When it comes to our senior pets, it’s important to show them that old love is the best love by treating them right. Kristie Bradfield reports.
We live our lives in stages. As we age, strange things start happening to our bodies; we slow down and enjoy life at a slower pace. Dogs do this, too. That zippy little puppy you brought home one day will turn into a sweet senior who is more than happy just to snooze by your side.
So how old does a dog need to be before he is considered senior? Defining the exact age at which all dogs become “senior” is difficult because each breed of dog ages in different ways. Usually, larger-breed dogs age faster than smaller breeds, so an Alaskan Malamute is considered senior at around seven years of age while a Chihuahua is senior at 11 to 13 years. As a very loose guide, some experts say that when dogs enter the last 25 per cent of their projected lifespan, they’ve reached their senior years.
Caring for an older dog is a little different to caring for a puppy; it’s important to have an idea of potential health problems so you can plan and prepare. Here are a few of the most common issues facing our senior dogs.
Achy joints and decreased mobility
You may notice that your senior dog is a little stiff when he stands and may not move as freely as he once did. While decreased mobility can be a simple sign of getting older, it may also point to arthritis. Arthritis, which is also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, is one of the most common ailments affecting older dogs. Some of the signs that could indicate arthritis include:
- Not interested in walking or playing
- Reduced movement
- Stiffness when walking
- Difficulty jumping up onto the couch or into the car
- Licking the joints
- Pain when touching the affected area
Arthritis is no fun at all, but Dr Aaron Healy from Palmyra Vet Hospital says there are treatments that can provide help to ease the pain and discomfort. “If you still notice your dog limping or not moving freely, it’s a sign of pain. Many people think ‘he’s not yelping or crying so he must be fine’, but that is not the case. Like us, if they are limping it is due to pain that should be managed, especially if it persists for more than a day or so.”
Dr Aaron says that there are excellent medications and natural-based remedies available that can help alleviate the pain. “Occasionally surgery might be helpful to relieve chronic pain,” he says. “For these reasons, it is important to have your pet examined by a veterinarian for the best in pain management.”
One of the most positive things you can do for the long-term health of your dog is to keep an eye on his weight and activity level. “This means not letting your dog slowly stack on the kilos as he gets older,” Dr Aaron says. “This extra weight compounds the effect of any painful joints. We also want to encourage dogs to keep moving as they age, as this helps maintain muscle mass, strength and coordination.”
Putting on the pounds
We know that as dogs get older, they begin to move slower and are less inclined to play as vigorously as younger dogs. The problem lies in the fact that many of us don’t adjust their daily calorie intake to reflect their slower lifestyle. Senior dogs need fewer calories than younger dogs. The best diet for them should be nutrient-rich and full of good protein sources with highly digestible forms of fats, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. High fibre for gastrointestinal health is also important. “Digestion can become compromised with age or dogs start to become sensitive to particular ingredients in their diet,” says Dr Aaron.
One way to combat the extra kilos is by doing regular exercise tailored to your dog’s age and fitness level. “Be wary of high-impact, twisting and turning-type activities for the oldies like chasing balls, frisbees and leaping off walls, as they will often pay for it the next day,” says Dr Aaron. Moderate exercise, like walking, is ideal.
It’s important to keep an eye on your dog’s weight as fluctuations can indicate potential health problems. You can do this by assessing your dog using the Body Condition Score (available at wsava.org). If your dog is showing signs that they are carrying excess fat — for example, you can’t discern their waist or abdominal tuck — it’s time to have a chat to your vet about the best diet options for your dog.
Dog dental disease affects more than 80 per cent of dogs and it can lead to significant health issues if left unchecked. Dog dental disease, known as periodontal disease, is a bacterial infection in the mouth. It occurs over time as plaque on the teeth hardens into tartar. If caught early, tartar can be removed by your vet with very little fuss. If it’s left too long, it can increase your dog’s risk of infections in the liver, kidney and heart, and cause damage to the jawbone and connective tissue.
How do you know if your dog has dental disease? Dr Aaron says to be on the lookout for:
- Foul breath
- Blood along the gums
- Difficulty chewing
- Pawing at the mouth
- Severe depression
- Loss of appetite
“Keep in mind the mouth is the most likely part of the body to carry infection and is often the entry point for a lot of bacteria into the body,” Dr Aaron says.
Coat and skin change
As humans get older we notice changes to hair colour and skin elasticity. Dogs go through a similar process. You may notice that their coat changes colour and it may become thinner, especially around the muzzle and eyes, which may increase your dog’s sensitivity to allergens and the weather. The dog’s skin may become less pliable and wounds can take longer to heal.
Despite all the changes, your dog will love to be groomed and you should continue doing so regularly. Not only does this help to decrease stress levels but it also gives you the opportunity to get hands-on with your dog, which can help you spot the early signs of potential problems like cancer, kidney disease and arthritis.
Changes in behaviour
As dogs get older, Dr Aaron says that it is normal to see changes in their behaviour. “Cognitive decline is well recognised in our senior pets,” he says. The changes that occur in a senior dog’s brain are similar to those seen in people with Alzheimer’s and can include:
- Disinterest in interactions with owners
- Change in sleeping patterns
- Loss of toilet training
- Increase in anxiety in situations where it wouldn’t have bothered the dog in the past, such as separation from owners or fearfulness of storms
- Increased pacing or a decrease in general activity
- Not responding to commands due to memory loss
The treatment for cognitive issues falls into three main groups: environmental enrichment, diet and medications. “Environmental enrichment means making the dog’s day more interesting and challenging,” says Dr Aaron. “Make them find their food, reintroduce training to increase predictability, use food puzzles, maintain regular exercise and teach old dogs new tricks.”
Dr Aaron suggests introducing a diet for better brain function that is rich in fish oils and antioxidants. “Some people feel turmeric and coconut oil also can improve brain function, although it is difficult to prove,” he says.
More regular vet visits
As your dog gets older, it’s important to schedule more regular visits to the vets. “Keep in mind our dogs age roughly seven years every year, so if you get your dog checked once a year it’s essentially only going to the doctor every seven years,” says Dr Aaron. “The bottom line is that the older your dog gets, the more important it is for him to be examined and have any potential problems checked. Blood tests can pick up early signs of kidney and liver dysfunction among other things, so it is worth it.”
Signs and symptoms that could be an indication of more severe problems include:
- Lumps and bumps that were not apparent at the last vet visit
- Changes in thirst, appetite and weight
- Signs of exercise intolerance, like puffing and panting. An increased respiratory effort could be signs of heart, lung or metabolic disease
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the dog now content to snooze by your side on the couch is the same once-active whirlwind of a puppy. We go through a lot of changes with our dogs as we live our lives together and we’re both better off for it. By being aware of the changes that may happen as your dog gets older, you’ll be better prepared to take on his senior years, ensuring your dog will be by your side for many years to come.
Adopting a senior dog
There are a lot of senior dogs, aged seven and over, who are looking for new homes. The great majority of these senior pets are friendly, well-adjusted and well-behaved, and they will fit right into their new family — all they need is a chance to show you how much love they have.
Some shelters around the country provide discount fees on older dogs too, so not only do you get to bring home a wonderful new family member, but it’s also a little cheaper to do so.Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory