Published in: Health & Diet
When a pup comes into your life you start a journey together which, it is to be hoped, will be a long one, filled with boundless love and joy. One day however you will look at your companion and realize that the years have flown and the young dog of seemingly limitless energy and unquenchable exuberance is now a senior citizen.
While nothing can be done to halt the inevitable process of aging there is much we can do to make the autumn years comfortable and enjoyable for our dogs. Maintaining a good quality of life for them requires an understanding of the changes brought about by advancing age and the means by which the impact of such changes can be managed and thus minimized.
Often the first, and most obvious, signs of aging are the greying of the hair around the muzzle and a gradual slowing down of activity levels. Her step might not have quite so much spring in it, she will not run as far or as fast, chasing balls will lose a little of its appeal. The couch, the basket, or the spot in the sun will take a little longer to leave and will be returned to more readily and more frequently.
While it is necessary to recognize and respect that she no longer has the energy and bounce of her salad days, it is important to ensure that she does get sufficient appropriate exercise to keep her body fit and her mind stimulated. Tailor your walks and play periods to meet her capabilities: walk more slowly and for shorter distances, throw the ball less often and less far, play games such as ‘find’ to exercise her mind rather than those requiring youthful strength, stamina, and flexibility. Regular, gentle exercise should be the objective, but a little excitement such as an occasional trip to a new park or beach, will do much to add interest to her life.
Arthritis will affect most aging dogs to some degree, and can become severe in advanced age. Stiff and painful joints are indicated when the dog is reluctant to rise, stumbles, limps, has difficulty in negotiating steps or getting into or out of the car, or displays any discomfort or awkwardness associated with movement. There is no complete cure for the condition but the aches and pains can be significantly alleviated by various medications prescribed by your veterinarian or by dietary supplements.
Diet is essential to the well-being of a dog at any age, but particular attention should be paid to the nutritional requirements of the older dog. If your dog is overweight this will compound the problems of arthritis as the joints will suffer from trying to carry the extra load. Strain will also be put upon the internal organs. The heart and the lungs will be required to work needlessly hard and fat deposits in and around other organs will compromise good health. “Preventing obesity is the single most important consideration in prolonging the life of the older dog” (Giffin & Carlson, p.499). Your senior dog, being naturally less active, will require less calories than she did as a youngster. You may wish either to switch to a food which is specially formulated for seniors, or reduce the amount of her normal maintenance food. Cut out any fattening treats and table scraps. If your dog is already obese then a reducing diet should be started, but bear in mind that the weight loss should be very gradual. Always consult your veterinarian before commencing a weight-reduction program to ensure that there is no underlying medical cause for the obesity.
Age may also lead to a failing of eyesight and hearing. Generally the onset of loss of vision and deafness is gradual. The eyes may take on a cloudy appearance due to the formation of cataracts. These can be surgically removed but as dogs can deal very well with limited vision it must be considered whether the stress of undergoing surgery is in the best interests of the dog. Even should your dog become completely blind she will cope well providing that her environment is sensitively and sensibly managed. She will know her way around the house and garden by habit and scent. Major changes in the environment, such as moving furniture, re-modelling the garden, etc., should be avoided. If such changes are necessary she should be guided around until she becomes familiar with the new order. She should never be allowed to wander out of your sight on walks as she may unknowingly place herself in a dangerous situation. Always talk to or remain close to your blind dog, indoors and outside, so that she knows where you are. Discharge from the eyes may become more copious with age and, if allowed to accumulate and dry, will cause discomfort. A gentle wipe every morning with cool, boiled, water will remove any debris.
As with impaired vision, deafness is no barrier to a dog leading a fulfilled life. The deaf dog should never be off-lead unless in a very secure area as she will not hear traffic and will not hear you call her away from potential hazards. A deaf dog will sleep very soundly so care must be taken not to cause alarm by suddenly wakening her. Rather than touching the dog in order to rouse her it is preferable to cause a vibration which will eventually penetrate her sound sleep, stamping your foot on the floor a few times will usually do the trick. If she was taught hand signals as a pup this learning will now become invaluable as, if you are in her sight, you will be able to signal your commands for ‘sit’, ‘drop’, ‘come’, etc. If she has not been taught hand signals there is no reason to worry as an old dog is most certainly capable of learning new tricks. Some dogs, while not technically deaf, may lose the ability to hear noises of a certain pitch. If your dog does not respond to your voice this may be the cause. Try either clapping your hands to attract her attention as this will provide both noise and air vibrations, or a whistle which can be adjusted until the pitch to which she responds is found.
Many of the other infirmities associated with aging, such as heart disease, kidney and liver failure, diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, etc., are treatable if not curable. Special diets and medications will do much to slow the progress of disease and make life more comfortable. It may be wise to increase veterinary check-ups to twice yearly for the old dog. If you notice that she is breathless, coughing, fainting, drinking and/or urinating excessively, is constipated, has a seizure, rapidly loses weight, or has any unexplained lumps and bumps, do not hesitate to consult your veterinarian.
