I watched Java walk past me for the tenth time as I listened to the rhythmic sound of paw, toenail drag; paw, toenail drag. Then silence. Java stands, nose to the wall, staring. I wait for her to whisper “open sesame” and for the wall to comply and let her through.
But soon the paw, toenail drag, paw, toenail drag starts all over again; followed by a circle, pause, circle, pause, circle, pause; then a scraping of toes and sudden thud as Java’s body collapses to the floor with a ginormous and lengthy groan.
This is the soundtrack of Java that I tune into, listening with feet readied to fly if something sounds terribly wrong—because so far, the sounds I’ve heard are okay. Terribly wrong is a dog sliding down the stairs or the scritch-scratch of a dog struggling to get to its feet or the bang of a dog not quite clearing a doorway.
But what I describe is the worst of it—the things that came as a shock as my beautiful girl showed signs that age and her golden retriever, husky, German shepherd, collie mixed-bag-of-breeds was catching up with her.
You’d think after all the dogs I’ve owned, I’d know how to take care of elder dogs, but I’ve lost most of my dogs before they reached old age. The one dog that lived to fourteen, my Pitbull-mix Willow, was fine until she began having severe seizures. Java is the first dog I’ve had with mobility and cognitive issues. I wasn’t expecting this at age twelve.
The worst of it was when Java would not respond at all when I called her name or she’d slowly turn her head and look towards me with nothing Java-like in her eyes.
I’ve run the blood panels. No problems showed up there. She has arthritis, which explains her stiffness and loss of leg strength.
My veterinarian has treated Java’s decline much like my general practitioner treats my decline. Basically, we’re old. Get used to it.
I don’t much like that response.
I understand everything gets old and goes through a decline, but I don’t believe that there’s nothing you can do to improve your aging dog’s quality of life.
I’ve changed Java’s meals, supplements, exercise, and other routines and am happy to report she’s doing better. I’ve put details about what I’m doing down below, for anyone who’s interested.
I long for answers. I want to fix things. I think the more I know, the more I do, the more I care, the more likely I will find a lasting cure to whatever ails me, someone else, or the world.
I became completely obsessed with helping Java. It’s the same thing I did when my horse Luke was constantly sick, the same thing I did when my mother was ill, and the same thing I did when my doctor diagnosed me with osteoporosis.
If I do everything right, I can go back in time to when things were normal. Does that sound familiar? And what is normal anyway? I think whatever you are living through right now is normal for you for this moment. Everything is temporary.
Someone pass me the wise sage certificate…
What I realized this morning, yes, just this morning, is that I have to accept who Java is right now. Just like I hope people will accept and love me the way I am right now. And that I will learn to accept and even sometimes enjoy what life is like right now.
I can do things to make life easier or better, like put out rugs, so Java has better footing on our wood and tiled floors, but I can’t cure her arthritis. And I can’t stop her or myself from getting older.
Java feels pretty good sometimes—so do I. She forgets about her stiffness and pain and dances and runs across the snow while I follow her laughing, so happy because she’s happy.
I cherish every one of those moments. We walk, and I treasure every single one of Java’s outbursts of enthusiasm.
I cheer her on as she walks up the steps or finds the dog treat I’ve hidden. “My good Java! My beautiful Java! My brilliant Java!” And she responds by curling her body around me and bumping my hand as if to say, “Yes I am! Now tell me again!”
When people reach this elder stage of life, we know time is running out—there are only so many years or months we have that we will be able to still do physically challenging things. There is no training that can keep you going forever.
I feel like 2020 cheated both Java and me. It was the first year Steve and I and the dogs didn’t go camping and hiking. And possibly 2021 will be more of the same. And 2022 is likely to be too late for Java to enjoy that level of activity.
This knowledge makes me afraid and angry. But Java? Every walk is simply the next walk. And she enjoys it, just like she enjoys every walk.
She isn’t worried that she might not get to go camping and hiking this year.
So why am I?
Java’s Elder Dog Care
Let me start with the usual preamble that I am not a doctor or dog health expert. There are smarter, more well-informed people out there. This is just what I’ve chosen to do for Java and thought might be useful for someone else with an elder dog.
- Switched from Nutrasource dry dog food to a blend of Open Farm’s dog foods. Mainly, I wanted more moisture and protein in Java’s food and ingredients and processing that is human-grade.
- Added Dr. Bill’s Pet Nutrition Canine Cognitive Support supplement.
- Added melatonin supplement at night to help Java sleep better.
- Daily walks to help ease her stiffness, make her more alert and attentive, benefit muscle tone and balance, and help her sleep better.
- Added rugs around the house for improved footing.
- Steve put in a gate at the top of the stairway so Java can only go up and down with one of us holding her harness, which has a handle on it. If things get worse, I may invest in a Help ‘Em Up® Harness.
- Got a memory foam dog bed to replace a bed that neither dog would sleep on.
- Short training sessions/brain games spread throughout the day. Pictured below is a snuffle pad for scent games. I’m also doing more targeting games (nose or paw touch to my hand or an object).
- More physical and verbal interaction. Anything to engage her brain.
- My untrained version of physical therapy and massage. I haven’t found a good source of information on this, but if we can’t get outside because of weather, I still want to move and flex her joints.
- Reluctantly started Java on Rimadyl for her arthritis pain (it can be hard on the liver). CBD oil didn’t help her. I thought maybe I could just give Rimadyl to Java on her worst days, but all days are worst days if I don’t consistently keep the Rimadyl in her bloodstream.
- Use her halter with a handle not just for stairs but to grab her if we have to cross ice, which is hilarious since I am also in danger of falling. When I say hilarious, I’m saying it with a grimace and a shrug. It’s a confidence boost for me to be the steady one…
Some of what I’m doing with Java I discovered from watching Susan Garrett’s YouTube video 12 Keys to Helping My Dogs Live a Long and Happy Life: