Your Senior Dog

Old age is not a disease

Senior dog

As a result of advances in veterinary medicine, more knowledgeable care and improved nutrition, dogs are now living much longer, healthier lives. But, just as for humans, the passage of time has its effects, and you may begin to notice that your once-frisky pet seems to have slowed down a bit. Being aware of the natural changes that can occur as your dog becomes older, as well as what you can do to help keep your pet as healthy, active and comfortable as possible, can ensure that you both enjoy this final stage in your dog's life to the fullest.

How and when will I know that my dog is getting "old"?

Dog cake

As dogs move into the geriatric phase of their lives, they experience gradual changes that are remarkably like those of ageing humans: hair can turn grey, their bodies are not as supple and reflexes not as sharp as they once were. Hearing, eyesight and the sense of smell may deteriorate and energy levels, as well as attention spans, seem to diminish. In fact, the first sign of aging is often a general decrease in activity, combined with a tendency to sleep longer and more soundly. Such signs may begin to manifest themselves before 8 years in large breeds like Great Danes, while smaller breeds can remain youthful until 12 years and even longer. Furthermore, a healthy dog will most likely age later than one that has been affected by disease or environmental problems early in life. Again, as with humans, the ageing process will vary with the individual. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to judge when it's time to consider your pet a "senior."

Checkup time now comes twice a year

Calendar

As your dog ages, regular checkups at the veterinary practice become more important than ever. In fact, at this stage of your pet's life, it is recommended that he or she receive a thorough examination every 6 months, as adult dogs can age as much as 3 years (in human terms) within the period of one calendar year. Besides the usual complete physical examination, your veterinary surgeon may conduct a urine and faecal analysis as well as an ultrasound or other imaging tests. Furthermore, many vets now recommend minimum yearly blood screens for senior pets.

Keep your vet informed 

Most importantly, you should tell your veterinary surgeon about any noticeable change in your dog's physical condition or behaviour. A problem that you may assume is simply related to your pet's advanced age may actually be the result of a treatable medical condition. For example, your dog's reluctance to exercise may not stem from the normal decrease in energy that comes with age, but from arthritis or a heart condition - both of which can be managed with the proper treatment. Regular, semi-annual checkups can thus help your veterinary surgeon work out a suitable preventative health program for your pet and catch any problems sufficiently early to provide effective treatment. Working together, you can both ensure that your dog's senior years will be healthy and happy ones. 

Feeding

Dog scales

 

As your pet ages, your dog's nutritional needs may also change. You may find that, although your pet is eating less, he/she still puts on weight. This could be due to a slowdown of metabolism or a decrease in activity. Excess weight can aggravate many canine medical conditions, including heart, respiratory, skin and joint problems. To help a portly pet slim down, try feeding smaller quantities of food or gradually switch to a diet that is lower in calories. Other dogs have entirely the opposite problem - they lose weight as they age, sometimes as the result of heart or periodontal disease or diabetes. In either case, ask your veterinary surgeon for advice about your pet's individual nutritional requirements 

Put comfort on the menu

You should also ensure that your dog is comfortable while eating. Most pet owners place food dishes and water bowls on the floor, but this may be a source of discomfort for a large or overweight dog, or for one whose arthritis makes it difficult - or even painful - to bend down. Many pet supply outlets have eating tables that are specially designed with cut-outs for food and water containers and available in various heights to suit various sizes of dogs. Or you can fashion your own inexpensive solution to this problem: for example, a plastic crate covered in a towel to absorb spills.

The top 10 health tips for senior dogs

  1. Take your dog to his or her veterinary surgeon for twice-yearly checkups.
  2. Become informed about conditions and diseases common to senior dogs, be on the lookout for signs and, should they arise, inform your veterinary surgeon promptly.
  3. Consider feeding a 'senior' pet diet, nutritionally appropriate for the older dog and consult your veterinary surgeon on treatments for arthritis.
  4. Consider giving two small meals a day rather than one large one. 
  5. Don't overfeed or give table scraps or snacks between meals- obesity causes many health problems and may shorten your dog's life. 
  6. Make sure your dog receives adequate exercise, according to physical capacity. 
  7. Look after your dog's dental health. Brush teeth daily and have them cleaned professionally when your veterinary surgeon so advises. 
  8. Ensure vaccinations are kept up-to-date.
  9. Do your utmost to control ticks and fleas and make sure your dog and the environment (bed, play area, etc.) are always spotlessly clean. 
  10. Give your dog lots of love and attention and do all you can to keep them interested, active, happy and comfortable.

Common Problems

Obesity is a big health risk to pets as it is to humans. An older dog is a less active dog, so adjustments to your pet's diet to reduce caloric intake are imperative. This will relieve pressure on the joints as well as manage the risks of a range of diseases as well as making a massive difference to an overweight dogs quality of life. A range of diets faciliotating weight loss are available which modify ingredients with for example increased fibre, fatty acids and vitamins while decreasing sodium, protein and fat.

Diabetes is common especially in older dogs. It is a disease in which your dog's pancreas can no longer produce enough of the hormone insulin. More information can be found by clicking on the Diabetes section link on the right.

Arthritis severity can range from slight stiffness and lameness, difficulty in rising to inability to exercise without pain and ultimately debilitation. Keeping animals as comfortable as possible is vital. Exercise is  important to maintain muscle tone and mass, can be adjusted to his/her condition. Anti-inflammatory medication can help relieve the pain. Your veterinary surgeon will prescribe any necessary medication.

Intolerance cold temperatures is more likely as dogs age. There can be a range of explanations including heart and respiratory disease, as well has metabolic and hormone problems to name just a few . Move the dog bed closer to a heat-source and bring them indoors on cold days.

Tooth loss or decay not only makes it harder to chew but also increases the likelihood of other potentially serious health problems  problems. Care with diet, the use of dental chews as well as brushing and cleaning the teeth will help keep these to a minimum.

Prostate enlargement and Mammary gland tumours are mostly diagnosed in unneutered dogs. Have the prostate or mammary glands examined at checkups.

Separation Anxiety presents itself when older dogs can't cope with stress. A range of behaviours including barking and other vocalisatiom, destruction of the home, and loss of toilet control are common signs Appropriate advice on this issue including a range of management techniques designed to accustom the dog to being comfortable left alone. In some cases medication, supplements or pheromone products may be helpful in facilitating behavioural changes.

Skin or coat problems in ageing dogs means the skin loses elasticity, making your pet more susceptible to injury while the fur can thin develop scurf or dandruff and become dry, dull or oily over time. This may occur as part of ageing but can also reflect underlying skin, metabolic or hormone problems. Veterinary advice should always be sought should such a change be noted. Regular grooming, appropriate bathing with suitable dog shampoos and essential fatty acid supplements are highly beneficial.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction manifests itself in confusion, disorientation or decreased activity. Medication may help manage some of these issues.