As a veterinarian, I tell people all the time that age is just a number for dogs. Like people, dogs vary in how they grow older. Similar to humans, it’s about the genes they inherit and their lifestyle habits. The current adage "60 is the new 50" applies to dogs as well and we see many "young" geriatric patients living active lives. With advances in veterinary medicine, nutrition, non-traditional alternatives and housing, dogs are living longer than ever. That is good news for owners who want their dogs to live forever. While we cannot stop the aging process we can help our pets do so gracefully and comfortably. Diet, exercise, veterinary care and mental stimulation are the keys to good health and longevity and our pets needs in each of these areas changes as they grow older.
1. A Good Diet
A good diet is essential and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Diet choices vary widely and should be formulated for each patient individually. Older dogs benefit from diets with low caloric density to avoid weight gain, but with a normal protein level to help maintain muscle mass. Vitamins, supplements and fatty acids become more important as the body’s ability to synthesize or absorb them starts to diminish. A veterinarian or animal nutritionist should be the first resource for owners who are researching the best diet for their pet. Unless there is a trusted store owner with lots of dietary knowledge to count on, the truth is that most pet store employees are not qualified to guide owners correctly.
MarianneBirkholz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24981467
2. Exercise and Mental Stimulation
Exercise and mental stimulation helps dogs lead happy and healthy lives. However older dogs may suffer from other conditions that limit their activity. Pet parents should pay special attention to their dogs' breath during exercise to watch for signs of intolerance. Paw and pad care is extremely important and nails should be kept trimmed. Attention to mobility is crucial and conditions like arthritis, pulled muscles, strains or pain should be treated appropriately. Veterinarians have many ways in which to help dogs who suffer from these ailments and advances in medicine now allow dogs to live virtually pain free. Besides traditional medications that treat inflammation and pain, many veterinarians now offer laser therapy, massage, acupuncture and other modalities that help alleviate pain and improve quality of life.
3. Proper Oral Care
Good oral care is not only essential but prolongs life too. Veterinarians report that an estimated 85 percent of dogs over age 4 are suffering from some form of periodontal disease, a painful oral condition that can lead to tooth loss and infection. The good news? All of these problems are preventable with regular dental cleanings and professional checkups. Good dental hygiene is just as important for pets as it is for humans. Yet, it is one of the most overlooked areas in pet health. Veterinary dental cleanings do, of course, require general anesthesia. Many pet owners believe their dog or cat is simply too old for anesthesia – this is a very common misconception among not only pet parents, but also many veterinarians. Age itself is not a disease, so if your pet is otherwise healthy, his age won't increase his risk of anesthetic complications.
4. Provide Proper Bedding
Soft, easily accessible and warm places to sleep and rest are important to senior and geriatric dogs. Bedding is important and should be individualized to each dog's specific requirements. There are orthopedic beds, warming beds, cooling pads, and lots of different options to choose from. Remembering that dogs are pack animals at heart it is important to them to sleep with the pack at night. They should not be isolated by themselves during this time in their lives when they need the comfort of companionship most. Providing another pet for them to bond with can add quality to their life. It has been shown that pets living with buddies live longer and have fewer medical issues than those who don't.
5. Watch for Warning Signs of Declining Health
A common mistake owners make is attributing medical issues for aging. They assume changes in activity, appetite, bathroom habits and behavior are due to the aging process without realizing there is an underlying medical issue causing those changes. Diagnosing and treating the various conditions will often times restore health and well-being allowing the dog to return to its normal life. Taste, hearing, vision and smell diminish in people as they age and we see the same occurring in dogs. Recognizing the symptoms and making household adjustments like heating food, adding flavorings, talking and walking louder, leaving lights on at night all help dogs cope better with those losses.
As dogs age, and their physical and mental condition change, it becomes more important for owners to be closely observant of their dog's individual limitations and needs. Remembering that dogs simply want to please owners and rarely show pain or illness makes it harder for pet parents to recognize their dog's true needs. Therefore it is important to watch them closely for ways in which you can help make their lives more comfortable and easier as their fur whitens and their bodies slow down. Giving them the extra love, attention and care will ensure good quality of life.
Do you have any questions about caring for your aging dog? Ask me in the comments
By Trevor Hurlbut (Flickr: noah (1 of 1)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Visit our store for several good products that help young and old dogs alike. Bahr's Balm provides paw protection and helps soften old and cracked pads. The Stressfree Bath Mat provides secure footing in slippery tubs and makes bath time safer. The Planet Dog Snoop, Carrots and Nooks provide healthy mental stimulation and the Mighty Ball and Honest Pet Products hemp toys allow for needed physical exercise while preserving the integrity of dogs' teeth.