Approaches to Caring for Elderly Fur Family
The Lesbian and the Aging Pet.
This week we celebrated our oldest son's 13th birthday! There was cake and balloons but instead of my partner and I thinking about high school, and dating, we're worried about glaucoma, and arthritis... Like so many dykes, my kids have fur coats and four legs and unlike people with human children our kids entering their teen years come with their own set of challenges as we suddenly finding ourselves parenting senior pets and managing the physical and emotional challenges that come with watching our babies age.
The relatively short (compared to humans) lifespan of dogs and cats is one of the hardest things about building a family with them. This month has reminded me a lot of the mortality of my oldest dog, Mercury. Not only did he celebrate his thirteenth birthday, but he also had to have dental surgery. Three years ago he needed to have 14 teeth removed, and this month another five had to be extracted. Tooth decay and subsequent extractions are a common condition in elderly Chihuahuas and the fact that this was common didn't do much to make me feel better—it only reminded me that my baby is now quite elderly. Thankfully he came through the surgery really well and is already running around with his siblings, and enjoying his new life of only eating wet food (he doesn't have enough teeth for hard food during the recovery process). But it's become impossible not to remember that he's aging.
At Mercury's checkup before surgery the vet confirmed what we already knew: the cataracts that a year ago were faint and just starting to appear have spread and he isn't able to see clearly anymore, especially at night. The vet assured us that the process is gradual and most dogs adjust well (Mercury has so far). I've added a little light to the clasp of his leash to give him a little spotlight on nighttime walks to try to help him see, but there’s no denying his vision is going and it breaks my heart to think that one day, maybe soon, he won't be able to see me anymore.
I've had Mercury since he was six weeks old, he grew up with me in punk houses, moved a lot, went to Pride, protests, house shows, and zine symposiums. Mercury grew up with me and now enjoys a quiet retirement in Brooklyn with a stable home, seaside vacations, and organic food. It's overwhelming to realize that I’ve never really been an adult without him at my side (well, ankle) and in some ways I'm just starting to really understand that one day he won't be here with me. That's I think the biggest heartbreak of dogs—their lives are so much shorter than ours. As devastating as it is to think about someday living without Mercury, it's far surpassed by the joy that comes from having had the opportunity to share my life with this little dog.
Part of enjoying the life that we have built together is finding special ways to celebrate important milestones, like his birthday. My partner and I celebrate each of our furry kids’ birth or adoption days if we aren't sure when they were born. Mercury's oral surgery was about a week before his 13th birthday! Thankfully, his recovery has gone really smoothly and so by the time his birthday rolled around he was feeling great and ready to party! Well, party might be a bit of an overstatement; we celebrated his birthday with a special family dinner. I made him a wet food cake complete with 13 candles that was shared with his kitty siblings (two of whom are 15—so our family is definitely familiar with aging critters) and my younger dog Charlotte.
As heartbreaking as it is to watch Mercury (and all my pets) age, I do love finding special ways to celebrate him, not only on his birthday, but every day. I was going to include some tips and advice about how to physically care for aging pets, but I realized that what was in some ways more important was thinking about the way we love our furry children. Everyone who loves a pet has to eventually grapple with watching them age, but I think it can be especially hard for queer pet parents, because so many of us don't want/have human kids, and so many of us have fractured or nonexistent relationships with our families of origin and so our pets play an even more important role in our lives than maybe the average straight person. How about you? How do you celebrate your pets’ birthdays? How do you handle them aging?