Caring For The Elderly

Sally Wallis, Zande Basenjis

Written for the Basenji Newsletter of Victoria, Australia, and later published again in The Basenji - September 2001.

It happens to most of us. Old age creeps up scarcely noticed, until suddenly we become aware of a general slowing down, a lack of enthusiasm for energetic projects and a realisation that comfort, old friends and our own hearthside are all we really need.

It's just the same with our dogs, be they life-long companions, super-successful show animals or magnificently potent studs. They get old too and because we value them they deserve our respect and attention to their needs even when they bring no more ribbons, rabbits or stud fees. No dog outlives his or her usefulness in this household. They may no longer give us puppies or prizes but they continue providing enormous pleasure.

Meet Zebu, a Deedles daughter - still going strong and 15 when this picture was taken !
(Taysenji Zebu - Mbarapi Zande / My Tootsie - born 16/12/1985)

The most recent five Basenjis to find a sunny spot in our own Pet Cemetery at the far end of the garden under the flowering chestnut tree range from twelve & a half to fourteen years & seven months. Two were our UK foundation stock and we bred the other three. There is a lady fast approaching 13 sitting on my feet as I type. Between them, they have taught us to care for them in old age and to let them go with dignity when the time comes.

An elderly dog has less need of a rich diet but will still look forward to mealtimes. To keep their spirits up and give them something to look forward to without putting a strain on their systems, a regimen of two smaller meals a day works well. Supplementary treats and vegetables can be given freely but don't let them get fat. Feeding twice a day makes it a great deal easier to control their weight and carrying too much spare flesh around puts a strain on the heart of a Basenji just as it does on us humans. They aren't likely to be getting the same amount of exercise so cut down on the kibble and feed easy to digest meats like chicken and good quality canned foods if you aren't cooking their food yourself. If you are, do make sure there is a correct amount of minerals and vitamins in the diet.

Bones can still be fed, but if there are other dogs in the house, let the old fellow take his to a secure area, perhaps in a crate, where he can chew on it without having to fight off the younger, spryer pack members. If it is a fresh raw marrow bone, the only kind our pack gets, leave him with it for no longer than 30 minutes the first day, and then take it up. Too much bone can make ANY dog loose and then bound by turn. The residual meat and fat on the bone renders them loose and as they actually gnaw at the bone, ingestion of tiny splinters and bone-dust can send them too far in the other direction. As the bone 'matures' you can leave it with them.

Tails down is just a sign of concentration - Basenjis of all ages do this, given the inducement of a bone !

Keep an eye on the teeth now more than ever. Really hard-to-chew biscuits and bones all help but gums can rot if uncared for and the teeth become loose.

We keep up annual shots (Hepatitis, Parvovirus, Leptospirosis, Distemper) right through old age. It may no longer be necessary but it does ensure that at least once a year, the Vet goes over the old dogs, listens to hearts, checks blood and maybe spots something that we are too close to our pets to notice. Anal glands, for example, can require attention more frequently in older animals although it is always true that the less you squeeze them, the less you'll have to.

This is The Duchess, aka Zande Otesha
(Ch & Irish Ch Domewood Donner / Zande Nasaba Somo - born 15/12/1986)
She was nearly 15 when I took this photograph but she enjoyed her meals until she died at 16 +

Old dogs can feel the cold. Hope & Shani had wonderfully warm fleece lined wax jackets made for them by an admirer. We have never seen any need to put our dogs into the sweaters I crochet in large quantities for sale in aid of Rescue, because either they are racing about keeping themselves warm or they have refused to venture outdoors at all. However, now she is a dowager lady, Shani in particular welcomes her wind- and water-proof jacket on days when the wind blows chill.

And a draught is a draught is a draught. I hate to sit in one, and so do our old people.

Tatu (Mlembe Tatu) was a sister of Deedles. She lived to be 16 years old and is sadly missed by her wonderful owner (Ch & Irish Ch Domewood Donner / Lovebird of the Congo - born 05/05/1984 - 26/07/2000)
P.S. Her owner took in a 12 year old and a 14 year old a year after loosing Tatu. Their owner had passed on. People who give homes to old Basenjis are very special.

Exercise is good for the soul, but as a dog gets on in years it shouldn't be forced into long road-marches. We enjoy it and so do the dogs, when a friend from the North of England comes to stay. On road hikes, she takes the oldest and they straggle along behind the more energetic members of the pack, stopping to sniff and mark and getting the mental stimulation of strange scents at their own pace. (The dogs, NOT our friend, do the sniffing etc !). They head back homewards as soon as the oldies think they have gone far enough.

