Our wonderful canine companions are living longer than ever these days and that is welcome news for all us pet parents. However, the increase in the lifespan of today’s dog (it has nearly doubled in the last 40 years), creates the need for the loving dog owner to be knowledgeable about geriatric dog care, since it can be quite different from puppy care or caring for a younger dog.
It’s no secret that the canine lifespan does not match our own and most dog owners will likely find themselves caring for their faithful friend through the “golden years” and all the health changes that come with these advancing years.
The good news is that geriatric dog care is now easier than ever, and as challenging as it is to watch your best friend grow old, you can keep him or her as happy and comfortable as possible and keep the senior years as great as all the others.
Although there are many potential problems your older dog could face, (and most all are covered in this website), below are some most commonly occurring challenges of geriatric dog care. We will lightly touch on each of them here; the bad news, and the good news that can effectively help you help your dog through it. (They are listed in alphabetical order.)
Arthritis / We humans have fine-tuned pain relief for pets
The term Arthritis means inflammation of one or more joints. Any dog can suffer from arthritis but large breed dogs are more susceptible. This inflammation causes pain and stiffness in your dog’s joints, sometimes even swelling. You may have noticed that your dog is reluctant to go up or down stairs, or has trouble rising from a sitting position. If left untreated, the symptoms of arthritis in geriatric dogs can become so painful that they can lead to irritability or aggression in your dog.
There are a number of very effective treatments available for arthritis in dogs. These include anti inflammatory medications, joint lubricants, all-natural nutritional supplements, dietary changes, weight loss, knee or hip braces, massage, acupuncture, or any number of a combination of these. The recommended treatment is usually specific to the dog’s breed, age, lifestyle and overall health, so a consultation with your dog’s vet is likely the best starting strategy.
Blindness / It’s much harder on you than it is your dog
There are different causes of blindness in older dogs. Most of these causes cannot be treated, but although canine blindness can be distressing for both you and your dog, it really needn’t drastically change your dog’s day-to-day lifestyle. Blindness usually occurs over time in dogs and if you can catch this normal degenerative aging process in early onset, you can help your dog through this confusing and disorienting period until he learns to rely on his other senses. He will adjust surprisingly well to his normal daily routine.
Some warning signs that your dog is experiencing some vision loss include:
- general clumsiness such as bumping into furniture or walls
- being easily startled
- apprehensive behavior such as not wanting to go out at night anymore
- doesn’t want to play as much and sleeps more than usual
- can’t find favorite toys
Actually, considering a dog’s senses, vision is third in importance behind sense of smell and hearing. You can help him by capitalizing on those other senses and definitely increase the amount of touching between the two of you. Speak to your dog often in a normal soothing voice and let him know when you are approaching him. Some dog owners and other family members wear “jingle bells” and also attach bells to other household pets.
You can put a unique scent on his toys and bedding. Get him squeaky toys or balls with bells. You can name his toys and use the names often as he associates with them. Talk to him calmly when you go for a walk and take him on familiar routes.
Make a familiar “Base Camp” for your dog where he’ll feel safe returning to if he becomes disoriented. This could include his crate, his bed, his food and water bowl.
Last but not least, please understand that your dog’s blindness is much harder on you than it is on your dog. He may be apprehensive and disoriented at first but dogs live in the NOW and a well-adjusted dog will accept and adapt to his new reality. He really doesn’t get that he’s lost anything. But he is very much in tune with your emotional state and if you are distressed, he can sense it. Be sure to treat him the same way you did before the blindness. It’s the best thing you can do to help him smoothly adapt.
Cancer / Weathering the storm
Cancer is one of the scariest words anyone can hear and dog lovers are no exception. Unfortunately geriatric dog care means facing the fact that cancer is the leading cause of death in senior dogs. However, some cancers can be prevented. The incidence of mammary, uterine, or ovarian cancer in a female dog spayed before her first heat is almost nonexistent. Likewise, testicular cancer can be eliminated by neutering your male dog. You can also protect your dog from other forms of cancer by keeping him away from second hand smoke and harsh chemicals. Canine obesity can also increase the risk of some cancers.
So some canine cancers can be eliminated and the risk of others reduced, all through your efforts. There are a few types of cancer that can be “suspected” on blood work so your geriatric dog should have yearly lab work done. Some vets offer further cancer screening such as belly ultrasound. If your vet does not, he or she can likely refer you to someone who does.
Beyond that, early detection is the best weapon we have. It’s important to notice if your dog has any lumps or bumps on his body, any sudden weight loss, strange odors you didn’t notice before, excessive panting, drooling or tiredness, bleeding from any orifice, difficulty eating or swallowing, or any limping or strange behavior. As in humans, successful cancer treatment in dogs is much more likely if the cancer is caught early.
Many canine cancers can be cured just by removing the tumor. Your veterinarian may want to do a biopsy to see exactly what the growth is and whether it’s malignant or benign. You’ll also need to keep a closer eye on your pet since any new growths should also be removed.
