Understanding the pathophysiology of aging in general helps us decipher what is happening inside the bodies of the elderly animals we care for.
Recently at SAINTS we have had many discussions regarding ZsuZsu our very elderly sheep. In the past few months we have seen definite signs of aging that are impacting her quality of life. The question becomes do we do nothing and just let nature take her course or do we try to understand what and why things are happening and see if we can improve her quality of life.
In my experience I have seen three major upheavals in ZsuZsu's recent life. First was the loss of her lifelong companion Zoey, secondly was the addition of 2 baby lambs who playfully thought chasing ZsuZsu was fun when ZsuZsu did not. And finally increasing deficits cause by physical aging, an unfortunate episode of hypoglycemia, arthritis discomfort and anxiety caused by a progressing dementia.
We always think there is just one answer to something that is going wrong. In ZsuZsu's case we decided it was pain and so we fixed that by adding pain medications. Except that didn't really fix it because ZsuZsu was still lost and afraid. We failed to look at the other issue that was causing ZsuZsu problems, dementia.
Dementia in animals is trickier to address because, it can be caused by one thing only (physical changes within the brain) or it can be from a combination of things like an aging brain, anxiety, pain, situational issues like being picked on by others within the group. We recently discovered that she was not getting the full nutrition that she needed because Toodles (her new stall mate to provide ZsuZsu with safe companionship) was eating more than her fair share. This led to hypoglycemic attack for ZsuZsu which further impacted her brain function because glucose is the main nutrient for the brain. It is all so very complicated, so many threads to unravel in trying to provide the best care.
But the bottom line here is that many aging animals suffering from dementia feel vulnerable and unsafe. We have to identify the physical issues and treat them appropriately and we have to identify the psychological issues the can implode a mildly demented brain.
So here is our plan for ZsuZsu to try to address her various issues. She is now on good pain control. The other sheep are near and visible to her but not with her in her stall. For now she will not be going out to pasture, we want to shrink her world to one small and yet very safe place until her anxiety goes away. Anxiety can also spike and prolong episodes of dark dementia, but once removed allows the animal to see some light again in their day. So while the other sheep are out on pasture, she will be loose by herself in the entire sheep area with lots of food and water to access as she wants.
Once she recovers some semblance of safety and predictability in her world, we can slowly look at expanding her boundaries to however far she is comfortable with. In order to meet ZsuZsu's needs we absolutely have to gather together all the pieces of her puzzle so that what we do can help her feel safe and happy in her world.
And this is the most important thing to learn in rescue...we need to learn to view their world from their eyes and be willing to become unbiased. It is not who is wrong or who is right, it is about looking at all of the clues, peicing them together in ways that make sense, not just their behaviours, not just the pathophysiology of their bodies but their experiences both positive and negative that can impact them too.