Over the past few decades, pets have been reaping the rewards of increased life expectancy, thanks to advancements in veterinary medicine, improved nutrition, and a greater focus on animal health education. Additionally, the strengthening of the bond between pet owners and their companion animals has led to heightened enthusiasm for enhancing the lifelong well-being of pets. As a result, veterinarians should expect to encounter a rising number of patients in the advanced stages of life, presenting a unique set of opportunities and considerations in their veterinary practice. But is this the case? Are we seeing as many senior pets as we could or should?
In my veterinary hospice business, I felt like I was helping families say goodbye to their pets, yet a large percentage had not been to their veterinarian in years. Diving deeper into this notion, I evaluated data (with help from VetSuccess) from more than 817,000 pets who were euthanized in clinics and uncovered that 55% of cats and 40% of dogs did not see their veterinarian in the 18 months before they were euthanized.1
These data underscore a concerning trend: A significant number of clients with senior pets fail to seek guidance from their veterinarian during the crucial last months of their pets’ lives. This aligns precisely with the anecdotal observations I’ve made in my own practice.
This trend represents a significant missed opportunity for veterinarians
to enhance the well-being of older pets. There is a wealth of interventions and support available to manage age-related ailments and ensure a high quality of life for both pets and their owners during the late-life stage. However, it’s imperative that pet owners are made aware of the comprehensive assistance we can offer.
How can we better help senior pets?
Naturally, many veterinary practices tend to prioritize their educational and promotional endeavors toward the wellness of puppies, kittens, and middle-aged adult pets. However, there is often a noticeable gap in communication and marketing efforts when it comes to engaging with and catering to owners of senior pets.
Many veterinary practice websites predominantly emphasize young pets, addressing issues and diseases in puppies, kittens, and adult dogs and cats. In contrast, content related to senior pets often boils down to encouraging owners to visit more frequently for diagnostics to unveil hidden problems, frequently taking on a somewhat alarming tone when a supportive and educational one is much more helpful.
In some instances, senior pet and end-of-life care are grouped together as a single category on these websites, potentially conveying the unintended message that there is limited support available for senior pets. Therefore, I suggest separating these topics to provide more clarity and reassurance to pet owners. Unfortunately, resources addressing the specific health issues that older pets encounter and support for care- givers facing challenges are seldom found. This lack of information translates to missed opportunities for establishing meaningful connections with pet owners and those pets getting the help they need.
In the later stages of their beloved pet’s lives, owners are confronted with a plethora of novel physical challenges and emotional considerations. The clinical indicators and health conditions of senior pets can evolve rapidly, necessitating more frequent visits to the veterinarian. These crucial appointments not only provide essential medical care but also offer invaluable opportunities for families to enhance the quality of life during this late stage of their pet’s journey. But how do we get them to come into the clinics?
Here are some tips to help connect with pet owners:
1. Create a welcoming environment:
Ensure that your clinic reflects its commitment to senior pets from the moment visitors arrive.
a. Designate a convenient senior pet parking spot.
b. Personalize key areas, such as the lobby and boarding suites, for senior pets. Use nonslip flooring options, such as yoga mats or bath mats, and provide low-entry litter boxes, orthopedic bedding, and comfortable resting places.
c. Create a retail space for senior pet products or provide product lists and ordering options for clients to consider. For example, I created an Amazon page specifically for senior pet care product suggestions (amazon.com/shop/ drmarygardner).
d. Send daily texts and photos to clients who have a senior pet staying for treatment or boarding.
2. Tailored protocols:
Develop clinic policies and medical protocols specific to senior pets. These should cover various aspects of care.
a. Patient holding techniques designed for comfort and stability.
b. Special anesthesia procedures and monitoring tailored to senior pet needs.
c. Enhanced in-patient care focusing on mobility, pain management, low stress, and hygiene.
d. Surgical positioning that minimizes stress and discomfort.
e. Venipuncture techniques that consider fragile veins.
3. Comprehensive staff training:
Ensure that your entire veterinary team is well versed in caring for senior pets and understands the unique considerations.
a. Address noise sensitivity, mobility issues, vision impairments, and ways to minimize these stressors.
b. Teach staff members about thermoregulation to maintain the right temperature for older patients, particularly after surgery.
c. Emphasize techniques for handling senior pets with care, taking their discomfort and anxiety into account.
d. Provide training on food palatability for senior pets, addressing their specific dietary needs.
e. Empower your team to consistently provide high standards of care for senior pets within their respective roles.
