Our dogs are wise; they are privy to all our secrets and love us like no other. While aging is inevitable, understanding how we can help our dogs age gracefully can give a whole new meaning to teaching old dogs new tricks.
With the right care, including proper nutrition and exercise, in addition to alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic and massage, it's not uncommon for dogs to live to 14 or 15 years of age these days. Great advances in treatments for illnesses such as cancer and kidney disease, along with treatments for genetic diseases such as hip dysplasia, also mean pets are living longer.
As a general rule, a dog who is seven years or older should be considered middle-aged to senior. But no two dogs are alike. Therefore, a small dog weighing less than 20 pounds might not seem to show any signs of age until she is 12 or so. A 50-pound dog won't seem old until about age 10. Larger dogs begin to show their age at eight or nine.
One of the first signs of aging in dogs is slowing down. It's likely you will wake up one morning to find your dog is moving more slowly, playing less, has a harder time waking up from a nap, or even had a house training accident. Other telltale signs of aging are vision and hearing loss, frequent thirst, excessive urination, breathing difficulties, bumps and growths, irritability, change in sleep patterns and teeth and gum problems, among others. Simply, if an older dog is "not himself," it's time for a check-up.
Richard Dienst, Esq. says he recognized the signs of old age when his 12-year-old Labrador Retriever, Fauna, stopped greeting him at the door and started spending more time lying down. Now, Dienst trying to do everything he can to make his companion as comfortable as possible. He has cut back on long walks, bought an orthopedic bed, amended caloric intake and tried to limit excess exposure to both hot and cold weather.
It's best to never assume that a change in behavior or habits is simply due to old age.
Still, when it comes to veterinary care, older pets need more frequent routine visits to detect potential health problems as early as possible. While many conditions of aging are inevitable, if caught early they can often be slowed down or managed so that the dog can continue to have a good quality of life. Health problems such as hypothyroidism and or back pain are certainly treatable.
THE GERIATRIC EXAM
When screening a geriatric pet, veterinarians make several overall immediate observations based on coat quality, the smell of the animal, the health of the mouth and oral hygiene, and the dog's weight and body condition.
For example, a dull coat is indicative of sub-optimal nutrition or other health issues related to diet. A musty yet sweet smell in the ears signifies the presence of yeast, which can also indicate poor nutrition or food allergies. Bad breath is an indicator that something is amiss; an ammonia smell may signify a kidney problem, while a foul smell may signal a problem with the liver. Good dental health is important throughout a dog's life to protect the heart and kidneys. Bad teeth and gums can be corrected by using products that dissolve plaque by changing the pH of the saliva. This prevents bacteria from migrating to the vital organs.
Weight management is also vital for a senior dog. An overweight animal is more prone to endocrine disorders such as diabetes, Addison's disease, Cushing's disease and hypo- or hyperthyroidism.
Checking for lameness should also be included in any geriatric exam. A dog who bends one leg when standing may be shifting his weight because of pain and one paw larger than the other is a sign of swelling. A vet should look for unusual head position to evaluate either neurologic damage or lameness deficits and to check both hips visually and manually for pain or dysplasia. Gently checking down the spine for "hot spots" that make the dog wince helps identify any parts of the back that are painful.
Although some breeds have an increased risk of developing certain health problems, there are no particular age-related conditions specific to certain breeds. However, larger, heavyset dogs, such as Labrador and Golden Retrievers, are prone to hypothyroidism. Some smaller breeds, such as Scottish Terriers, are more likely to develop Cushing's disease.
Check back next month where I'll discuss various treatments to help aging dogs and also explore when it's time to (sadly) let go of our beloved furry family.