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Caring for Older Dogs

By: Sandy Bolan - Updated: 2 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Senior Aging Disease Cancer Arthritis

The most common problem associated with aging dogs is obesity. According to Ron Hines DVM, he sees about four in 10 overweight dogs.

As dogs age, they slow down – just as people do. Therefore, dogs require fewer calories on a daily basis in order to maintain their body weight, or to lose those few unnecessary pounds.

Once your dog hits the magic age of seven – the age when dogs, no matter their size or breed – are deemed seniors, it is necessary to switch the dog’s food to a high-quality senior food. These foods are traditionally lower in calories and higher in fibre, which is necessary for digestibility. Check with your vet about which senior food will best meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

“Controlling weight is the key to helping many medical conditions of older pets,” according to All About Pets/The Blue Cross. “Arthritis, heart disease, respiratory conditions and diabetes are all more easily managed in a pet that is the correct weight, and slim pets tend to live longer.”

Older dogs should also be partaking in your veterinarian’s geriatric/senior wellness program, which consist of age-related diagnostic tests. “Picking up early changes in your pet allows early treatment and may considerably improve quality of life,” reports All About Pets/The Blue Cross.

Aging Signs

Other than their age, signs your dog is aging include: he is slowing down; he has joint stiffness; loss of appetite; he sleeps more deeply; he may be startled more easily or doesn’t respond when called (hearing loss) and/or bumps into objects (visual deterioration). Aging is a gradual process, so the deterioration of your best friend’s faculties may not be immediately detected, especially at home since the dog is familiar with its layout and can compensate for visual loss, for example, just by knowing the furniture’s layout.

Common Diseases

Ensuring your dog is in its best physical condition right from puppy hood will go a long way towards your dog potentially avoiding many of the following diseases. It is also important to note that an aging dog’s immune system weakens, which is why it is important to maintain their vaccination schedule, as well as flea and heartworm protection.

Cancer, while this can occur at any age, tends to afflict dogs in their latter years. Symptoms include abnormal growths, sores that don’t heal, weight and appetite loss, bloody discharges from any bodily orifice, difficulty eating or swallowing, and hesitation to exercise/loss of stamina, difficulty breathing, urinating and/or defecating.

Another common disease affecting aging dogs is arthritis. Symptoms include difficulty getting up from lying down, difficulty climbing stairs or getting into the car, irritable/reclusive behaviour, house accidents and loss of muscle tone. Arthritis can be more debilitating when the dog is overweight.

Gum disease is commonly found in older dogs, but is easily preventable by brushing a dog’s teeth throughout its life and/or giving it treats that help reduce tartar build-up. The plaque build-up that causes gum disease can break off, become lodged in a very precarious spot within the body (heart valve for example) and cause life-threatening complications.

Behavioural Changes

The most common behavioural change is the onset, or reoccurrence of separation anxiety. “When the owner leaves, the dog often becomes destructive, barks or howls, may urinate or defecate, and may salivate profusely,” according to Holly Nash, DVM.

To help alleviate separation anxiety, owners must not make a big deal about leaving or arriving back home. Make sure you associate leaving with something great – like a dog treat. Ensure the type of treat you leave for your dog will keep him busy for a while so he will not notice that you are no longer around. As well, keep this treat only for when you are leaving for an extended period, this will help maintain its novelty.

Your once easy-go-lucky dog may become aggressive, but with cause. The aggression can stem from pain (arthritis, dental disease), disease affecting the nervous system or vision or hearing loss (can’t quickly remove himself from an uncomfortable situation).

“It’s important to identity which noises they dog may be afraid of,” reports Nash. However, because dogs can hear frequencies we can’t, his fear may be caused by something we can’t detect. “Treatment of the phobia can include medication, desensitisation and counter-conditioning,” says Nash.

CCD or canine cognitive dysfunction, affects approximately 62 per cent of dogs over the age of 10, according to Nash. Some of CCD’s symptoms include: confusion/disorientation – a dog can even get lost in his own backyard; pacing or not sleeping at all at night; is no longer housetrained – he may not remember he is trained to eliminate outdoors and does it inside the house instead; decreased activity level; decreased attentiveness/staring into space; and no longer recognising friends/family members.

CCD is treatable, but must first be correctly diagnosed. Therefore, it is important to pay close attention to when your dog is behaving unlike himself. This will help your vet eliminate other potential causes of the behaviour.

Just because your dog is aging does not mean he will fall victim to any of the above-mentioned, or other, diseases. An early diagnosis via regular vet visits will enable your vet to treat your aging pet’s condition with medication or physical therapy, both of which will help your dog live a quality life.

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