Senior Citizens of the Pet Variety

In the five-year hiatus I took from blogging, I have had so many spiritual, political and career insights that I was itching to write about, and there is still more I would like to write about. But I want to take a break from these posts to reflect on Gilbert who is still my guide dog, and Snickers my kitty who have not gotten the attention they deserve in my blog.

With both Gilbert and Snickers, their senior citizen status snuck up on me, as I bet it does for every loving pet owner. I suppose it is a similar feeling to the feeling parents describe when they will say that it seems as though their children were just babies yesterday as they send them off to college. But with pets, the sad difference is that they are not growing up and embarking on an exciting new journey, but are growing old and soon will no longer be with us, at least not in this life. In the amazing book I read about the Restoration, Eldredge says that perhaps our beloved pets will run to greet us. I have also read things that say animals don’t have souls in the same way humans do because humans were specially created in God’s image, so our departed pets don’t go to heaven. This is an intriguing topic I would love to explore further, but whether God re-unites us with our departed pets or not, we will not be disappointed because we will always have our happy memories of them from this life, and maybe the experiences we get to have with pets in this life are just a small taste, a foreshadowing, of the even more magical memories we will make with animals in the Restoration, when we will form bonds with wolves, bears and lions, animals that were too dangerous to bond with here. But I digress. Gilbert and Snickers are both still alive and well, and seem to be enjoying their golden years. I am enjoying them in their golden years too.

In 2014 when I was getting my paralegal certificate at Milwaukee Area Technical College, I had class with a non-traditional student who worked at a pet store. One day after class, she told me she thought Gilbert had the beginnings of arthritis as he seemed to walk stiffly. At that time, he had just turned eight. She suggested I talk to the vet about putting him on glucosamine supplements. I did notice that Gilbert was moving a little slower and taking a little longer to get up, but he still enjoyed chasing the cat, and had no problem with long walks or jumping in and out of the car. So I decided not to make a special trip to the vet but just wait for his regular annual check-up and bring this up with the vet at that time. Sure enough at his appointment the following July, the vet watched him walk and agreed that he was indeed showing signs of arthritis. The vet suggested giving him TriCox chewable supplements that would help his joints, and also gave me Carprofen that I could give him if he seemed to be in a lot of pain or if he had exerted himself more than usual. With that we carried on with our lives. Just as we had done at Carroll University, Gilbert and I both met the requirements of the Paralegal program, and Gilbert helped me make many friends along the way. In April 2015, we joined the ranks of the employed, but for the first time in his life, Gilbert had to start taking sick days.

One day last winter, about an hour after Mom dropped us off at work, Gilbert shifted on his dog bed under my desk, and then started whimpering in a way I had never heard before. Hearing my buddy who is usually so happy whimper like that sent me into a bit of a panic, and not thinking clearly, I jumped up and tried to rush him outside. Fortunately, my boss who loves dogs and sits near me was there and calmed me down. She said Gilbert didn’t need to go out but looked as though he was in pain, and said he needed to go home. So I called my mom while my boss and I took turns consoling Gilbert for the half an hour or so it took for Mom to come back. When Mom got there, I think my boss helped Mom lift Gilbert into the van, and later that day, the boss asked me to call Mom to see how Gilbert was doing. He had ran through a deep pile of snow that morning while doing his business, something he used to do without a problem but now caused his arthritis to flare up. After a couple days of rest, tri-cox and Carprofen, he returned to work but had another flare-up a couple months later. This time, he had to stay home for several weeks because the vet prescribed a temporary regimen of Prednisone, Gabapentin and Tramadol. Just like with a human employee, we didn’t think it was wise for Gilbert to go to work impaired, and the prednisone caused him to need to pee a lot more often which would have been too much of a disruption. But then, just as Gilbert was feeling better, my mom had surgery which left her unable to drive for 3 months. Dad drove me to work on the way to his work, but because he was using a company car, he didn’t want Gilbert to ride along. So Gilbert did not come back to work with me until July. If my job were in one of those old government buildings with long, twisty-turny hallways, not having Gilbert would have been a huge hardship in terms of orientation and mobility, but fortunately the office where I work is small and extremely cane-friendly with narrow, straight-shot hallways. But I didn’t realize until he wasn’t with me how much I would miss just his presence by my side. My co-workers missed him too. But I think Gilbert missed going to work most of all because when I would come home from work, my mom would inform me of new, naughty habits like sneaking into Dad’s home office and eating paperwork he left on the floor. I have heard from owners of other retired guide dogs that this behavior is common as they are upset about suddenly being left home and separated from their owners all day. Some handlers even have to find new homes for their retired guide dogs for this reason. But when Gilbert exhibited this behavior, I decided that he didn’t need to officially retire. I probably would have had to retire him by now if I worked in a big city with a long route to a large office building. But since I live with my parents who drive me to work, and my office is small, he is still able and eager to go to work with me at eleven and a half years old.

