Caring for your Senior Dog

Caring for a Senior Dog

I can’t believe my little guy will be 12 years old next month. He’s still so “puppy-like”, thankfully. As much as I try to ignore it, there are subtle signs that age is creeping up on him. I don’t want him to suffer any negative effects of aging and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that his senior days are pain free and comfortable. He deserves that. I know you want the same for your dog too. Let’s talk about what we can do to help our pets sail smoothly and healthfully into old age.

How old does a dog have to be before he is considered a “senior” dog?

Generally, it is said that a dog becomes senior around 7 years old. That truly is very general. My little guy was full of vim and vigor at 7. Much of that has to do with his small breed. Larger breeds reach senior status well before a smaller breed. According to this chart on petplace.com, my dog is considered a senior at 11 years. This article also states that dogs are considered “senior” in the last 25% of their life. That’s a hard one to calculate, right? We can only guess when our dogs are in the last 25% of their life. The best we can do is consider the estimations given to us by veterinarians and specialists and watch for signs of aging in our own pups.

Aging dogs go through many of the same things we go through as we age. Our senses are not as keen, our reactions and responses are not as quick, our movements are slower, and even our interests change. Senior pets can develop many of the same diseases typical in older humans too… cancer, heart disease, senility, even osteoporosis. Dogs get gray hair too – just like us. There is nothing more endearing than a sweet gray muzzle, right?

Changes in Eyesight and Hearing

I have had several older dogs in my life and the first thing I usually observe in my aging dog is a change in their eyes. I’m sure you’ve seen it…. Their pupils appear cloudy or blue. I am surprised and thankful to learn that this discoloration is not an indication that our dog doesn’t see as well. Although it is not clearly understood, this color change, named “lenticular”, or “nuclear sclerosis”, is believed to be caused by a gradual hardening of the lens. Cloudy eyes is a normal progression as a dog’s age, and there is no pain involved. There is no reason for us to be overly concerned.

What does affect our dog’s vision is the development of cataracts as he ages. Although there is some correlation between nuclear sclerosis and cataracts, having nuclear sclerosis does not necessarily mean that our dog will develop cataracts. As these hardened lens or fibers deteriorate with age, cataracts may develop. Cataracts are white and opaque, and they will hinder vision. If the lens is cloudy from a cataract, the image will be blurred. The thicker the cataract, the more restricting the vision becomes.

What we need to remind ourselves is that dogs don’t really have that great of vision anyway. Well, it’s not as precise as our vision. And sight is not their primary sense. Our dog could be completely blind before we realize that there is something wrong with his vision. But let’s not wait that long. As our dog ages, wellness checks with his vet become more and more important. Eye and vision testing should always be a part of those checks.

Loss of hearing in our canine friends is frustrating for us humans. As it progresses, we assume our dogs are being stubborn or ignoring us, when, in fact, they can’t even hear us. Our dog may become unresponsive to his environment… ignoring the ringing of the doorbell, not reacting to other dogs barking, and not coming when called. Not all senior dogs will experience age-related hearing loss. The unfortunate thing is that there really isn’t anything we can do to “fix” it once it occurs.

It goes without saying that hearing loss makes it tough to communicate with our dog, but there is hope. It’s never too late to teach our dog hand signals or nonverbal cues. “You can’t teach an old dog a new trick” is a myth. Not only will learning signals improve communication between you and your pal, but it will stimulate his mind. That is really important for an aging dog too. I have heard that dogs are prone to learning hand-signals since they’re all about body language anyway. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Contact one of Holiday Barn Pet Resort’s Professional Dog Trainers for help in teaching your dog to communicate with you should his hearing become impaired.

In addition to changing the way we communicate with our pup, we are going to have to be his “ears” during these late years. We will have to stay close to him to make sure he is safe from things he can no longer hear… like automobile noises, approaching joggers, or bicycles. In fact, we should keep him on a leash any time we take him outside. Lastly, we need to be careful not to startle him or allow others to startle him so that he doesn’t become skittish or afraid.

Sleep and Exercise

The next common sign of aging in dogs, at least in my experience, is the need for sleep. Your dog may sleep more and wake slower. My little guy, normally one up and raring to go in the mornings, now chooses to sleep in. He is now the last one to get out of bed. It’s so adorable. When he does get up, he goes through a big stretching routine that seems to revive his vigor. We just need to let our seniors rest, keeping in mind that excessive sluggishness or lethargy should be reported to the vet right away, as it can be a sign of a serious disorder or illness.