4. Optimize senior pet care:
Encourage owners to consistently seek veterinary guidance for their senior pets.
a. Offer bundled services, such as 4 discounted office visits per year, to encourage regular checkups.
b. Consider telemedicine appointments for those older pets who have difficulty traveling.
c. Tailor vaccinations to the pet’s lifestyle, environment, and local laws, avoiding unnecessary services.
d. Allocate 30 minutes for comprehensive consultations.
e. Provide a tailored health questionnaire for older pets that are completed by owners before appointments.
f. Encourage owners to capture photos and short videos of their pets every 3 months (eg, showing their pet resting, playing, walking, using stairs, getting up and down from their favorite perch or nap spot, and getting into the litter box or out to the yard) for assessment, progression, comfort, and safety purposes.
g. Recommend pet owners maintain health journals for easy monitoring and discussion during visits.
5. Expand the focus on senior-centric topics:
Disseminate ample information on senior pet health care, ensuring that your practice becomes top of mind for families with senior pets. Make this content readily available or direct pet owners to trustworthy resources, shining a spotlight on these subjects and valuable tools. Some examples to discuss include the following:
a. The aging process and signs of aging. (Simply stating that pets age at a rate of 7 years to our 1 year is insufficient and inaccurate.)
b. The top ailments or signs that senior cats and dogs struggle with include mobility, cognitive dysfunction, sleep disturbances, pain, heart disease, kidney disease, dental disease, diminished vision, and cancer.
- Special services your clinic offers (eg, laser therapy, acupuncture, physical rehabilitation, geriatric boarding).
- Quality-of-life assessments. Many are available online, and I created some for dog owners (bit.ly/dogLQ) and for cat owners (bit.ly/catLQ).
- Saying the final goodbye and cremation options.
6. Broaden your outreach and cultivate awareness:
Effective marketing plays a vital role not only in nurturing relationships with existing clients but also in connecting with pet owners who have yet to visit your practice. Use these tools:
a. Clinic website. Allocate approximately 25% of your website’s content to senior-focused topics and quality-of-life evaluations. Integrate images and video clips that feature senior pets, including moments where your staff interacts with these older animals, across all your marketing initiatives. There’s a unique and compelling appeal in the presence of a frail, older cat or a wobbly dog as the welcoming face of your clinic.
b. Newsletters, blogs, and vlogs. Devote at least one-third of these messages to senior pet issues.
c. Paid ads. Allocate a portion of your budget for campaigns that shed light on veterinary care for senior pets. The good news is that most clinics don’t do this, so the click competition is low.
d. Social media. Ensure that one-third of your clinic’s posts address senior pet care and the concerns of caregivers.
7. Care about the caregiver:
For some, it’s challenging to grasp the hardships faced by pet owners when they’re looking after an older, ailing pet. The findings from a survey I conducted with senior pet owners revealed that, on average, they dedicated 3.5 hours a day to the care of their beloved pets.
Pet owners might experience caregiver burden without even realizing it. Offer education about the indicators of caregiver burden and make resources available to assist them both before and after their pet’s passing, such as:
a. A website dedicated to educating owners and veterinarians about pet caregiver burden and exploring how to reduce the stress (petcaregiverburden.com).
b. Facebook support groups for different pet ailments (eg, dogs with hyperadrenocorticism or degenerative myelopathy, cats with chronic kidney disease or hyperthyroidism). I often suggest such groups because hearing from others who are managing the same issue can help.
c. A caregiver assessment chart. For example, I created these for dog owners (bit.ly/dogcgqol) and cat owners (bit.ly/catcgqol).
d. Lap of Love’s pet loss support resources, which can also help owners who are experiencing anticipatory grief (lapoflove.com/our-services/ pet-loss-support).
Enlighten pet owners about the tell-tale behaviors and physical indicators to keep an eye on in their senior pets, demonstrating your understanding of the challenges they may encounter as caregivers. Building their trust will increase the likelihood of them seeking assistance from your practice for their aging pets. My dream would be that the senior pets are seen more often in their golden years, and I hope these tips can inspire a change in your practice to do just that.
Mary Gardner, DVM, is cofounder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice (lapoflove.com) based in Florida, and author of 4 books for pet owners: It’s Never Long Enough: A Practical Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Dog; Nine Lives Are Not Enough: A Practical Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Cat; Geriatric Dog Health & Care Journal: A Complete Toolkit for the Geriatric Dog Caregiver; and Geriatric Cat Health & Care Journal: A Complete Toolkit for the Geriatric Cat Caregiver. She has also coauthored with Coleen Ellis 2 activity books for kids: Forever Friend: A Children’s Guide and Activity Book for Saying Goodbye to a Special Dog and Forever Friend: A Children’s Guide and Activity Book for Saying Goodbye to a Special Cat. For more information on Gardner, visit her website at drmarygardner.com.
Gardner M. It’s Never Long Enough: A Practical Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Dog. Rolled Toe Publishing; 2022.