When he did go back to work, I bought him a ramp to climb in and out of the van since the vet recommended that he not do too much jumping at his age. Occasionally he will have flare-ups where I keep him home because he seems like he might be in pain, and in January, he came down with a sudden urinary tract infection. But he goes to work with me most days, tail wagging. I like to imagine that if he were human, he would be that sweet old man who thought he would enjoy retirement after a long successful career, but found that he was bored and missed the routine of going to work, and the social interaction of getting out and being with people. So he took an easy job that allowed him to work at his own pace. He always has a smile when he comes to work, and his positive attitude makes everyone’s day a little brighter.

A couple years ago, my parents and I noticed that Snickers seemed to be meowing more and sleeping a little more, but still found the energy to jump onto the table and counters and make mischief too, so we weren’t overly concerned. Then a few months ago, Mom noticed that she was peeing a lot more and drinking a lot more water, so on March 15, Mom and I took her to the vet. After running some tests, the vet determined that Snickers’ kidney function was deteriorating. Other than a fluid administration procedure which Mom and I thought Snickers wouldn’t want to be put through, there was really nothing that could be done to reverse her condition. The vet was extremely compassionate, and pointed out that although Snickers’ exact date of birth is unknown since she came from the humane society, we adopted her as a kitten in 2000, so she was around eighteen years old, which is about 95 in cat years! The vet basically told us that at this point, we should focus on keeping her comfortable. So with heavy hearts, we brought her home, and the first thing I did when we got home was text the sad prognosis to my sister. The summer I was ten years old and she was sixteen, we forged a special sisterly bond as we talked Mom and Dad into adopting a cat, and spent several summer afternoons at humane societies meeting kittens. She asked if the vet indicated how much longer Snickers might live, and I said Mom and I didn’t want to think about that yet so we didn’t even ask. We would just do what we could to keep her comfortable and cherish every moment with her.

The vet sent us home with samples of a prescription renal friendly cat food diet to see if she would eat it. We were not sure if she would eat it because she has been a very picky eater in the past, but the vet said if she wouldn’t eat it, we could just bring it back for a refund. To our surprise and relief however, when we started feeding her this new food, she gobbled it right up! And after just a few weeks on this food, we could tell she felt a lot better. Her water consumption and urination returned to normal, but most incredibly, she almost acts like a kitten again, causing more trouble than she has in awhile. We must either drink from water bottles or cups with lids, or make sure we don’t leave glasses of water unattended, or she will jump onto the table and help herself to our water despite having a giant bowl of water available to her and Gilbert in the kitchen. She has also taken to licking our plates after we leave the table. Just the other day, Mom was making scrambled eggs for breakfast. She had cracked the eggs into a bowl and whisked them with a fork, and then turned her back for just a second to do something before pouring the eggs into the skillet. In that short time, Snickers had snuck onto the counter and was lapping up the raw egg from the bowl! When this behavior started, we increased her food from one can to two cans a day thinking that with her improved health, her appetite was getting better. Obesity was never a concern for Snickers as she has always been slim. She is a very active cat who can jump from the floor to the top of the refrigerator, or from the counter directly to the table. In the summer, she also enjoys chasing birds and bugs from window to window. But on March 15 when she was weighed at the vet, we were shocked to find out she only weighed 5.3 pounds. But her food mischief didn’t stop when we increased her food, so I like to speculate that either she is that sassy, noncompliant patient who craves what the doctor says she shouldn’t have—in her case, protein—or maybe this mischief is just her way of saying “don’t write me off just yet. I may be 95 years old, but I’ve still got fight left in me.” If she were human, I like to imagine she would be the spry old lady who asks her family to take her skydiving for her 100th birthday, and if some naïve person tried to snatch her purse or something assuming she was an easy target because she was so old, she would punch them in the nose and snatch her purse right back! (On March 15, she hissed at the vet, a sound I hadn’t heard since Mojo used to pick on her.)

About six months after our beloved german shepherd Indy passed away in 2002, my sister and I missed having a dog in the house so much that Mom relented and we went to visit dogs at the humane society. At the time, Mom saw a sweet, 10-year-old beagle that she wanted us to consider, but at the time, I was vehemently opposed to adopting a senior pet. I am still not entirely sure how I feel about adopting a senior pet. What if we brought home a senior pet that would only live a short time, and then we would be right back where we started, grieving and longing for a dog again? If the dog had a lifetime of traumatic experiences, or even if he lived with a loving family for many years but that family could no longer care for him, would he ever really bond with us before he passed away? But I wish I would have been more open-minded and given a senior dog a chance. The puppy we ended up adopting had behavioral issues we were not equipped to handle and we determined it would be best to take him back to the humane society where hopefully, he would find a more suitable home and live a happy life. But also, now that Gilbert and Snickers are seniors, I am finding that I love and appreciate them in a whole new way. I love how their demeanors are more laid-back than when they were young, in that they both sleep more and move a little slower, but they still get into mischief sometimes, as if they are both reminding us that while they may move a little slower, they are still the same creatures they have always been. In addition, because they are only capable of living in the moment, they don’t overthink things like death the way humans often do, and thus they are always cheerful, just living in the moment and not worrying about the future. I know that eventually, the sad reality is that they will no longer be with us, but I am taking a lesson from them and striving not to think about this eventuality, but live in the moment myself because they are still here today. And in forty years or so when I reach senior citizen status myself, I hope I will live my life this way as well.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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