Becoming a senior happens to all of us, from the days we attend school, to the day we become a senior citizen and it happens to our dogs, too. Dogs also grow into that “golden age,” which requires some understanding by their owners.
In this article I will try to alert you to what is happening to your dog, as it grows older. With dogs and I guess people too, the process of aging is more physiological than chronological when it comes to determining when one is mature. People age in different stages and dogs follow suit.
Aging occurs when the body begins to slow down and the body’s cells start falling apart faster than the body can repair them. In dogs, aging can begin as early as five years for larger breed dogs and seven years for small and middle sized dogs.
How well your dog responds to the aging process depends a great deal on its genetics and environment. Nutrition also plays an important part, the quality of the food you feed your dog nourishes its cells and helps to prolong a long and healthy life.
The aging process still demands quality food and while your dog is growing older the need for nutritious food becomes more important, actually it is as important as it was when your dog was a puppy. The difference is the quantity and the way the nutrients are provided.
So, the first thing in understanding your senior dog is to become aware of its nutritious needs and what your dog’s food should provide. A senior dog needs high quality protein, which comes from meat such as chicken and lamb. Some sources say older dogs do not need protein because it will cause kidney problems, but that way of thinking is actually unfounded. Protein is necessary for building muscle and cell reserves.
Older dogs need less food (quantity wise) and food that is lower in fat, as they burn fewer calories (just as humans do as they grow older). They need food that has a good supply of digestible fiber to help with elimination. To help maintain a balance within the body, they also need antioxidants to fight off the free radicals, plus vitamins and minerals, which can come from a nutritionally balanced dog food and not necessarily from supplements.
What can you expect to see in the aging process?
When humans age, we see certain changes in hair color and body development; dogs also have significant signs of aging. Obesity is one of the main problems in the process of aging in dogs. We humans, tend to feed our dogs the same amount of food every day, not realizing that they do not need it and that they are not metabolizing the food as they did in their younger days. The result is weight gain, which puts extra weight on limbs that may be suffering from arthritis or other problems. If your dog is not eating be certain to call your vet, as there may be medical problems you are not aware of.
A dog’s skin and hair coat begins to show changes as a dog ages. Gray hair around the eyes and muzzle begin to appear and the skin coat may become thinner and duller. This can also be a sign of a nutrient deficiency, so be aware of it. It is possible that benign tumors can begin to develop in various places throughout the body. These usually do not need to be removed unless they are in an area that is constantly annoying the dog. Have all tumors checked by your vet to be certain none are cancerous.
Older large breed dogs have a tendency to develop calluses on their elbows due to the fact that they are lying down more. Provide bedding for your dog in its favorite resting-places instead of having them lay on hard surfaces.
You may also notice your dog’s pads thickening and its nails becoming brittle and needing to be clipped more often due to inactivity.
Older dogs tend to move less and many suffer from arthritis. It is important that you walk your dog or see that it has some type of mild activity no matter how old it is. It is necessary for you to move your muscles in order to keep mobile and that goes for dogs, too. You either move it or lose it, as the saying goes and that is very true.
A ramp, elevated feeding dishes and/or a set of steps maybe necessary to help your dog get up and downstairs, to eat comfortably and/or on to furniture. Chondroitin, and glucosamine can be beneficial to help support healthy joints.
Dental disease, decreased heart function, kidney problems, decreased liver function, urinary and bowel problems, sensitivity to temperature changes, hearing and sight loss and many more things can all be signs of increasing old age. Developing a good relationship with your vet is important at this time of your dog’s life. It is important to be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone who understands what is going on.
Cognitive dysfunction is a possibility, according to Pfizer Pharmaceutical, 62 percent of dogs ten years and older will experience some sort of dysfunction. They will become confused or disoriented in their own back yards or even inside the house. They will pace at night and change their sleep patterns. Some may not even recognize household members and many will sit and stare into space. There is a drug called Selegiline /L-Deprenyl it is not a cure, but will help with some of the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction. Should your dog appear to be suffering from this condition contact your vet at once for help.
What behavior changes can I expect to see?
Older dogs have a much harder time coping with changes in the daily routine. Vision or hearing loss may make them anxious and sometimes a dog that never had separation anxiety becomes very anxious when it knows you are about to leave the house.
The secret here is to make leaving and coming home, a simple act with not much fuss or attention. Giving the dog a Kong toy filled with treats will keep him/her busy for awhile and its mind off your leaving. Make certain the dog will be comfortable while you are gone, sometimes soft music or the TV being on helps comfort the dog when it is alone.
If you are gone for long periods of time and if it is possible, have someone come in and take the dog out for a short walk. Senior dogs need to go to the bathroom more frequently than younger dogs.
Some dogs feel safer when crated; this depends on whether or not your dog is used to being inside a crate. There is also medication that can help make your dog less anxious, but as a rule it should not be used continually.
Older dogs may become aggressive. Pain, loss of vision or hearing, and some diseases can cause an otherwise friendly dog to become a bit aggressive. If aggressiveness is a sudden behavior, have your pet checked by your vet, as there may be an underlying cause you do not see. Work with your vet to try and find the cause of the aggression.
House soiling can become a problem as your dog suddenly starts having “accidents.” Again have your vet examine the dog for underlying medical problems. If you cannot have someone take the dog our frequently when you are gone, think about penning the dog up in an area that is fairly easy to clean up after an accident.
Do not leave a senior dog outside all day if that is not the norm for the dog, it will only create more problems and anxiety.
Older dogs can become frightened of loud noises due to the fact they cannot move away from it as quickly as they could in younger days. Stress, also will cause some senior dogs to bark and whine more. However, some of it may be a call for attention especially if the dog has a problem getting up or down, it is calling you to come to him/her as it cannot get to you.
Older dogs that are not in good physical condition have trouble coping with a new and younger pet. So do not expect your senior dog to be overjoyed when you bring home a new puppy. Consider the fact that the puppy is a pest and your older dog does not have the patience and the ability to move away from the puppy fast enough.
Monitoring your senior dog for disease and other conditions.
There are many common diseases and conditions that your senior dog can suffer from and some of them are silent killers unless your are an observant owner.
I know you lead a busy life, but your dog has been a good companion and needs just a little of your attention in regard to keeping an eye on its health.
Your dog’s eating habits need a watchful eye. How much is he/she eating, what kind of food (kibble or canned,) if you are feeding both kinds, which is the one being eaten the most? This can lead you to finding dental problems.
What about water consumption? Drinking more or less is also a sign of some common diseases. Weight gain or loss of weight, behavior patterns and changes in them, sleep patterns, obeying commands, anxious when left alone or around people, activity levels, coughing or other respiratory problems, bad breath or drooling, all these can be signs that your pet may have a problem, the vet needs to check out. A call to your vet or a quick visit may in the long run save you money and prolong the life of your dog.
I hope that this information has been of some help and that you and your canine companion have a long and healthy life together.