Keeping Older Dogs Healthy
Our relationships with our dogs are often difficult to describe with words. “Bittersweet,” for example, only begins to describe the experience of growing older with your beloved dog. Our profound mutual bond, forged over time, allows us to see the changes we feel in ourselves reflected in the changes we see in our dogs, as we move forward together.
The tragic reality is our canine companions age much more quickly than we do and end up leaving us way too soon. So that means we need to make the best of our time together by striving to keep our dogs as happy and healthy as possible, for as long as possible.
When is a Dog a Senior?
First, it’s helpful to have some perspective about what age constitutes “old” when discussing dogs. The formula most people are familiar with is: 1 dog year = 7 human years. In reality, this ratio varies depending on the type of breed. Small dogs (10-15 pounds) tend to live longer than large dogs, so they reach “old age” later than large breeds. Unfortunately, “giant” breeds tend to be relatively short-lived, so they show signs of aging sooner. For example, a small terrier like a Yorkie wouldn’t be considered a senior until age 10 or 11. On the other end of the spectrum, a giant dog, such as a Newfoundland, would reach that stage at around age 5 or 6.
Continued Regular Physical Exercise
Looking for a Fountain of Youth for your dog? Daily exercise is a good proxy. While it has been well established that everyone benefits from regular exercise, for dogs it’s particularly so. Most dogs were originally bred to perform some kind of physical work which means the need for exercise is in their genes.
Regular exercise can take different forms: a daily walk (or three), a spirited game of Frisbee in the back yard or a visit to the dog park. Whatever the exercise, ideally it involves you too, as studies have shown that people who exercise with their dogs live longer.
Even as your dog starts to shows signs of age, regular continued exercise is important and will counter the effects of his slowing metabolism. Note that you will have to moderate the activity level to accommodate his aging body. For example, a long-distance hike up a steep mountain would not be appropriate for your senior dog. Moreover, extended exposure to the elements is not healthy for older dogs, who tend to be much more sensitive to hot and cold temperatures. In addition, mature dogs often suffer from arthritis, which limits the type and amount of exercise they can do.
As mentioned above, your elderly dog’s metabolism will slow down, decreasing his need for calories and fat. Reducing his food portions will help your older dog stay lean and healthy. Depending on his breed, he may be prone to genetic conditions that present as he ages, which may warrant a special formulation of food as recommended by your vet.
In addition, your vet may prescribe supplements to bolster his immune system and help mitigate the effects of old age-related maladies such as arthritis and dry skin and coat.
Accommodations in Your Home
Strategies and “props” can help keep your aging dog more comfortable at home. For example, if he suffers from arthritis or hip dysplasia, stairs are probably increasingly difficult for him to navigate. Or, perhaps he’s having trouble jumping on the sofa to snuggle with you, or getting in and out of the car. A dog ramp allows him to walk up an incline rather than climbing or jumping, which is harder on his joints; a sling allows you to help him up and down steps.
Monitor the condition of your dog’s beds throughout his life, as they will deteriorate over time. It’s particularly important to ensure he has a comfortable bed when he’s older and potentially suffering from aches and pain. You may want to consider purchasing a high quality orthopedic dog bed that will provide superior support and comfort.
Since he’ll become increasingly sensitive to hot and cold, place his beds in temperate spots throughout the house, away from drafts and direct summer sunlight. (Though if you live in a northern clime and keep your house on the cool side, direct winter sunlight will feel great on his body.)
At some point, you may notice one or two of your dog’s key senses are fading. For example, you may figure out he’s not responding to your commands…because he can’t hear you. One way to mitigate this eventuality is to train him, incorporating hand signals when he’s young. If he ends up losing his sight as well, you will need to keep him confined in a room with closed doors so he doesn’t hurt himself.
Another unfortunate possible side effect of aging is incontinence, which can wreak havoc in your home and make your dog feel bad. Though this condition has various causes and usually affects mostly females, it is a nuisance to say the least. The vet may be able to help by prescribing medication. Otherwise, you need to figure out a way to manage this condition to protect your furnishings. Doggy diapers and belly bands can help. Cleaning products formulated for stains and odors may be necessary, too. Use a special dog bed liner for his bed, and furniture and car seat covers to protect your furniture and car interior. Patience is required—he can’t help it!
If you’ve taken good care of your dog’s teeth throughout the course of his lifetime, hopefully you won’t have to deal with major dental issues when he’s older. Broken and abscessed teeth can create huge problems for your older dog, preventing him from eating and enjoying life. Treating these complicated problems—at any age—can involve surgery and anesthesia, something to avoid, if possible, with your senior dog.
Other Lifetime Health Maintenance Routines
It’s important to listen to your vet and provide your dog with regular preventive care, starting from the moment you adopt him. This regular care will pay off when he’s older.
For example, giving your dog a monthly heartworm preventative throughout his lifetime will prevent not only this potentially fatal disease, but may also prevent other parasites that can negatively affect your older dog’s quality of life. Older dogs tend to have weakened immune systems that can’t ward off invaders as effectively as when they were young.
Though it is distressing to see your beloved dog start to look and act like he’s old, it is an inevitable fact of life to take in stride. And though you may worry about your elderly dog, he probably doesn’t want you to coddle him too much by changing his routine.
Ultimately, as your dog’s descent into old age becomes so precarious it’s obvious he’s suffering without respite, in spite of your best ministrations, you’ll have to make one of the hardest decisions of your life. Until then, love him, enjoy him, and cherish him like there’s no tomorrow.
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