How to Keep Loving Your Challenging Pet

by Peggy Frezon

My little spaniel-mix Kelly is asleep on the cold hardwood floor only a foot away from the plush, fleecy doggy bed I gave her, as if she’s forgotten it exists. Has she forgotten me too? She doesn’t snuggle with me on the couch any more. Sometimes she lies there perfectly still, for hours. I study the expression on her face and wonder if she’s dreaming about the days she used to run in the woods, tail spinning like a helicopter rotor, ears flapping as she darted along tracking a chipmunk.

Now she can no longer smell a chipmunk. She can’t find a hunk of steak if I dropped it in front of her nose. She can’t see well either, and she’s nearly completely deaf. At 15 ½ years old she’s developed a litany of conditions—kidney issues, arthritis, Cushing’s disease, topped off by Canine Cognitive Disorder (doggy dementia).

Her veterinarian keeps track of her health. I wonder if she’s happy. I look into her eyes and she looks lost. “She’s not Kelly anymore,” my husband says. And indeed she’s not. When she’s awake, she spends her days pacing around the house, around and around and around. She gets stuck behind furniture. And she forgets what she’s doing. When I put her outside, she begs to come back in. Once inside, she has an accident on the floor.

This is the reality of everyday life with Kelly now. We let her out and let her in. We clean up multiple accidents on the floor. I reach down to pat her and she walks away. I grit my teeth as the endless sound of her toenails clicking on the hardwood floor.

Some of my friends have challenging pets too. They’ve become old and incontinent. They suddenly develop separation anxiety and cry all night. Whatever the circumstances, we never stop loving our pets. But sometimes the day to day stress of caring for their issues becomes taxing and unpleasant. When that happens, here are some tips:

  1. Remind yourself of the reasons for the behaviors. Work with your veterinarian and training professional to understand why your pet is barking, whining, or whatever. Figure out if you can provide treatments or change their environment in some way that will help. Sometimes there are side effects of aging or diseases that have no cure. When Kelly paces or has accidents, I constantly remind myself that it’s not her fault. She doesn’t want to be this way. Empathy helps me accept the challenges.
  1. Spend quiet time together. Kelly doesn’t come up to me and ask for affection like she used to, so when she’s quiet and peaceful, I make a point to go to her and pat her. Spending quiet time together helps us keep connected.
  2. Remember the good times. Our daily routine is often focused on negatives. Every day I’m reminded that she’s ill and infirm. I like to look at old photographs and videos of her in happier days. That really puts a smile on my face.
  1. Think outside the box. Kelly’s pacing really gets me down. I can barely relax because of the sound of her toenails on the hardwood floors. Medications and supplements haven’t stopped her pacing. So we bought her little socks to soften the sound. When she won’t keep them on, we line the floors with blankets. When that stops working, we’ll try a new solution!
  1. Join a support group. You might think you are alone, but there are many others out there who face what you’re facing. We’ve found a wonderful Facebook group for pet parents of animals with Canine Cognitive Disorder. You may find comfort in sharing your experience and receiving suggestions from others who have been there too.

Kelly has been a part of our family for many years. When she wakes up, I make sure to tell her what we both need to hear. “I love you, girl. And I always will.”

Peggy Frezon is contributing editor of All Creatures magazine. She is an award-winning writer of articles and books about our bond with animals, including Faithfully Yours (Paraclete Press, 2015).  You can also find Peggy’s stories in Guideposts magazine and dozens of Chicken Soup for the Soul ™ books. Peggy and her husband rescue senior dogs, including 15- year-old spaniel Kelly, and 10-year-old golden retriever Ike, a therapy dog. Connect with Peggy at www.peggyfrezon.com, on Twitter @peggyfrezon and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PeggyFrezonBooks.