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Parkview Veterinary Hospital

Geriatric Dog Care | Newsletters

Even though your dog may be slowing down a little, there's no reason why the later years in life shouldn't be some of the most rewarding. After all, he's wiser as well as older. With regular veterinary attention, daily care and proper nutrition, your senior dog can still experience a very happy, healthy life.

Certain changes (mental, physiological and physical) will occur in your dog’s body as he gets older. Important bodily functions, normally taken for granted, may start to slow down or malfunction. Just like humans, the senses eventually start to deteriorate, leading to impaired vision, hearing, taste and smell. Older dogs are also prone to a number of medical conditions, the signs of which can be subtle and that we, as owners, should be on the lookout for as many are treatable or manageable.

Dogs are often significantly older than we think they are, especially when we've had them as puppies and we have always been used to their energetic behaviour. There is a wide breed variation in what constitutes older age. Small dogs generally live the longest, while large and giant breeds have relatively short lifespans (a Great Dane is considered 'old' at six). In addition to a dog's breed, specific lifestyle factors affect how long a particular dog will live, such as diet, exercise and medical history. As the owner of an older dog it is important to recognise tell-tale signs of illness so you can seek prompt veterinary advice and attention when appropriate. Many diseases are characterized by slowly progressive symptoms that are easy to put down to ‘old age’ but in fact may be very treatable.

Diseases that are frequently diagnosed in this age group of dogs include:

If you notice any of the above signs, or any other signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, weight loss or weight gain or reluctance to exercise contact your vet.

Caring for the Senior Dog - Top Tips

Regular veterinary care - regular check-ups are a must for older dogs; the author would recommend every 6 months at least. A ‘healthy” dog may increase the temptation to miss the check-ups but remember that vaccinations, deworming and flea treatments remain important during your dog’s senior years. In fact, the immune system’s ability to nullify the continuous influx of potential threats will deteriorate as time goes on and early detection remain absolutely crucial in an effort to be preventative and keep your older dog in good health. Older dogs should be weighed regularly, and if indicated, have blood and urine analysed for certain diseases. Some veterinary clinics run special preventative clinics for older pets to have a regular check-up.

Healthy teeth and gums - routine dental care from your vet is very important, since older dogs are more prone to gum disease and plaque accumulation. In the regular visits to your veterinary practice, the attending clinician should always check your dog's teeth, gums and even breath odour. These check-ups are especially important when there are chewing or food apprehension difficulties.

Senior nutrition – as the body ages its physiology and nutritional needs also change, and adopting a diet that is specific for senior dogs is one of the most important things you can do. The rule of thumb is that dogs of seven years and older (depending on breed) become seniors. The changes seen in senior dogs are less activity and a slower metabolism which implies that fewer calories are required. However, high quality, easy to digest protein becomes more important than ever since the animal’s digestion efficiency tends to decrease with time, and we want to maintain overall body condition (we don’t want to lose lean muscle mass).

A good senior diet (there are a lot of commercial, readily available brands) provides concentrated, high quality protein, low fat, and easy to digest carbohydrates for energy. Additional key minerals support ageing joints, and vitamins, along with protein, help support the ageing immune system. In addition, some of these diets will go the extra mile to cater for sensitive teeth and gums and senior changes in feeding habits. The latter will allow your dog to continue to enjoy mealtimes to the full without compromising on the essentials.

If your older dog appears reluctant to eat, you should always check with your vet that there is not an underlying medical reason for what you may think is just fussiness. A few changes to feeding regimes may also encourage food intake in older dogs including feeding little and often as smaller meals can be easier to digest, varying textures and flavours, and warming the food to release wonderful flavours.

Healthy skin, coat and nails - as part of your regular routine, you may want to schedule a special grooming session at least once a month. A great opportunity to give your dog that loving attention s/he needs. If your dog has a long coat you may need to consult a dog groomer too for a trim to make your dog more comfortable. Nails that previously were worn down by activity may overgrow, especially the dewclaws. Overgrown nails become uncomfortable (often hook onto bedding, clothing and carpets) or at worst grow back around into the paw-pad. Ask your vet/nurse to trim your dog’s claws regularly.

Home comforts - a soft bed goes a long way when you are older with sore joints, and even more so during winter when the joints become more sensitive. Make sure the bed is in a quiet, draft free location, maybe next to a heat source in winter. Arthritic joints are not as good at jumping so you may need to lift a older dog in and out of the car (for larger dogs provide a ramp and save yourself the back injury). In addition, we can make sure food and water are within easy reach and don’t require trips up and down stairs.

Staying active - avoiding obesity is very important for your older dog as it has serious medical implications. Diet is the most important contributing factor, but so is regular exercise. Speak to your vet about an appropriate diet and exercise plan for your dog that takes into account any underlying conditions such as osteoarthritis. Controlled leash walking is sufficient most of time, however terrain and distance must be considered carefully.

Daily routine - a consistent daily routine is important to your older dog's physical, mental and emotional health, providing comfort and a reassuring framework. The latter is especially important in dogs that may be starting to show signs of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (senility). There are supplements, medications and even prescription diets that can help these pets overcome these difficulties and have often made the difference between a great quality of life as a senior dog and euthanasia (the author has experienced this in

Acknowledge failing senses - loss of sight and hearing may mean your dog sleeps very deeply and doesn’t hear you coming when approached. Make sure all family members are aware of this and particularly children known to be quiet and slow around the dog. Becoming disorientated may be due to cataract development (deteriorating eyesight), nuclear sclerosis of the lens (normal ageing) or senility (canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome). Identifying the actual cause of failing senses can make the world of difference to your beloved pet.

Emotional support - try to be sensitive to what your older dog is going through and understand that a lot of psychological changes are taking place. Daily care of your older dog requires a little more patience on your part. Your loving care and commitment really helps create true quality life during these senior years.

In conclusion caring for an older dog can be very rewarding. Excellent veterinary care and small home management changes can significantly improve your older dog’s quality of life for many years to come.