Urinary incontinence is fairly common, particularly in the older bitch. This may be the result of infection or, more usually, of age-weakened bladder control muscles. The housetrained dog can become very upset by these accidents. If this should occur never show any sign of anger or disappointment. Never punish her in any way as the leakages are involuntary and completely beyond her control. Chastisement will only serve to make her more anxious and depressed. There are inexpensive and very effective medications available which will quickly solve the problem.
A fairly recently recognized disease is canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). This is a similar condition to Alzheimer’s disease in humans whereby alterations in the brain lead to confusion and behavioural changes. The primary symptoms of CDS are disorientation and forgetfulness. The affected dog may ‘forget’ her house-training, she may become ‘lost’ in familiar surroundings unable to remember where doors are or how to get past furniture, she may stare blankly at walls or into the distance, fail to recognize people she knows, fail to respond to her name, ignore verbal interaction, become ‘distant’ and less inclined to seek attention, wander aimlessly around or walk in circles, sleep more during the day but less at night. Be aware that your dog may also ‘forget’ to drink and thus risk dehydration or kidney problems. A significant percentage of older dogs will exhibit one or more symptoms of CDS ranging from mild to severe. These symptoms can be treated and, consequently, your dog’s quality of life will improve dramatically.
As your dog ages it is important that her grooming routine is maintained and not skimped. Her skin will be thinner and she may have a few warts, so care should be taken in brushing the coat. The pasterns may start to drop which means that the nails will not be in such close contact with the ground and therefore may require more frequent trimming. Check her mouth, teeth and gums carefully. Dogs with decaying teeth or other mouth problems experience pain and have difficulty in eating which leads to undesired weight loss. Infection can spread from the mouth to the internal organs and may cause serious problems.
Routine and comfort are the touchstones of your greying companion. She will be less able to cope with change, and while a little excitement may add a touch of spice to her life, and lift her spirits, knowing what to expect and when to expect it will keep her happy and stress-free. Old dogs are also less able to deal with extremes of temperature so ensure that she can find relief from the heat of summer and is not exposed to the cold of winter. Her sleeping quarters should be made as comfortable as possible. Ensure that her bed is out of any draught and has plenty of padding to lessen contact with the floor and thus prevent strain on the elbows and hips. Orthopaedic beds can be of help to the arthritic dog.
The essential thing to remember during these golden years is to pay attention to your friend and try to understand and accommodate her needs. If she is cold, get her a blanket; if she is forgetful, forgive her; if she aches, give her a gentle massage; if she is slow, wait for her; if she is tired, let her sleep; if she is stressed, soothe her. Above all love her and spend as much time as possible with her. An old dog is a most precious and irreplaceable treasure. Cherish each day for your time with each other is not infinite.
Saying goodbye to your dear old friend is the most difficult and painful part of your journey together. It is the desire of all owners that their dogs should die naturally and peacefully in their sleep, but for most this does not happen. It is, therefore, our duty to decide when is the right time to bid farewell. This not easy, but when you know that your dog has ceased to find pleasure and joy in life, when she has a painful and progressive disease or condition for which there is no further treatment available, then look into her eyes and you will see that, as much as she would wish to try to stay, the effort is too much to endure. If possible have your veterinarian come to your home so that she will not be distressed by being in an unfamiliar and possibly frightening place. Stay with her throughout so that she will be comforted by your presence and will hold your scent in her final breath. Painlessly ending her suffering and allowing her to go on her way with dignity is the last, and greatest, gift of love and respect that we can offer.
Giffin, J.M. & Carlson, L.D. Dog owner’s home veterinary handbook, 3rd ed. New York: Howell Book House, 2000.
A very interesting article Shadowboxer and a sad reminder that we should enjoy our doggy companions to the full. The time they remain with us is always too brief.
This is such an excellent article. Thank you so much for writing it.
Very interesting article and some very good points made.
An informative, sensitive article. Thank you for giving consideration to our elderly friends. xxx
Excellent SB. A very comprehensive guide to looking after an oldie!
Your article helped me alot, I have a 14 year old Staffy (Phoebe). Just about everything you said is happening to her, we have an excellent vet whom she sees every 3 months(or whenever we need him) for treatment.. to make her comfortable.. She is my Best Friend .. I have been truly blessed to have known her & to have had her in my life.. Everyday now is special with her.. Thanks ... Bribiegirl
have just read the article on The Golden Years; caring for the older dog. this is such a good article. i have a border collie who is 17 and displays several symptoms of CDS
i havent had a diagnosis from my vet but am sure this is what he has.
He also suffers from arthitis, poor eye sight and has occassions where he is conveiniently deaf ! he still loves to go for a short walk and has a good appetite. i love this dog to bits, hes loves my husband but has always been MY dog. i am going to be devastated when his final days are here, but will make those last days as comfortable as possible
i would be interested to know if other members have dogs who have this condition and what drugs they are on.
Wonderful article,my dog Molly is only 9mths old so God willing I wont have to make these decisions for a long time but it makes me realise that our time together will be finite.
It reminded me of the only time I saw my old dad cry in public was when he had to have his dog of 15yrs put to sleep. You have to have a dog as a friend to understand the bond between you. It has surprised me that it is so strong, I now know why people rush into burning buidings to get their dog!
Wonderful sensitive and insightful guide for all our older companions thank you