Aging Gracefully: Caring for Your Dog in the Golden Years
As pet healthcare has improved, our domestic animals are experiencing overall increased life spans. Along with the joy of having our companions with us for longer, we as pet owners and veterinary professionals are now facing increased challenges associated with old age in pets. Monitoring your dog for specific changes and taking proactive steps to promote his health and well-being can go a long way towards preserving a high quality of life in his senior years.
What is a geriatric dog?
Generally speaking, large breed dogs have shorter expected life spans than their small or medium-sized counterparts. Therefore, the definition of a “geriatric” dog is somewhat fluid. However, we often consider a smaller dog to be a “senior citizen” around 7 or 8 years of age, and a large dog is considered so around 6 years old.
Signs to watch for
As dogs age, they are at increased risk for many types of health problems. Some of the issues frequently seen in older dogs include cancer, organ disease, joint disease, hypothyroidism, dental disease, and cognitive dysfunction. It’s common for older dogs to experience general weakness, decreased vision, and decreased hearing,
As your pet’s owner and advocate, you are the one most attuned to his normal behavior. Therefore, you will be most sensitive to any changes. Your careful monitoring and reporting of any changes is incredibly valuable in helping to identify and address medical concerns early on.
Specific signs to watch for include decreased appetite, increased drinking and/or urination, decreased energy level or exercise intolerance, weight loss, and weakness. These signs may be dramatic, or they may be subtle and progress over time. However, they have the potential to indicate significant underlying medical issues.
It is important to consult with your veterinarian if you notice any of these signs. He or she will be able to help determine what next steps are needed. More obvious signs to watch for include coughing, straining to urinate, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and diarrhea. Also watch for new lumps or bumps, particularly any that seem to be growing.
Certain behavioral changes may also raise red flags. If a dog begins showing increased aggression to people or other dogs, house soiling, previously uncharacteristic anxiety or phobias, increased vocalization, or restlessness at night, take note. These signs may indicate cognitive or physical decline.
Arthritis is a very common ailment in middle-aged and older pets, and oftentimes the early signs can be missed. Sleeping more, weight gain, decreased interest in exercise or play, and increased irritability may be clues that your pet is experiencing discomfort. A stiff gait, limping, favoring a limb, difficulty changing position (rising, sitting, laying down), and a hesitance to traverse stairs may be more conspicuous evidence of joint pain. Animal Clinic of Morris Plains offers Canine Rehab Therapy under the direction of our Canine Rehab Certified doctors and specially trained technicians.
For some dogs, cognitive dysfunction becomes evident as they reach old age. Owners may notice behavioral changes that are new to their dog, and which may seem confusing or distressing. In addition to some of the signs mentioned above (such as increased vocalization, increased irritability, increased aggression, increased anxiety, and house soiling), there are other changes which may raise suspicion for cognitive decline. A dog experiencing cognitive dysfunction may act confused or disoriented, and may not interact with people in the same way he did before. He may not respond as well to commands, or may exhibit stronger reactions to sound. An increase in grooming behavior or repetitive actions may also be seen. Changing sleep cycles might be seen, with a pet exhibiting anything from nocturnal wakefulness to markedly increased sleep time.
How can I best care
for my senior dog?
It may be sad to think of your beloved friend aging, and facing physical and cognitive challenges associated with later seasons of life. However, be encouraged that you as the caregiver can make choices to promote and preserve quality of life so that you can enjoy each day together to its maximum potential.
First of all, watch carefully for the changes described above. If you think you may be seeing one or more of these signs, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian sooner rather than later. Many diseases can be managed well, particularly if they are caught early.
Your senior pet will require more diligent preventive care than he may have needed during younger years. We recommend a minimum of twice yearly well-visits, as significant changes can occur in a short period of time in our older pets.
At these visits, be sure to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations regarding screening diagnostics (such as bloodwork, urine testing, and parasite checks).
Again, the aim is to identify any changes early, before they lead to progressed illness. Your veterinarian will suggest a vaccination protocol that is appropriate for your dog’s age, health status, and risk factors. As geriatric pets may not be able to rely on as strong an immune response as they once did, it is particularly important to protect them from infectious disease.
Dental care may seem like a small issue, but it makes a huge difference in the health and comfort of your geriatric pet. Not only does dental disease lead to oral pain and potential infection or injury (and subsequent decreased eating), but the bacteria that grow in the mouth can travel through the bloodstream to affect internal organs. The best thing you can do at home for your pet’s oral health is to perform regular toothbrushing with an enzymatic pet toothpaste.
Once to twice yearly in-hospital dental cleanings are imperative to dental health in the long and short term.
At home, taking steps to keep your pet active and mobile will pay dividends as far as his physical health and cognition.
Even (in fact, especially!) a pet with marked arthritis will benefit from a degree of exercise and movement to maintain comfort and mobility. Keeping your pet at a healthy weight will decrease the burden on his heart and joints, and keep him feeling young for longer. Playtime and active enrichment is also excellent for preserving mental acuity.
You may need to make adjustments to your pet’s environment to accommodate for his physical challenges. For example, a pet that struggles with joint pain or vision loss may benefit from having food, sleeping areas, and elimination areas accessible with minimal use of stairs.
An older dog will experience increased comfort with the use of a cushioned dog bed.
A pet who is experiencing increased irritability will likely appreciate areas of the home where he may retreat away from younger pets or children for periods of rest.
Depending on the underlying medical issues, many geriatric pets will require specific dietary modifications, or even prescription diets.
A senior pet has different nutritional requirements than a growing puppy or an active young adult dog, and your veterinarian will be able to help guide you towards food choices that are the best fit for your specific pet at his particular life stage.
Finally, it is imperative for your pet’s health that you follow medication protocols as prescribed by your veterinarian. In addition to managing medical diseases, we also have good options for addressing pain and maintaining comfort for our canine companions in their golden years.
Do not begin medicating your pet with human or over the counter medications without the direction of your veterinarian, as many of these products can be very dangerous to your dog.
We have access to many options to preserve and prolong quality of life for our canine companions, all with the goal of promoting pet welfare and the precious human-animal bond. Together with your veterinarian, you can make choices that are the best fit for the needs of your pet and yourself, and which allow you both to enjoy your pet’s senior years to the fullest.
1. Cognitive Function in Older Dogs. Horwitz, DF. Clinician’s Brief. 61-63. 2010.
2. Senior Pet Care FAQ. AVMA. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Caring-for-an-Older-Pet-FAQs.aspx Accessed 1 August 2018.