Caring for Your Senior Dog
Advances in veterinary care are resulting in a longer lifespan for our beloved canine companions. On average, large dogs live until they are 12, and smaller breeds generally outlive larger dogs by several years. This means we have to learn to manage the age related problems that our dogs develop, so their quality of life is as good as it can be.
As dogs age, their hair will turn gray, particularly around their muzzle. Their eyes will develop a blue haze, and they tend to laze around a bit more. They are often more lethargic, and may be harder to rouse from their afternoon nap. You will start to see these changes anytime from around 7 years of age. But your dogs chronological age does not necessarily equate to old age. Some dogs will age more quickly and others will be spry as a pup past 10. I recently read a book on aging dogs and there was a great quote from Satchel Paige that, to me, really says it all; “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” So take the lead from your dog. Pay attention to their behaviors and look for subtle changes.
But caring for your senior dog involves looking after not only their aging body, but also their mind and spirit. Here are some suggestions to guide you.
Older dogs may not see too well, and their hearing often isn’t as sharp as when they were younger. This can make them clingy and may lead to anxiety. Although your first instinct is to give them lots of attention, this can backfire. This extra attention may worsen their anxiety because it is essentially rewarding them for behaving this way. Treat your dog normally, and they are likely to adapt better to the changes in their senses. Try to avoid taking them by surprise; always talk to them as you walk up to them, and touch them gently so they know where you are.
Sticking to a familiar routine also makes an elderly dog feel more secure. If you are concerned about your dog’s anxiety then have a chat to your veterinarian. If it is severe, pheromone treatment or even anti-anxiety medication can make the world of difference to how they feel.
There is a specific condition in older dogs called canine cognitive dysfunction. This is very much like Alzheimer’s Disease in people, and affected dogs often pace the floor at night, bark for no reason, and appear to have forgotten all their training. This condition can be very distressing for owners, and for the dogs. Fortunately, there are specific diets and drugs which can help alleviate these systems and will make life easier for both you and your four-legged best friend.
As the body ages, parts of it start to wear out. Joints become stiff and painful, and organs function less efficiently. Thyroid disease, liver disease, arthritis and cancer are all more common in elderly dogs. While many of these diseases may not be preventable, there are things you can do to keep your senior pet as healthy and happy as possible.
Firstly, keep them lean. Dogs that are overweight suffer from the same obesity-related conditions that people do. Diabetes, heart disease and arthritis all make life less pleasant for elderly dogs. Also, lean dogs live up to two years longer than overweight animals, so you’ll have your companion with you for longer.
Secondly, have your dog checked regularly by your veterinarian. A prompt diagnosis of conditions such as hypothyroidism or kidney disease can allow you to start treatment early, and this usually results in a better outcome. If they are showing signs of painful arthritis, they can take medication to alleviate their pain and help them become more mobile. If you notice any abnormal lumps and bumps on their skin, get them checked and removed if necessary.
Thirdly, keep an eye on your dog’s teeth. Elderly dogs often have some degree of dental disease. This can make eating painful, and it can also cause problems elsewhere in the body. Bacteria from the gums can spread to the kidneys and heart, causing disease in those organs.
Next, feed your dog a good quality senior diet. These foods usually have extra fiber and anti-oxidants to keep your older dog healthy. They are often lower in calories because elderly dogs tend not to be as active as younger animals, and don’t need the extra energy. But do not switch them to a senior diet without checking with your vet. Just because they hit that numerical age, do not assume that a senior diet is appropriate. My old girl Molly (a big old lab) was not put on senior food until she was 12.
Lastly, modify your home to make life easier for your older dog. If you have a tiled or wooden floor, they can be slippery, so cover them with rugs or carpets. Your dog will be less likely to slip and fall. Use baby gates to keep your dog from going up and down stairs without supervision; again this will reduce the risk of falls. If your dog has poor vision, don’t rearrange the furniture. Blind dogs do very well because they learn the layout of their home. Changing this can cause them to bump into things, and will destroy their confidence. If you turn your heat down in the winter to save money or put the AC on high in the summer, give your senior dog a blanket. They may get cold when they never did in the past.
It’s very important that we don’t let our older dogs languish without any mental stimulation or regular activity. You can in fact teach an old dog new tricks, and this can help keep them mentally alert and better able to interact with you and the world around them.
Regular exercise not only keeps your dog lean, but it is great for their mental health. A daily walk will allow them to enjoy the sights, sounds and scents of their neighborhood, and this can lift their spirits and leave them feeling happy and relaxed. Don’t go beyond your dog’s physical capabilities, or it will have the opposite effect and they’ll be sore and sorry.
Never get frustrated if your dog makes a mistake. For example, stiff legs may mean they aren’t quick enough to get outside to go to the toilet in time and may accidentally soil the carpet. Yelling at them will crush their spirit and frighten them. They can’t help it. You’ll need to be patient and make allowances for slowing of their physical and mental responses.
Even if your dog hasn’t had any formal obedience training, it’s a great idea to teach them basic obedience exercises, and even some fun tricks. If you keep them learning, it will help to sharpen their mind and keep it active. Success also gives them confidence, which will make them feel good. Always use positive training methods with your dog, such as clicker training or reward based training.
You don’t need to give up the regular activities you share with your dog as they get older. However, you may need to modify them a little to compensate for any age-related limitations. If you follow these suggestions and make the effort to care for all aspects of your senior dog’s health and well being, you’ll both enjoy their twilight years to the fullest.
If you want to read more about caring for your senior dog, read Good Old Dog by the Faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.