It’s too bad that our dogs don’t age at the same rate as we do, so that we might grow old gracefully together. It is difficult to see our beloved petís gradual decline into old age, but we can help him to enjoy his golden years as long as possible.
Improved nutrition and veterinary care are increasing the longevity of our pets. As they age, our dogs face the same aging process and gradual decline in the body’s ability to repair itself as we humans do. Changes in metabolism, endocrine disorders, lowered immune system function, arthritis and muscle weakness, organ dysfunction, urinary problems, cancer, loss of vision and hearing, behavioral disorders and cognitive dysfunction are all common results of aging.
Smaller dog breeds tend to live longer than larger breeds, and mixed breeds longer than purebred. Generally, a small adult dog (under 20 pounds) is considered a senior dog at nine to 13 years of age; a medium dog (21-50 pounds), at nine to 11 years; a large dog (51-90 pounds), at nine to 11 years; and giant breeds (over 90 pounds), at six to nine years.
It is wise to take your dog to the veterinarian for an initial geriatric exam as he edges toward his senior years. Early detection and prevention of disease is much more cost effective than waiting until your dog is showing definite signs of illness, and may prolong his life and the amount of time you get to enjoy him as a member of your family. Diagnostic tests can catch early stages of disease, and preventative medicines and proper nutrition will improve his quality of life as he ages. Your vet can discuss any special needs your dog may have in his senior years. After his initial geriatric exam, take him for periodic exams twice a year, or as your vet recommends
Give your geriatric dog a periodic home exam between visits to detect any potential problems that may need evaluated. Feel his limbs and joints for any swelling or pain, and check for swelling in his abdomen. Examine his teeth and gums regularly, noting any foul odor that may indicate disease or decay. Be aware of any sudden weight gain or loss, and any changes in his behavior, appetite, water consumption, or elimination habits.
Feed your senior dog a good-quality food appropriate for his specific needs. Follow any nutritional requirements or restrictions as advised by your veterinarian. Prescription diets can slow development of diseases or improve organ functions, adding to his quality of life.
Older dogs will sleep more and be less active. Arthritis pain may discourage him from moving around; the pain can be treated with NSAIDs or anti arthritic medication as prescribed by your vet. Routine exercise in small or moderate amounts will keep your dog’s joints and muscles limber and his weight under control. Running will probably be replaced by walking! Swimming is excellent exercise for arthritic dogs. Encourage your dog to be active at least a few minutes each day but let him rest if he begins to look tired.
A dog with poor vision can often deal with his loss in familiar situations. Try not to rearrange the furniture so he can find still find his way through the house without bumping into things. Baby gates may again be an option to keep him out of danger, such as accidentally falling down a stairway.
Most dogs who are fortunate enough to live to a ripe old age will begin to show changes in behavior. Sometimes these changes have an underlying medical problem, but often they are signs of canine cognitive dysfunction, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. He may forget his toilet training, pace around or stare off into space, walk into furniture, become lost in his own home or back yard, bark or whine for no apparent reason or bark at inanimate objects, stop responding when his name is called, or not bother greeting you when you come home. You may need to limit his space with baby gates for his own safety and to protect the carpeting. If his condition makes him overly anxious, a crate may offer him a place for security.
As dogs age, they adapt less to stress and sudden changes in their environment. They may become less tolerant of noisy children, new pets in the family, loud noises, and general commotion. Ease his stress by reducing his exposure to stressors as much as possible. He may react to stressful situations by snapping or growling, but don’t punish him because he can’t help himself at this point. Just take care of the situation that is causing the problem. Teach the children to give the old fellow some respect and keep the noise down around him. If you want to add a new pet to the family, do so before he is showing signs of decline. Be sure he has a warm, soft, quiet place to sleep and is not exposed to drastic changes in temperature. Pay attention to his grooming and dental needs to keep him comfortable.
And as sad as it is to think about, at some point your dog will have lived out the best part of his life. Hopefully, he will pass on comfortably at home with his family, but if he is suffering and in pain the most humane act may be to have the vet put him down. Have a little memorial service in honor of your beloved pet that was devoted to you and loved you as no human being could.