Just because our older dogs act like all they want to do is sleep, it doesn’t excuse us from making sure he gets regular exercise. He may not be as “enthusiastic” about exercise as he was as a younger dog but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid exercise altogether. We probably just need to “tweak” it a bit. He will still enjoy his daily walk, albeit a little slower than before. Don’t overdo it. Let him set the pace. If he appears tired, stop and rest awhile. Remember, a complete lack of exercise increases the risk of all kinds of bad health issues: obesity, heart health, and joint issues. Regular exercise will keep his muscles strong and limber, maintain a proper weight, improve his circulation, reduce inflammation, and keep him happy!

Onset of Arthritis and joint pain

That brings to mind another common sign of aging: arthritis and joint stiffness. Not all dogs will develop arthritis as they age, but unfortunately, most do. We will begin to notice changes in our dog’s agility. He will move slower, especially when he wakes up. His limbs may tremble or appear weak at times. He may act like he just can’t get comfortable. We might notice a reluctance to climb stairs or jump up on the couch. Doggie arthritis is more prevalent in weight-bearing joints like shoulders, hips, “knees”. There is no cure for it, so our job is to make sure the pain is dealt with so that he can be as comfortable as possible. Our vet will determine the best course of action, usually involving anti-inflammatories and steroids. There are many natural dietary supplements on the market these days that some people swear by. It’s worth checking in to.

Dental concerns

It would be nice to say that we all have been consistently brushing our dog’s teeth and having regular dental check-ups throughout his life, but let’s be realistic. The unfortunate truth is, many of us are lax about caring for our dog’s teeth. Besides, we’ve been told for years that hard kibble and chew bones will do the trick. And, oh yeah, he hates it!

Dental care throughout the life of our dog can make a huge difference as he ages. A lifetime of poor dental care often culminates into some ugly consequences in a senior dog. These include gum disease, bad breath, abscesses, periodontal disease, decay, tooth pain from cracks and breaks, exposed nerves… the list goes on and on. Treatment for our senior dog’s dental issues is often avoided for fear of the risk associated with anesthesia. Despite his age, surgery and/or cleaning may be recommended by our veterinary. Veterinary anesthesia has seen many improvements over the years, and many vets are recommending dental surgery for dogs upwards of 10 years old.

We can’t un-do the past, and if our dog has developed serious dental problems over the years, our main concern is just making sure he is not in pain. Dental surgery may be suggested. Ask your vet if there are any other options than surgery to relieve the pain. What can be done to reduce the risk of anesthesia? I’m sure you and your vet will determine what’s best for your old friend.

Cognitive Issues

Probably the saddest part of watching our dogs get older is the possible onset of cognitive decline. I say “possible” because it doesn’t happen to all dogs. Our once sharp, spirited pup may begin doing things like getting lost around the house, pacing aimlessly, eliminating in the house, licking obsessively…weird things like the carpet, or furniture. Because of his uncertainty, he may begin to show signs of aggression and/or irritability. He may be unable to recognize familiar people or pets. There are many other symptoms that could indicate a cognitive decline; these are just a few. As always, our first step is to take him to the vet. There may be an underlying medical cause for his behavior. Early recognition will allow us to take steps to head off any further decline. If you’re not seeing any signs of mental decline in your senior dog, great! Start now to make sure your dog is mentally and physically stimulated each day. Work with your veterinary, animal behaviorist, or dog trainer to determine fun ways to enrich his mind.

Wellness

The common recommendation throughout seems to be “take him to the vet”, right? Wellness visits become more important than ever as our dog ages. It is recommended that we increase our older pet’s annual vet visit to semi-annual visits, as we want to head off as many problems as quickly as possible. Senior exams are more in-depth than they were when our dogs were younger and may include blood work or x-rays.

Our dog’s diet may need to be adjusted as he ages too. He may be gaining weight as he slows down, so we might need to restrict calories somewhat. If he is losing muscle mass, we may need to add more protein to his diet. Sometimes older dogs begin having digestion issues too. His normal food may be too rich for him now, causing loose stools, regurgitation, gas. If your dog is boarding with us, let us know of any changes in his diet or the need to monitor how well he is eating. Nutrition is so important. We need to find the best quality food possible for our seniors to ensure good health throughout the remainder of his life.

Lastly, it is especially important to continue regular visits to our dog’s Groomer as he ages. Groomers are often the first to recognize a change or problem. When bathing and brushing, the Groomer’s hands are all over our dogs and discover lumps, growths, and sores before they become obvious to us. The ear cleaning, nail cutting, and sanitary trim that are a part of your dog’s visit to the Holiday Barn Pet Resort spa are vital as your dog gets older. Our senior dog may resist his grooming visit but will feel so much better as he proudly “struts his stuff” on his way out of the spa.

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