Senior Dog Care
Is your dog a senior now? Here is a rough guideline for when your dog is considered a senior:
Giant dogs 7
Large dogs 8
Medium dogs 9
Small dogs 10
What you need to change now that your dog is a senior.
1. Physical Exams
Dogs age faster than we do, so their health problems progress faster too. Experts agree that healthy seniors should be examined more frequently as dogs are great at hiding illness, pain, and diseases. Our goal is to diagnose medical issues earlier, before the pet shows overt clinical signs, because the earlier in a disease process we can make a diagnosis and start a treatment, the better the outcome. Many people tell me well he is old so I do not want to spend money or do too much. It is a fact that senior pets do require more care. Just like us humans when we were young we hardly had to see a doctor but as we age we need our doctors more as we have more medical issues. At Fraser Valley Animal Hospital it is not about heroics, rather our goal for all our dog patients is a good quality of life no matter their age. By examining our senior pets more frequently we are able to catch minor changes in their heart, body condition, dental disease, kidney function before there is significant damage due to the hidden disease, and thus it tends to be far easier and less expensive to control.
Is your senior dog hurting? How would you know? Everyday at the Fraser Valley Animal Hospital I hear clients tell me that their dog now needs help getting into the car, or is slower climbing the stairs, or is stiff but then I am told “But he does not hurt”. All of those signs including when dogs pull themselves up from a sit to a stand using their front legs instead of pushing with their hind legs, or when we see dogs standing with the hind quarters lowered and pulled forward rather than a level back and hind quarters, these are all telltale signs that your dog hurts. Often signs of pain and discomfort are thought to be normal signs of aging. Dogs do not cry even when the pain is severe some dogs remain silent. I had a dog who was hit by a car on South Fraser in Abbotsford and she walked down the street and into the walk into the animal hospital looking normal despite the right side of her body having a wound about 40cm in width and 60cm in length; then there is my Griffon who was attacked and lost 1/3 of the skin on his neck, his left ear and his left canine tooth as well as had an additional 50 bite wounds all over his body, and yet he did not cry. Anyone think a broken leg doesn’t hurt? I have had dogs walk in limping but still using a leg that was broken. Any small animal veterinarian can give you stories about injuries and painful situations where the dog still did not cry. Would you know if your dog only used one side of her mouth to eat because she had an abscessed tooth on the other side? How common is it for us to see dogs with abscessed and broken teeth who still eat until their mouth becomes so painful they finally give up. But because dogs hide their pain and discomfort so well the owners were not aware that their dog had been hurting for years. We know that dogs and humans have the same nervous system so IF it would hurt us then it would hurt our dogs too.
So why is this important to control pain early?
We want to prevent pain wind up. Chronic long-term pain from such things as arthritis, over stimulates the nerves and makes the dog hypersensitive. Once this occurs even small stimuli become painful and once wind up has occurred the pain becomes severe and is much harder to control. At this point dogs often still do not cry. Some though will hurt so much that they may bite or snap. We want to treat the pain before it gets to this point.
Chronic pain leads to muscle atrophy and weakness.
Chronic pain decreases quantity and quality of life and that is really our goal for our pets is to give them quality of life.
Some helpful tips to recognize arthritis in your pet
3. Screening Tests
Because our pets are masters at hiding medical issues, we use a multitude of different medical tests to help uncover hidden problems. Blood tests, urine tests and monitoring blood pressure are the most common tests done on an annual basis. Remember your pet ages roughly 5 years each calendar year. So as your dog ages from 12 to 13 he is physically changing from 75 to 80. Think how much we as people can change between the ages of 75 and 80. These tests give us a window into the health of your pet. For example during an exam we palpate your dog’s abdomen to feel you dog’s liver and kidneys but even if they feel ok it does not tell us how well they are working. This is where the blood tests can give us a lot of information. Another great example of how an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
As our pet ages they tend to lose muscle mass and balance, as well, we see a thickening of their joint capsules and ligaments resulting in less flexibility. There are great exercises that you can do at home to help maintain your dog’s strength and flexibility, and though these are easy exercises to do, care must be taken to do the exercises correctly so as not to cause permanent damage. When to start? NOW! It is much easier to maintain muscle mass and flexibility then it is to try and rebuild. Cookie Stretches, Passive Range of Motion, and Cavaletti Poles are all great ways of helping a senior dog maintain healthy joints and ligaments. As part of your senior exam we can help you determine which exercises are best for your pet and to make sure you are doing them correctly.
