Whether you’ve had your dog since it was a puppy, or perhaps adopted one as an adult, the time comes when your beloved pet could be considered a senior citizen. As with humans, the “golden years” bring out the inevitable changes associated with the aging process.
Since no two dogs are exactly alike, there is great variation in the signs and onset of aging. Some of this is due to differences between breeds.
For one, it seems that the larger the dog, the more quickly they age. For example, the smaller dogs often live longer, like 15 – 16 years and more, whereas the large breeds may become “elderly” by the age of 8 or 9.
It additionally has been shown that dogs spayed and neutered by 6 months of age tend to live longer and healthier lives. Pets that have received regular and proper care and diet also live longer. This includes a high quality diet and regular veterinary attention.
As their guardians, it’s up to us to provide the care they need as their bodies change. Some of these changes are not very comfortable, such as arthritis, dental problems or digestive functions. If your older dog is to have any quality of life for his retirement years, it is up to us to find ways to make that life more comfortable.
It may be difficult to notice certain changes if they’ve happened gradually, but it’s important to watch out for new behaviors in these areas:
1. Eating. An older dog may lose his appetite as the years go by, but good quality, age-appropriate dietary modifications can help keep your dog in good health, with good energy. Since proper nutrition is critical to good health at any age, it’s important to feed your pets quality foods at all stages of life.
Don’t wait until he’s older to switch to something better, in hopes of restoring his health. Start with high quality foods when your dog is a puppy, and the aging process may be delayed. Cheap, “store brand” foods are usually the worst you can give your loyal companion. If eating becomes painful because of dental problems, your dog may stop eating altogether. Time for a vet check.
2. Mobility. If you’ve noticed your dog slowing down, certainly, that could be due to normal aging. But don’t dismiss it as “just getting old.” There still could be some underlying health problems that are treatable. It could be arthritis, for example, and pain management may help. Also be sure to notice if any pain is localized to one spot, such as a leg joint or a foot. If he’s fallen when you weren’t around, there could be a sprain, strain or other injury, requiring some veterinary attention. As we all age, sometimes we lose some coordination and aren’t as agile as we once were, making falls more common.
3. Elimination. Yes, the digestive tract gets old, too, and its functions can change with time. Note whether your dog is constipated, or the opposite, and have him checked at the vet’s. There could be parasites or a disease process, and treatment would depend on differentiating which it is. Also be aware that aging pets can start having accidents on the floor, since they will have less and less control over these functions. It’s important not to punish or scold at these times, as they already feel bad enough about letting you down. Just clean it up and don’t make an issue of it.
4. Sleep. While it’s normal to sleep more, and more often, as we age, you need to be sure your dog isn’t sleeping more than is normal for this stage of life. If he’s suffering with any of the more painful aging conditions, he may sleep more to escape.
Be sure to offer at least two different places to snooze. One should be warm and soft and snuggly, and the other should be cool and perhaps less padded. It gives the dog the opportunity to choose which will be most comfortable.
5. Skin and coat. The fur may dry out and the skin can flake, producing a form of dandruff. Groom him more often, and possibly more gently, if the brush or comb doesn’t feel good. Bathing may become necessary more often if he develops objectionable odors, too. But beware and be careful, as this can cause the skin and coat to dry out even more. Consult with a professional groomer for advice.
6. Hearing and sight. This can be hard to spot if you’ve had your dog a long time and haven’t moved recently. They simply adjust to familiar surroundings and will appear to be navigating normally, even if they can’t see or hear anymore. The kind thing to do is not rearrange the furniture just yet.
7. Overall condition. Aging also means a slowing down of all organ systems, including the immune system, and your dog could develop colds or various infections more easily. He may lose interest in things that once sparked him to chase or play, or just watch you intently as you handled your daily tasks. For instance, your older dog may still enjoy taking a walk with you, but try walking more slowly and not as far. He will appreciate that.
Dr. RJ Peters is a retired physician who established an animal shelter in 2002. Find out how pet insurance can help with the costs of veterinary care at all stages of your pet’s life: Every Pet Matters.
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