The Senior Years: How I coped with my dog's degenerative illness


Whether it is a chronic condition, a painless yet incurable disease, or a terminal diagnosis, there are many ways that we can still be there for our animal companions.

We had been managing his hip dysplasia and arthritis so well that I confess I was quite excited to show the vet how Alfie was doing…I will never forget hearing the diagnosis and the words, ‘degenerative’ and ‘incurable.’ I will also never forget Alfie gazing up at me, attuned as ever to my emotions, looking for reassurance. In that instant, rather than fall into a pit of anticipatory grief, I vowed to live in the moment as Alfie had taught me from day one and to take the opportunity to be even closer to him.

Love Languages

Alfie had been abandoned six times before we met. He was only 18 months old. While the rescue had described him as bewildered and unmanageable, he remains the gentlest and greatest animal I have ever met. The manager told me in a whisper that he was due to be PTS the very next day as, ‘no one could cope with him.’ The inability of some humans to understand a nervous animal’s needs had caused uncertainty, pain and rejection to be woven into his earliest, formative months. The intense stress made him suffer neurologically and physically, with seizures increasing in frequency each time he was returned.

It was our willingness to connect intuitively with each other as living beings and to learn each other’s language that created a turning point in both our lives. I worked hard to holistically reduce his stress and suffering and was able to reduce his epilepsy meds dosage by 70%. He never had another seizure in my care. The transformation into the truly magnificent animal he became was astounding and was a profoundly rewarding and remarkable experience for us both.

As things changed with the onset of age and illness, I held fast to this foundational bond and embraced the opportunity to deepen it even further.

Making changes

I changed with him: slowing down, seeing and accepting his changing world and adapting to it as he coped with the co-morbidities of chronic musculoskeletal and later, degenerative and terminal illness:

  • Adapting to a slower pace and more ‘sniffing’ walks
  • Hydrotherapy/swimming (non-weightbearing exercise)
  • Canine massage and strengthening and passive stretching exercises
  • Diet & weight control and games to control food intake
  • Supplements including Omega 3
  • Visiting new places & continuing to enjoy familiar ones
  • Playing games: interactive puzzles, food toys, hide n seek
  • Swapping chasing and stop/start games for gentler activities
  • Harnesses, ramps, elevated feeding stations
  • Socks for traction and protection
  • Orthopedic Beds
  • Rugs to prevent slippage on hard floors
  • Cuddles, cuddles and more cuddles (ok, no change there!)
  • Celebrating all the wins every day
Alfie the goodest boy

Further learning

As well as wanting to give Alfie the best possible practical support in his senior years, I researched how animals feel and show pain:

Managing Pain in Dogs

I also consulted with several different vets and pain management and palliative care specialists to carry out detailed quality of life assessments. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) guidelines define QOL as “the total wellbeing of an individual animal that considers the physical, social and emotional aspects of life.” “It is a multidimensional construct that is subjectively experienced by and is uniquely personal to the individual.” The information and assessments were invaluable in ensuring that Alfie had the best quality of life and that I knew and understood his senior language.

New Roles

Although our walks became shorter as his mobility became more restricted…… his mind was just as sharp. He naturally evolved into a new role as an unofficial ‘therapy dog.’ I used to smile as he pulled me yet again to the local coffee shop where he’d hold court (he was majestic!) and make his ever-increasing fan base laugh out loud with his antics and draw gasps with his stunning looks. I lost count of how many people told me that they feared dogs but were inexplicably drawn to him. He touched so many lives.

It can be difficult to see the bigger picture and the opportunities you are being given but despite challenges, senior years can bring you even closer together during even the most testing of times. There is a saying in Buddhism, ‘keep death by your side;’ our dogs already know this; they fully appreciate life and celebrate every moment to the full and all that they teach us lives on in a legacy full of hope and wisdom and love.

In memory of my boy, Alfie Mukerji

Author: Anjali Mukerji