My cat Sophie is 19 years old. She is sleeping more and seems to be less active overall. Sometimes she forgets to come into bed with me at night, and just stays curled up in her cozy fleece bed. She is eating but seems to have lost some weight; nothing shows up on her blood tests and her vet says she’s just getting old. Over the last couple of years she occasionally defecated outside the box, but now it’s happening almost every day. What is happening to my Sophie? Is it time to put her down? I don’t want her to suffer…
Dear Sophie’s Choice,
Aging is a normal process that affects the body and mind to varying degrees. It is normal to become less active, tire more easily and to need more rest as we age. Our senses fade, beginning with the sense of smell, then vision and hearing follow over the years. From what you describe, I don’t think that Sophie is in pain, but I do think that she is a little old lady.
Regarding her litter box habits, it’s possible she is a bit confused about what goes where; she may also have arthritic hips. It’s possible that her discomfort has affected her ability to get in or out of the box and that the stance of defecating has deterred her further. It might be helpful to introduce a new box with lower sides (a lasagna pan might do) so the box is easier to maneuver. As long as she is eating and drinking fairly normally, happy to be near you, grooming herself, responsive to the world around her (most of the time) and her health remains stable, I think we can say that it is still Sophie’s choice to stay with you. Sometimes the quality of life is more important than how long it is. Sophie is one of the lucky ones; she’s had both.
Dear Dr. Schwartz,
Last month, my beautiful Golden Retriever Joey died at the age of 13. I know that no matter how long he would have lived, it would never have been enough for me. I am trying to be grateful for our time together, but I’m just so very sad. Joey’s little sister Sarah is an 8 year old Golden; I think she has a broken heart, too. She doesn’t seem to have the pep she used to on walks. At first, she walked around the house as if she was looking for him but she’s stopped doing that. She is eating less, but she will eat for me if I add tablescraps to her food. Do dogs grieve like we do?
Dear Joey’s Pal,
There is good reason to think of grief as a form of separation anxiety. With this perspective, it doesn’t matter if a dog understands the concept of death, or ‘knows’ that a missing friend is never coming back. What really matters is that a close companion is gone… and that is hard enough.
Yes, I believe that dogs, cats, primates, elephants and other animals grieve. Most recover within hours, some days or weeks. Others become quite depressed and require professional care from a veterinary behaviorist like me; we are the psychiatrists of the veterinary profession. I don’t think we can say for sure that they grieve ‘the way we do’, meaning that nonhumans experience five stages of grief; however, I believe that social animals are capable of recognizing the absence of someone they love, become depressed because of their loss, feeling anxiety because their world has changed, and ultimately adjusting to the void and accepting their new reality.
Remember, it is not uncommon for our pets to be sensitive to our mood changes. You are still sad; I’m sure that Sarah feels your sadness, too. Try to play with her more. Play time is such a great way to relieve anxiety, and forget about our troubles and sadness. Reconnect with Sarah during play in the yard. Brush her soft coat on your front patio while she eats a rawhide treat. Take her to a dog park to make new friends or reconnect with others. Spend positive, quality time with her and you will both feel uplifted.
If a pet’s appetite and attitude have changed and persist beyond just a few days, it is really important to make sure there is no underlying medical problem. Sarah should be seen by your primary care veterinarian to be sure she is well. If Sarah is still feeling low in a week from now and her health is not an issue, let’s talk about how we can help her move forward without her pal.
Dr. Stefanie Schwartz is a board certified veterinary behaviorist based at California Veterinary Specialists in Carlsbad, CA. She also sees patients at the Veterinary Neurology Center in Tustin, CA. For more information, please call (760) 431-2273 and visit www.californiaveterinaryspecialists.com and www.veterinarybehavior.org.