Reaching old age for a dog is often the result of good luck, good life habits by the dog’s owner, and in the end, just plain good genetics. If you already have an old dog, skip over the next paragraph and read ahead for tips on caring for your senior citizen. But if you’re in the market for a new dog, there is a recipe to help improve your future pet’s odds for longevity.
The list of ingredients starts with a puppy bred by a responsible breeder. Prospective parents should be screened with health tests appropriate for their breed before being bred. Add to that a nurturing and stimulating puppy hood. Next, feed a quality premium food for the life of the dog.These days there are specialty diets for puppies and seniors, giant breeds and toys, food for joint health and for dogs with diabetes or kidney disease. Feed the diet that’s right for your dog. Blend in regular examinations with a veterinarian. Vaccinations are available to prevent 13 different canine diseases and dental check-ups should be as routine as an inoculations. Mix in a safe environment. That means a fenced yard or leashed walks, fenced or covered ponds and swimming pools, an I.D. tag on their collar, and protection from household chemicals, dangerous wildlife and dogs you don’t know. Let this all sit until your dog is old, gray, grizzled and has more love for you than ever before.
When is a dog old? We used to think that every dog year was equivalent to seven human years. Experts now tell us that a dog’s size and breed influence this answer and there are charts to be found on the Internet that are the updated versions of this information.
Once you determine that your dog is “old,” what next? Let’s break down the areas which most immediately impact your old dog:
Nutrition: Energy requirements decrease about 20 – 20% in senior dogs which accounts for the increased percentage of fat content in their bodies Fat dogs die younger than leaner dogs. Keep your oldster trim; It used to be believed that reduced protein spared the kidneys in older dogs. In the book, “Eternal Puppy.” written by Janice Willard, DVM, however, the author shares studies that suggest that older dogs need more high quality protein, not less, to prevent muscle wasting. Optimal protein levels are a controversial topic among nutritionists, but unless your dog has kidney disease, it may not be a good idea to reduce your old dog’s protein intake. Older dogs have decreased intestinal motility which sometimes make them more prone to constipation. Avoid a high fiber diet, but with your vet’s consent, consider increasing soluble and insoluble fibers.Consumption of vegetables, especially leafy greens, correlate with a reduction in certain forms of cancer, so consider adding a few fruit and vegetables to your dog’s diet – very slowly, at first. Give it frequently even if it isn’t eaten. Old dogs don’t always enjoy new things, but if offered routinely or in different form (frozen peas as a crunchy treat vs cooked ones) they may take to it.Add omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) to your dog’s diet; Studies have shown that Fish oil supplementation may be helpful for pets with inflammatory diseases including allergies, arthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, and cancers.You may not notice changes for at least six to eight weeks, so be patient, and be sure to consult your veterinarian when embarking on anything new.
Flooring: Hard flooring is not only hard on a dog’s joints, but offers little traction and puts an old dog at risk for blowing out an ACL or hip. Put down small vinyl-backed rugs for those high traffic spots where the dog is apt to turn a corner or run to go outside.
Bedding: Your senior will spend more time sleeping, so offer the best kind of bedding you can mange. Here are some of your choices:Heated dog beds can be highly therapeutic for dogs with achy joints. They work like heating pads and are especially appreciated by thin and/or tiny dogs Gel filled orthopedic beds offer maximum support, comfort and superior weight distribution. The new Gel foam beds contain heat sensitive memory foam type material that custom forms to pets’ bodies, easing pressure on legs and hips. The gel helps keep pets cool in the summer by maintaining a lower ambient temperature, while the foam helps keep pets warm in the winter with dense insulation. Memory foam beds are made from (ta da!) memory foam which was first developed by NASA years ago. Foam beds are another type of body-conforming bed that reduces pressure on joints. Dog Waterbeds can provide therapeutic benefits for pain, Hip Dysphasia, Cushing’s Disease, Hygromas, Allergies, Calluses, Post Surgery, Senior Canines, Post Chemotherapy, Skin Conditions, Elbow Dysphasia, and Canine Auto-Immune Hemolytic Anemia. Standard orthopedic beds are generally made with a 3″ egg crate. Although these beds are probably the lowest in price, the aforementioned options tend to provide better support and comfort for an old dog.
Incontinence: It happens to the best of us. Don’t get mad since given the choice, your dog would rather not have the problem, either. In many cases of canine incontinence, a hormone deficiency is the source of the problem and these are typically treated through the use of drugs such as Diethylstilbestrol. If your vet determines that there is no medical reason for incontinence other than simple aging, however, there are several solutions to combat everything from periodic “dribbling”to all-out flooding;- Just pick the one best for your dog’s situation: If the problem occurs during crating or in the night when your dog is sleeping and s/he doesn’t move around much, re-usable protective pads will work just fine. There are a mind-numbing array of disposable options which a Google search will display.
If the problem is more “mobile,” there are disposable diapers that feature elastic, no-leak gathers and resealable Velcro tape. You can also make your own “belly bands” for boys and again, a Google search will show you how. For a “no sew” version, insert a sanitary napkin inside the length of a man’s crew sock (the man should be out of the sock when you do this), and attach sticky-backed Velcro at each end. One economical solution to pricey disposables is to purchase two or three washable diapers in which pads can be inserted and disposed of when soiled.We’ve been impressed with the fit and durability of Simple Solutions diapers which can be found at Petsmart.