But how to treat an aggressive and invasive malignant cancer in your dog is understandably a difficult decision for anyone to make. We all want our favorite friends to live long, happy lives with no suffering involved. Education and research about your dog’s particular type and stage of cancer is your best resource now. Many veterinarians nowadays specialize and devote themselves to treating and eliminating cancer in dogs. Lots of people choose to treat the cancer holistically and enjoy the remainder of time left with their canine companion without surgery or chemo.
You know your dog better than anyone, so take some time to learn about and assess the whole situation so you can make the right decision, always considering your dog’s best interest and quality of life.
Dementia / Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD)
This condition is also known as “senility,” or the more scientific term, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). Good geriatric dog care requires recognizing CCD as a commonly occurring condition in older dogs and though the beginning signs of the disorder can be mild, they usually worsen over time. They can cause personality changes, memory loss, and confusion.
Although CCD is considered common in geriatric dogs, it is by no means universal or inevitable in your dog. Clinical symptoms of CCD are found in 50% of dogs over the age of eleven, and by age fifteen, 68% of dogs display at least one symptom. The symptoms include:
- becoming forgetful, confused or anxious
- wandering aimlessly or pacing
- barking when nothing or no one is there
- having fecal or urinary accidents in the house
- staring into space or at walls
- howling or whining for no apparent reason
- decreased activity and sleeping more
- not seeming to recognize you or every day surroundings
And now for the good news! The name of the game in treating dogs with CCD is Calm… Calm… Calm…
There is a very effective drug that helps with this, where the active ingredient is selegiline. Selegiline is used in treating lots of things in humans too, but in dogs with CCD the drugs are Anipryl (Canada, United States,) or Selgian (U.K.). There are also natural or holistic treatments that can have a calming effect on your dog and can be used in conjunction with the drug. There are other things such calming dog vests, music CDs to calm your canine, and daily tranquilizing supplements.
Other things you can do to calm your faithful friend are the same things you did before the dementia such as a light brushing or combing, a tender cuddle, or a leisurely walk in the sunshine; And never underestimate the calming effect of your own soothing voice and your own gentle touch.
Diabetes / It can’t be cured but can be successfully managed
Diabetes usually occurs in dogs at the age of 8 or 9 years and is much more common in females.
The most common form of diabetes in older dogs is type 1 which is insulin-dependent diabetes. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, and is responsible for taking the glucose that your dog gets from his food, and directing it into the cells of his body so they can be nourished and produce energy. Diabetes develops when there is not enough insulin produced or the body’s response to it malfunctions.
Symptoms of diabetes in dogs include:
- excessive thirst, drinks much more water, urinates more frequently
- becomes listless or lethargic
- exhibits an increased appetite, but also loses weight
- has sweet, fruity smelling breath
- starts to develop cataracts
- vomiting and dehydration
- skin infections
- urinary tract infections
If your dog show symptoms of diabetes, of course a trip to the veterinarian is in order. Most diabetic dogs will need daily injections of insulin which is something that you will have to learn to do. But let me hasten to add that that isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. The shots are given under the skin (not in the muscle) and the needles are teeny tiny. Your dog will hardly feel it and if you can treat it like a part of your normal, natural daily routine, so will your dog.
Your dog’s vet will also stress the importance of a moderate but consistent exercise regimen to avoid sudden spikes or drops in glucose levels. Some diabetic dogs can be treated with insulin, diet and weight loss so that they no longer require insulin. Ultimately, your dog’s vet will recommend the best insulin, diet, and exercise program for your dog and if you can follow it closely, your dog can live a happy, healthy, active life!
Gum Disease / Preventable, easily treated, dangerous if ignored
Good geriatric dog care includes being aware of what’s going on inside your dog’s mouth. If you take her for a yearly checkup, a good veterinarian will most certainly check her teeth and gums but its a good idea for you to be able to notice such things as gum inflammation (gingivitis) or tartar buildup on her teeth.
As with most things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure so when your dog’s vet recommends you brush her teeth every day, that’s no joke. Gently brush her teeth when she’s relaxed and calm. Make it part of your “together” time. Daily brushing is ideal but if she has a healthy mouth, even 3 times a week can make a difference in preventing gum disease. Alternatively, you can have her teeth professionally cleaned at your vet’s office. There are also many dental treats available to prevent plaque buildup.
O.K. Let’s say you were unaware of these preventative measures or had way too busy a schedule to brush your dog’s teeth every day. Your dog has developed periodontal disease (gum disease) and plaque and tartar have built up on her teeth. This is dangerous because plaque and tartar are laden with bacteria and with periodontal disease, the gums pull away from the teeth, creating pockets of infection. This infection does not stay in your dog’s mouth but gets in the bloodstream and can cause serious damage to organs, especially the heart, liver and kidneys.
It’s time to call your dog’s veterinarian and schedule a “dental.” The doctor will probably want your dog on antibiotics for a time before and after the surgery. The procedure will involve pulling the loose and decaying teeth and removing all the tartar from the remaining teeth. Depending on the stage of advancement of the disease, your dog will feel much better after this is done, maybe even like a pup again!
