When Your Aging Relative is Your Dog

When Your Aging Relative is Your Dog

A little over a year ago, my almost 12-year-old dog Gracie was just a normal, highly neurotic terrier. Sure, she was prone to excessive self-soothing by licking her rear end, her tail, her paws, her belly, ok basically every part of her body, but I thought we had reached a sort of détente where I had stopped trying to change her and she tried to indulge herself mostly out of sight. She was a rescue dog and apparently hadn’t ever gotten over whatever trauma she’d suffered before she came to us, but I felt like she had grown into a certain peace.

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When she started having problems, I’m ashamed to say that each and every time I misinterpreted the issue and then handled it exactly wrong. For example, when she started urinating (copiously!) on the furniture and on our bed, I attributed it to her jealousy over our new dog and responded by instituting an off the furniture policy and confining them both to the upstairs hallway when we went out. It wasn’t until she started peeing on her dog bed that it occurred to me that she might be having a problem and took her to the vet.

She was, of course. Like so many of us women in middle age, Gracie is suffering from the side effects of low estrogen, quite common in dogs who have been spayed. The vet finally settled her on Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a form of estrogen that used to be given to pregnant women but was taken off the market (for good reasons). So now both Gracie and I are on hormone therapy.

DES is a pretty serious drug. I’ve been giving it to Grace for almost a year now and only just last week read the warning on the label that stressed that women trying to get pregnant shouldn’t ever touch it. It can also cause ovarian cancer in dogs, so you shouldn’t give it to your dog more than twice a week at the most.

So, for example, if after 4 wonderful months of no accidents, suddenly they started up again on a daily basis, you definitely, you wouldn’t want to up the dosage from once a week to once a day without telling your vet because that can be very bad for your dog. (You also wouldn’t want to spend a good month blaming your other dog for the problem.)

As it turns out, another thing that’s common in dogs Gracie’s age are urinary tract infections which can also cause breakthrough urination. The only other symptoms Gracie was showing, besides the urination, break my heart when I think about it: she went crazy with the licking — to the point where we couldn’t get her to stop and she would go at it ALL NIGHT LONG; she went crazy with anxiety — once starting to tremble with fear just because my husband and I had gone in and out of the front door several times; and this is the heartbreaker, folks; she — a dog who never, ever wants to be petted — would walk over to me and lay her head in my lap for a bit of love.

And just to really prove that I’m an unfit owner for an older dog, what finally pushed me into the vet’s office was the licking and the anxiety and how it affected me. We couldn’t sleep because we couldn’t get Gracie to stop licking during the night and it had gotten to the point that I was having to get up with Gracie and go sit in the bathroom with her if it simply rained softly at night because she was too distraught to stay in her crate. (I am not entirely heartless.) It was only as an afterthought at the visit that I mentioned that I had had to up the dosage on the DES and, that was okay, right?

As a result of that visit to the vet, there’s a new normal for Gracie now. A round of antibiotics seems to have cured her infection, so in the morning, she takes her DES (only twice a week) and then at night, she settles in with Xanax to help her sleep and Prozac as a long-term solution to at least try to take the edge off her anxiety. 

Sadly, however, it looks like our new normal is very similar to the new normal for many people with aging relatives. She’s been on her regime for a month now and there’s been an improvement in her sleeping and her anxiety, but she has good days and bad days. On good days, she’s the old Gracie, spry and able to take down her young pup sister with a single swat. On bad days, she retreats into a world of licking that she can’t seem to come out of. 

I love my sweet, little neurotic dog who feels that sitting in the same room with me is enough affection, thank you very much, and who absolutely knows the camera is stealing her soul. We’ve entered a new phase of life with pill bottles and going slower up the stairs and bedding down in her crate at 8:00pm because only the young pups stay up late. I only hope that I can remember to show her the attention she needs so she’ll stay my old dog for a long time.

This is why Gracie deserves loving care for the rest of her life:


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  1. October 8, 2015 / 3:04 pm

    I don’t have a dog but I did have a cat that I had to put to sleep. Those were difficult days. Thanks for you post — maybe having an aging animal is a good way to see the path for an aging mother or father. We all need to get on board for our own aging too. Life is a process and every part of it has its joys and sorrows.

    • Katy
      October 8, 2015 / 4:00 pm

      That’s so true Beth. I think it’s so hard to see them age because it’s a reminder that we’re also growing older.

  2. October 8, 2015 / 4:40 pm

    Oh gosh. This brought me to tears. Our old man dog is going through some similar things. The anxiety is intense, no licking, but loads of crying. It breaks my heart. I hope Gracie is doing well w. her new meds and stays strong! Give her a squeeze from me.

    • Katy
      October 8, 2015 / 4:42 pm

      Oh the crying would be really rough! Gracie trembles which is sad enough. Hug your guy for me. And hugs to you from me. 🙂

  3. October 8, 2015 / 5:50 pm

    I don’t have a dog or cat but many of my friends do, and a lot of these pets are aging. I am a caregiver for an elderly in law in her late 80s…can so identify.

  4. October 8, 2015 / 6:50 pm

    God bless you…that little dog will be missed I am sure when she is gone. But until then you are a very good dog owner. Give Gracie my best.

    Be well.


    • Katy
      October 8, 2015 / 6:51 pm

      Thanks so much!

  5. Helene Cohen Bludman
    October 8, 2015 / 7:42 pm

    First of all, I love your title SO much. Our pets are our fur children and such important members of the family. We are in the same phase you are with our sweet 12 YO Duncan and it is just heartbreaking. Dogs don’t live nearly long enough.

    • Katy
      October 8, 2015 / 7:45 pm

      It is so sad isn’t it? It isn’t even the “she’s going to die” thing, it’s just heartbreaking to see her so feeble.

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