The Handicapped Dog: Older dogs, or dogs with arthritis, degenerative myelopathy (DM) and spinal problems can sometimes lose the use of their back legs. This is NOT catastrophe. A dog can still walk and get the exercise they need with a sling or dog wheelchair. To see a dog wheelchair in action, check out “Denali” on Google. For some dogs, a sling works perfectly well as it allows the dog’s owner to maneuver medium and large dogs without lifting the entire weight of the dog. If this looks like a solution for you, be sure to get a sling that’s ergonomically designed with adjustable handles that allow you to stand erect and maintain your center of gravity.You can’t very well help your disabled dog if your own back is thrown “out.’
Hearing Loss: By the time an owner notices hearing loss in their dog – usually in the 4th quarter of a dog’s life, it’s probable that the loss has been progressive and has finally passed a threshold where it’s now noticeable. Hearing aids are still impractical for a dog and we are left to do what we can to protect the dog. We should be especially careful when walking a hearing impaired dog off-lead. Such a dog won’t hear his owner call from a distance and may well get lost and become at risk from approaching cars or other animals.
Blindness: The cloudiness we see in our senior dogs’ eyes is usually sclerosis, or hardening of the lens of the eye. The light-transmitting capabilities of the lens is still intact and the dog has lost little of its vision, so think of as looking through a cheap shower curtain. Up close, you can see through the curtain, but at a distance, it’s a bit more opaque. Glaucoma and cataracts do occur in dogs and any changes in vision, discharge, squinting, swelling or redness should be seen by a vet right away. If nothing can be done to reverse blindness, take heart in the fact that blind dogs adjust pretty well by using memorized routes around the house and feel the vibrations from radios, TVs and the floor to gauge where they are.
Taste: A geriatric dog may have only 25% of the taste buds he had at a year old, so if your senior is losing weight for no apparent reason that a vet can determine, food may have become tasteless for your dog. Try increasing the tastiness of food with eggs, seasonings, shredded cheeses (especially the “smelly” kind), a sprinkling of fish bits or a “schmear” of Braunschweiger over the top of the food.
Arthritis:Because cartilage cannot repair itself,it is impossible to heal arthritis once it has begun.At best, we can slow degeneration, reduce inflammation and limit pain. Most of us are familiar with Rimadyl, a steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used for the relief of arthritic symptoms in geriatric dogs. Aspirin, even low dosage or buffered, is NOT a good option for pain management in dogs. Studies show increased risk of stomach bleeding. Don’t do it. Currently, early research looks promising with glucosamine and chondroitin combinations and omega-3 fatty acids. In our own house, each adult dog gets 1,200 mg. of fish oil, and a table that combines 1500 mg of glucosamine with 1200 mg of chondroitin daily. Our veterinarian is fine with this, but always check with your own vet before starting anything new. Substances such as MSM, hyaluronic aci, New Zealand green-lipped mussels and other antioxidents may also benefit cartilage and joint fluid, but the jury is out on how they work and because these substances aren’t regulated by the FDA for dogs, dog owners have to be careful.
Dentistry: By four years of age, 85% of dogs will have some form of periodontal disease. Older dogs are at an increased risk for dental disease because they have reduced salivary production. With a drier mouth, food sticks to teeth more which increases bacteria. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream and travel to places it doesn’t belong. Periodontal disease has been implicated in the development and acceleration of diseases in the kidneys, heart, liver and brain. CLEAN YOUR DOG’S TEETH. If your dog’s teeth have been neglected, a professional cleaning may be in order. Ask your vet about putting the dog on a course of antibiotics before the scheduled cleaning to combat bacteria, and make sure they are aware of the dog’s age. Anesthesia has come a long way and isn’t quite as risky for an old dog as it used to be. But it’s still anesthesia and should be seriously considered before using, particularly if your breed has issues with anesthesia.
IVD or Idiopathic Vestibular Disease is the most common disease on old dogs that you may not be familiar with. Characterized by symptoms that almost resemble a stroke, these signs include a head tilt, nausea and rapid eye movement. To learn more about this syndrome, check out the January 2008 issue of KnobNotes in our archives to read more about IVD, also known as the geriatric disease.
Boredom: Most dogs are active by default, hunting, show and performance dogs even more so. But when physical abilities diminish and a dog becomes less capable of their former tasks, other ways must be found to keep their minds active. Toys are only toys if the dog interacts and plays with them, otherwise they become just more “stuff” on the living room floor. Food puzzles are rewarding because they invite interaction. The Molecuball, Buster Cube,Busy Buddies and Canine Genius all offer interesting food puzzles that help stimulate a dog’s mind as they reward effort.
We’re just scratched the surface of issues that confront senior dogs and their owners. If you are blessed with an “oldster” in your house, you’ll want to investigate some great books that offer additional information:
“Eternal Puppy” by Janice Willard, DVM;
“How To Make An Old Dog Happy” by Olivier Lagalisse;
“Speaking for Spot,” by Dr. Nancy Kay “The Senior Dog” by Heike Schmidt-Roger/ Susanne Blank;