Hypothyroidism/The most common canine hormone imbalance
This condition seen in geriatric dogs is more common in medium to large breeds. As your dog ages, the thyroid gland (located in the middle neck region of the canine) can shrink or become inflamed. This leads to progressive damage to the gland and results in insufficient production of thyroid hormones. This is a problem because thyroid hormones affect your dog’s metabolism and just about every cell in his body.
Signs of hypothyroidism in dogs
This atrophy of your dog’s thyroid gland usually happens very slowly so the signs come about gradually and can be easy to miss at first. They include:
- his activity level drops – he becomes listless, sleeps more than usual or tires out more easily
- weight gain
- chronic skin problems – skin becomes infected easily, becomes scaly and has a distinctive odor
- thinning of the fur or hair loss which often starts on the tail or around the collar area
- dull, dry, brittle hair coat
- he gets ear infections more easily and ears become red, painful and smelly
- skin darkening and thickening in areas like the groin or armpit or face and neck resulting in skin folds
- he has a lower tolerance for cold and looks for warm places
If you suspect hypothyroidism in your dog or are at least concerned about the symptoms he’s having, a trip to the veterinary clinic is the next step, and your vet will order a blood test for a positive diagnosis. The great news is, although the treatment is lifelong (for the rest of your dog’s life), it is relatively easy and effective.
There is an FDA approved drug (active ingredient levothyroxine) for treating dogs with hypothyroidism. The drug is given orally, once or twice a day and is totally affordable. Your dog’s vet will calculate the dose according to your dog’s weight, though it may need to be adjusted through trial and error. You should see an increase in your dog’s level of activity within a few weeks after starting this thyroid hormone replacement therapy, although skin and ear problems can take a few months to clear up and may also require antibiotics.
There is also an abundance of homeopathic remedies for canine hypothyroidism such as parsley, fennel, oats, alfalfa, kelp and seaweeds. Vitamin A (especially from cod liver oil), the B vitamins and vitamin C can also be beneficial, as well as Omega fatty acids to help boost the immune system. These can be used in conjunction with hormone replacement therapy but always be sure to ask your vet’s recommendation about dosage and frequency.
Kidney Disease / Chronic renal failure (CRF)
Just like in humans, your dog’s kidneys have several functions. Simply put, they filter out waste and toxins in the blood to produce urine and help maintain a healthy balance of salt and water in the body to control blood pressure. They aid in metabolizing calcium and supporting phosphorous levels and are crucial in the production of red blood cells. It’s easy to see how poorly functioning kidneys can cause problems for your dog. When his kidneys stop working properly, toxins build up in the blood and your dog becomes ill.
Chronic kidney disease or chronic renal failure, (CRF) is the most common form in geriatric dogs and is generally considered to be a “wearing out” process of the organs. Large breed dogs can develop kidney problems as early as 7 years old whereas small breeds usually don’t exhibit signs until 10 to 14 years of age.
The early symptoms of chronic kidney disease are: Your dog drinks much more water and urinates more frequently.
The symptoms of more advanced kidney disease include:
- diarrhea and vomiting
- bad breath/ ammonia breath
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- brown discoloration on the tongue or mouth ulcers
Your veterinarian can positively diagnose this condition with a blood test and urinalysis.
Treating Your Dog’s Kidney Disease
The treatment will depend on how advanced the disease is and how damaged the kidneys are. This can be determined by your veterinarian running certain blood and urine tests. In more advanced cases, your dog will need to stay in the animal hospital for intravenous fluid therapy to flush out the toxins and replace electrolytes. At this time your vet should also ensure kidney friendly nutrition and certain drugs to control vomiting and diarrhea.
If this initial treatment is successful, the name of the game now is to help your dog’s kidneys function as normally as possible for as long as possible. You can do this by only feeding him a special diet designed for treating his specific stage of chronic kidney disease. There are prescription diets on the market and your vet will recommend one. Your dog may also need to take drugs to regulate salts and acid-base levels or treat high blood pressure. Your vet may also recommend home fluid therapy which is an easy technique that most dogs tolerate well.
*There is a website completely devoted to your dog’s kidneys. It sort of picks up where conventional medical treatment leaves off. It is: CanineKidneyHealth.com by Five Leaf Pet Botanicals.
Meeting the challenges of geriatric dog care / Here’s help
Of course, these are some of the more serious conditions you and your dog could face as he enters the geriatric stage of life. It’s important to note here that, although they are commonly occurring health problems in senior dogs, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one or more of them will develop in your dog, but its best to know the warning signs and treatments available if they do.
Just like us humans, there are all sorts of challenges the geriatric dog could encounter, but luckily, your canine friend has you to help him through it. And you can bet that if a geriatric dog out there somewhere was faced with a problem, no matter how far-fetched, his human counterpart found a way to solve it and alleviate the dog’s suffering. That’s why there’s so much available these days designed to help us care for and pamper our precious pets!
The products, services and information available today to help us with geriatric dog care are amazing. This website aims to match you and your dog’s particular problem to anything and everything out there that can help you keep your dog’s golden years golden!
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