En español | Last year, veterinarian Leslie Lathem was beginning to worry that the time had come to put down her beloved eight-year-old boxer, CiCi.
The dog, which Lathem had rescued, was suffering from hip dysplasia and would often slip and fall on Lathem's smooth oak floors. Unable to get up, CiCi would slide around and even get stuck under the sofa.
Then Lathem, 59, attended the Uncharted Veterinary Conference in Greenville, South Carolina. She heard about a new product designed to help pets steady themselves on slippery floors. Lathem later put the small rubbery pieces over each nail on CiCi's paws. “On the first day, [CiCi] could walk just fine,” says Lathem, who lives in Atlanta. “It was like a miracle, really." CiCi passed away recently, but Lathem said the products helped improve the quality of her pet’s days.
As pets’ life spans have soared — dogs to an average of 11.8 years in 2015, up from 10.6 years in 2002, and cats to an average of 12.9 years — entire product lines have been developed to address the special needs of geriatric animals. Pet owners can find orthopedic pet beds to soothe aging bones, strollers that can carry a full-sized Husky, and a slew of assistive devices to increase a pet's mobility: booties to help with traction, ramps for getting into the car, and customized wheelchairs to help a challenged dog move around on its own.
"[These products] improve the quality of life for pets and their owners,” says Lathem.
Supporting senior dogs
10 Ways to Make Life Easier for Aging Dogs
1. Toe grips or non-slip dog socks to prevent slipping on floors
2. Ramps to help them get into the car
3. Orthopedic beds for older bones
4. Dog stairs for getting onto the bed or couch
5. Heated pads to help regulate temperature and soothe muscle spasms
6. Dog strollers for long outings
7. Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements to reduce pain
8. Harnesses to reduce pressure on joints and lift pets up
9. Carts to help disabled pets move around on their own
10. Prescription medications to reduce pain and discomfort
Owners are more than willing to shell out to help their older pets ease into their geriatric years. American pet owners spent $95.7 billion on their furry companions in 2019, according to the American Pet Products Association — up from $48.35 billion a decade earlier. Exactly how much of that is spent on senior animals is difficult to determine, but one indicator is that in 2018, 17 percent of dog owners and 15 percent of cat owners purchased food specially formulated for senior animals, according to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey, conducted by the American Pet Products Association.
The senior dog market now offers owners the option to buy specialized hip and joint supplement treats, bespoke CBD concoctions, and wild Alaskan salmon oil to soothe joints and reduce inflammation. There are many styles of orthopedic beds, ranging from NASA-designed memory foam to elevated cots that can keep dogs off a cold floor in winter and circulate air underneath when it's hot. Movable stairs for pets allow them to get on and off the couch or bed. And heated mats are available to improve blood flow.
Pet owners are also willing to invest in medical treatments that will improve and lengthen a dog's life, like hip replacements or ACL repairs — procedures many older owners may have undergone themselves.
"People are pursuing advanced care when their pets are reaching end of life,” says veterinarian Leilani Alvarez, head of the Integrative and Rehabilitation Medicine Service at Manhattan's Animal Medical Center.
Alvarez often prescribes remedies like acupuncture, laser therapy and hydrotherapy for her geriatric animal patients. The goal is to keep senior pets mobile and combat the pain of arthritis. Specially designed devices are often part of the equation.
At Guardian Veterinary Specialists in Brewster, New York, surgeon Jeffrey Runge recommends soft bedding and a harness with a handle over the shoulders and sometimes the hips to help owners take some weight off their pets’ joints while they're walking around. He recommends using a harness as part of a dog's postoperative care regime.
"A lot of pet owners use these things for extra boost,” Runge says, so they don't hurt themselves while helping their aging companions.
These adjustable contraptions have come a long way since Cary Zimmerman, 66, first used a canine walking harness, fastened to a rock climbing belt with duct tape, to help his 10-year-old pit bull/lab mix get to their Denver dog park after being diagnosed with Cushing's syndrome. As the degenerative disease progressed, the dog lost energy and strength. “People kept asking, ‘Where did you get that?’ “ Zimmerman said. “That led us down a road."
Zimmerman ultimately created the Help ‘Em Up Harness (which has moved beyond duct tape) to assist canine rehab specialists and owners hoist large disabled and senior dogs. (Back injuries are common among vet techs and older pet owners.) The device has evolved to include various accessories for a range of tasks, including a hip lift, shoulder strap and attachments that can be affixed to a wheeled cart. While harnesses certainly help dogs get around, they still require human muscle, which can be problematic for pet owners who may be older themselves.
Mobility products make a difference
Non-slip booties and grippers, like the ones that helped Lathem's senior dog stay on her feet, allows pets to stroll independently.
"People are putting in hardwood, tile and all the beautiful floors dogs are not designed to live on,” says Julie Buzby, a veterinarian who developed a product called ToeGrips to prevent slippage. “Dogs’ natural traction is to engage nails like cleats."
That movement is crucial for combating osteoarthritis. “When a dog slips on a floor, it's probably less likely to walk on that floor again,” says Alvarez. “Improving traction can improve mobility."
For more severe hind-limb weakness (fairly common in geriatric canine patients), severe arthritis or neurologic disease, there's an array of rubberized booties to improve traction and protect paws from injury. Yoga mats, while not the most design-forward, can even do the trick when they're strategically placed throughout the house. Some owners buy strollers to cart their canines around, although vets often prefer devices that keep dogs moving.
Brands like Walkin’ Wheels and Eddie's Wheels make adjustable carts to help disabled pets get around. Basically the four-legged equivalent of a walker, these devices are a common tool in rehabilitation, used regularly after spinal surgery to help support an animal's weight while encouraging mobility.
Though Lathem has not had to use carts for any of her own pets, she has prescribed them for her four-legged patients, which often seem pleased with their new set of wheels. “They're amazingly adaptable,” Lathem says. “They get on that cart and run and run and run."
Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer who covers pets, health and home design. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating and BBC Travel.