Communicating with Families of Senior Pets

Families with senior pets may come into the examination visit with differing goals and beliefs. Getting people on the same path may take some work. Interactions with each individual in the family may mean longer appointment times to hear out different perspectives and work on empathizing with and validating their feelings. Senior pets may have a long list of issues that can complicate the visit. Developing tools to start a conversation among the family members that centers the needs of the pet and takes their concerns into account is a good place to start.

News of a declining condition or serious illness is common in geriatric medicine, so careful use of communication is essential. How the patient’s condition is explained and the goals of care are established with the client may have a great impact on the animal’s care and the client’s experience. Listening to the client’s understanding of the condition and eliciting how much detail they prefer can be established before continuing the conversation. Be aware of unintended bias in these discussions.

Clients may have many questions. For example, they may want to know if there was a cause of the illness, how serious it is, and what are the expected outcomes in the short and long term. Studies have shown that truth is important, delivered clearly with compassion and without judgment.75 Use a comfortable area in the practice free from distractions to maintain focus on the interaction. Information should be given in bits with pauses to assess the client’s understanding before moving on to the next topic. Visuals or links to written materials may be offered to the client for them to refer to later, especially in situations in which emotions may hinder information processing. Providing them with a plan for follow-up questions and resources may be necessary.75

When there is a large amount of information to convey to a client, grouping it into categories aids recall. For example, “The four main goals of our therapy are to (1) reduce pain, (2) increase mobility, (3) get to a healthy weight, and (4) help you two enjoy those walks on the nature path again.” Tailoring information to the unique situation of the client and pet is important.76

Home Tips for Clients Caring for Senior Pets

  • Provide regular gentle grooming and nail care
  • Consider having a mobile groomer for home grooming to minimize stress
  • Keep pets clean and dry at all times, including fur, skin, and bedding
  • Provide good bedding that is adequately padded
  • Cover slippery floors with secure rugs and mats for traction
  • Pets with decreased mobility need additional nursing care, including being walked or turned every few hours
  • Monitor skin for redness, rashes, swelling
  • Keep flies, fleas, and ticks off the senior pet
  • For pets with incontinence issues:
    • Minimize use of diapers to avoid secondary infections
    • Use disposable or washable waterproof covers for bedding (fleece or mesh)
    • Keep patient groomed and/or fur trimmed, particularly on the back legs, tail, and around the vulva, penis, and anus
    • Use baby wipes or medicated wipes to keep patient clean in between bathing

The 2023 AAHA Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats are generously supported by Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, CareCredit, IDEXX, and Zoetis.

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