Short walks, maybe several of them in a day, if the weather is clement and the dog fancies an outing. Don't tire the old people.

Tatu doesn't appear ready for 'walkies' here - but she does seem to be smiling

With no personal experience but with a need for money, I once wrote an article for our Kennel Gazette on Life with a Diabetic Dog. I interviewed owners of many different breeds and some of the suggestions which came out of that exercise can be helpful to the owners of an old dog.

And while I am the first to advocate letting an old friend go with dignity and without suffering when the time comes, all the time there is quality of life, mutual companionship can still be enjoyed and the little inconveniences easily overcome.

Incontinence for example. This can take the form of leakage, especially while the dog is asleep. It would indeed be cruel to relegate the old darling to the kitchen or outdoor shed but, as one owner told me, towels laid over plastic sheets in their pet's favourite chair by the fireside meant she was kept as part of the family until the end.

Surprisingly, and possibly as a result of large intakes of fluid diluting the urine, smell was not a problem in this particular case. Her bedding-towels were changed frequently and she later enjoyed the luxury of a human incontinence pad in case constantly damp fur caused her distress. She did, in fact, keep herself very clean, gave no appearance of suffering and enjoyed the love and attention. When the bitch's kidneys finally failed and she was unable to keep anything down, ice placed on her tongue helped in some measure to provide liquid until the Vet came...

Protecting a chair or hearth-rug with plastic and towels which are so easily thrown into the washing machine is a small price compared to the risk of upsetting your pet by making him sleep in an outhouse and spend time banned from his human family. He (or in dogs more likely she) doesn't understand why the love she has enjoyed all her life is apparently quite suddenly denied, just when she isn't feeling quite as fit and active as previously.

The departure of a pack member can, perhaps surprisingly, cause grief among the rest.

Grief - not just an upset in the pack pecking order. This is especially likely if there is a particular bond between two animals.

Donner would tolerate sharing my bunk in the caravan with Tuppy but Lady was his real love

The sparkle went out of Donner the day Lady was run over. We had those two at 8 weeks old and they came to live with us 4 days apart. Just like an old married couple, Donner was very aware of Lady's needs and more often than not, he'd bang on the door when she needed to go out ! She died when he was just over two years old and he lived the life of a loner, never bonding again even though indisputably pack Alpha, for another twelve years.

Ziggy and Hope, mother and daughter, were also inseparable. They slept curled up together and stayed together when out. When Ziggy crossed the Rainbow Bridge, Hope was inconsolable and for the rest of her life (she left us in March of this year, two and a half years after her mother) preferred life on the fringes of the pack. Shani loved to bully her and in the end the worm turned and Hope figured offence was the best defence. She got her verbal comments in first. This meant that, on car trips to the woods for example, we didnít dare stick those two in the same crate. Now Shani keeps crying and the only thing we can think of is that she misses having Hope to boss around.

Born 3 months apart, they grew up together, went to shows together, shared my bed on away trips. It was only after Ziggy was no longer there to protect her that Shani started to bully Hope.

And now she misses her. Strange creatures !

Older dogs love puppies. How many times over the years have we sold a puppy into the home of an older dog to be told over and over again ' he/she has dropped YEARS !' Digby went to Jessie when that old darling was over 12 - and she enjoyed helping bring him up for another full year, recovering a great deal of her vim and vigour. The Duchess took care of her old buddy. As Tok became blind at 14, Duchess regarded it as her duty to bring home flea infested rabbits as delicacies for the old lady. These were not as welcome with their owners. However they were enchanted to watch Duchess nudge the water-bowl closer to Tok when she needed a drink. And recently Remy has gone to live with Ben. Ben was 8 when he lost his older buddy, and aged overnight. Remy has him hunting again and they enjoy a very active and companionable life together.

Skoty (Zande Dadisi - Ch Zande Almasi / Jethard Cichezande) went to live in the Czech Republic with Amarethy Elhemi - (Bahri z Neustejna / Arethy Elpelu 14/12/1988 - 26/12/2002) She was 13 years old when they met

The old lady loves her new friend and enjoys helping to 'educate' him. Don't hesitate to get a puppy - it might be the best medicine for your old friend and add months if not years to your pleasure.

If you are lucky, the decision is taken for you and the old dog passes quietly over the Bridge. Some go violently, others need help to prevent suffering. Tuppy told us she was ready to go and the message was unmistakable. That gallant old lady had had enough. She wasn't sick, but she was very, very tired.

We do all we can to keep our old friends with us for as long as possible so we can grow old together and we have been very lucky and privileged to keep them us for a goodly number of years.

Itís a very rewarding experience !

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Sally & Marvin Wallis
Zande Basenjis
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