all other ways. Others cope miserably. If this happens we will discuss the problem in depth with you.

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