Low impact exercise, such as walks and swims, are important for mental stimulation as well as maintaining muscle mass.
Never exercise your dog so that he is sore the next day – no weekend warriors here! For many senior dogs breaking up their walks into more frequent but shorter walks works better than a full length walk, so if your dog finds one 30-minute walk too much then try 2 or 3 10 minute walks.
Make sure your dog isn’t slipping and sliding on hard wood floors or slippery kitchen floors. Besides being scary a slip and fall can cause muscle and ligament sprains and strains. If you have non-carpeted flooring consider throwing down some carpet runners so that your dog has pathways to be able to move about the house. Make sure the carpets are non-slip.
Another area to focus on is where your dog eats. We want your dog to maintain a standing position while eating to help maintain back muscle strength. But if the floor where the bowl is located is slippery then dogs may either eat less or start to lie down. Consider a yoga mat for an eating area. As well dogs often have arthritis along their spine so lowering their head to the bowl can be difficult so consider raising the bowl especially if you have a very tall dog.
A healthy diet is a vital part of living a healthy life and so obviously it is an important part of keeping our seniors healthy. As our pet ages they start to produce less saliva, their intestinal surface area decreases, their appetite decrease, which all results in decrease absorption of nutrients.
Smaller, more frequent meals are often easier on a senior’s digestive system.
Diets for healthy seniors, such as Hill’s G/D or Royal Canin Mature, typically contain less fat but not less protein, though as a senior ages and becomes a geriatric we may need to increase our fat levels.
So during the senior years it is common to have to change a diet more than once. We determine what is best for your dog based on your dog’s body condition score, muscle score, physical exam and blood tests. If your pet develops certain medical conditions a diet change may become an integral part of the treatment plan. After all we want nutrition to be our first medicine!
One nutritional supplement we believe that all seniors should be on additional essential fatty acids (DHA & EPA). Besides helping the joints, heart, skin, coat, kidneys AND brain, we know that Omega 3 and 6 FA have marked anti-inflammatory effects when added to the diet in proper levels. Though most diets contain Omega 3 &6 FA, unless you are feeding J/D from Hill’s, we recommend supplementing the diet, as the diets do not contain high enough levels of the essential fatty acids (DHA and EPA).
6. Doggy Dementia
Did you know that 60% of our senior dogs will develop some form of dementia? Studies have shown that the addition of Omega fatty Acids and by making your dog use their brain (use it or lose it) we can slow the progression of dementia. Just like humans, senior dogs still need exercise, mental stimulation, and socializing to remain vibrant. Using puzzle toys are all great ways to help keep your pet mentally stimulated. Remember though, as our pet ages there are age related changes to their lungs, heart and blood vessels, not to mention arthritis, which will reduce a senior pet’s exercise tolerance. But that does not mean we still cannot play. A dog who used to chase his ball for hours can learn to play ball on the floor while lying down. You roll the ball to him and teach him to roll the ball back. With this simple change you are providing mental stimulation and fun and is just one way to maintain quality of life in a senior dog.
To learn more about doggy dementia check out:
7. Oral Health
Bad teeth aren’t just about bad breath! Studies have linked dental disease in pets and humans to diseases of the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs and complicating the treatment of diabetes just to name a few. As our pets age their immune system does not respond as efficiently and they have a decrease ability to fight off infection. Serious health concerns can occur due to the constant presence of bacteria entering the blood stream through inflamed gums. There have been some studies in humans that suggest there may be a direct link between periodontal disease and some forms of cancer. During senior wellness exams we often find painful tooth root abscesses, broken teeth, and tooth resorption that the dog was skilled at hiding. We know our pets can be masters of hiding disease and pain. As already stated earlier we know our seniors have decrease nutrient absorption through their intestines, but by ignoring oral pain we compound the problem and add to their nutritional deficiencies. Many people tell me they would do a dental if Fido was younger, but actually oral health becomes even more important in our seniors if we want to keep them living longer; and not just longer but also healthy with a good quality of life. How fun is life when you have a toothache?
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The most important thing to watch in our seniors is for change. A change in appetite (now will only eat canned diet), a change in weight, a change in sleep patterns, a change in exercise tolerance, a change in ability to jump onto the couch – when you see a change in your senior dog then it is time for an exam to make sure there is not an underlying source of pain or disease that is causing the change.
Our senior dogs do need extra attention, supplements and medications. But they love us unconditionally and truly ask so little of us, so now more than ever they need us to step up and make sure we give them what they need so that their senior years are as great as the first 2/3rds of their life!