Dogs, like we humans, change as they age. They may have less energy, develop arthritis, or lose their hearing or sight. It’s our job to help them age gracefully into their golden years.
Christy Nielson of Phoenix took her senior black lab Jeb, 15, to a geriatric specialist once he had trouble getting around. “They put Jeb in a harness and started twice a week treadmill therapy to allow him to build muscle strength without pain,” she says. Nielson was so pleased with the result that she credits them with helping Jeb get back his dignity and have a better quality of life until it was time to cross over the rainbow bridge.
“I tell pet owners all the time that old age is not a disease,” says Judy Morgan, DVM, author of From Needles to Natural: Learning Holistic Pet Healing. Morgan thinks a geriatric provider can be helpful. “Yes, senior pets may require a little more care, but they are well worth it. Age is just a number,” she says.
Dogs become senior as early as six years of age (for giant breeds) to 13 years of age (for small breeds),” says Leilani Alvarez, DVM, head of integrative and rehabilitation medicine at NYC’s Animal Medical Center.
Here’s how you can help your senior pet to age gracefully.
Making Your Senior Dog’s Life Easier
Install Stairs and Ramps
For dogs that may have trouble getting on or off furniture or in and out of the car, try ramps and puppy stairs. For pets with decreased vision, gating off staircases may be best for preventing injuries on the stairs.
Prevent Slips and Falls
Senior dogs lose some traction on their foot pads and can slip on hardwood floors, leading to injuries. Make sure your home’s throw rugs, area rugs, and rug runners have rubber gripper pads beneath them to give your dog the ability to remain stable when walking. Also, hair grown in between the paw pads can make dogs more prone to slipping, so clip the hair in between the pads often.
Check for Vision and Hearing
Older dogs may have decreased vision and hearing, making it harder for them to navigate. “Even if your pet has been trained to stay within the boundaries of the yard, this may change with age,” says Morgan. “An old dog that wanders off is at high risk for getting lost or being hit by oncoming cars, so a fenced yard may be necessary now.”
Buy (or Make) New Beds
Soft bedding or orthopedic beds can help older pets with arthritis and decreased muscle mass. They provide support and extra cushioning that the floor doesn’t offer.
Maintain Predictable Floor Plans
For dogs that have decreased vision, rearranging furniture can be their worst nightmare. Sticking to a predictable floor plan can help them feel safe and get around easier. Keep floor clutter cleared, as well.
Schedule Regular Health Screenings
Seniors should be checked twice a year with a complete physical exam and lab work. “I recommend a CBC (complete blood count, which checks for anemia, infection, cancer), a Chem Screen (which checks for liver and kidney function, blood sugar, electrolytes, pancreatic function, calcium, phosphorous), a urinalysis (checks for infection, stones, kidney function, diabetes), a thyroid test (checks for over or underactive thyroid), fecal exam (checks for parasites, blood, mucous), and heartworm testing,” says Morgan.
Watch for Signs of Illness
Senior pets are more prone to urinary tract infections, which may be the result of holding urine longer because they have arthritis and don’t wish to get up to go outside. Seniors also have a higher risk of developing cancer, so any new or changing lumps should be examined closely.
Make Time for Daily Activities
Senior pets should remain active and involved to stay healthy. Strong muscles support the joints that can be weakened by arthritis. Low impact activities like walking or swimming are best. Physical therapy is also a great option for pets showing weakness.
Check for Pain
“Many seniors are very stoic and do not show overt symptoms of pain,” says Morgan. Owners may think their senior dogs are less active because they are old. The signs may be more subtle—moaning upon getting up, not eating as much, restlessness, not sleeping—but close observation will help you to learn the signs of pain in your pet. No dog should suffer with chronic pain.
Keep the Weight Down
“Obesity can make mobility issues much worse and can exacerbate existing arthritis or join issues,” says Michael Dym, DVM, resident vet with the online pet pharmacy PetMeds. To help senior dogs with these issues, keep excess weight off with a healthy diet and moderate exercise, and ask your vet about supplements to help reduce inflammation and protect joint cartilage. Pet owners should also “always check with their vet before adding new supplements,” says Dym.
One treatment that has been shown to slow arthritis formation is glucosamine/chondroitin, says Katie Grzyb, DVM, of One Love Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. “I highly recommend adding this to any dog who currently has arthritis to slow progression, and to any dog who may get arthritis in the future—such as large breed dogs and small dogs with patella luxations,” she says.
Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation has also been shown to be effective in managing osteoarthritis, Alvarez says, adding that this treatment is backed by a lot of evidence. For severe cases, the dog may need prescription medication, she said.
Learn Doggie Massage
There are many videos on YouTube to teach owners how to massage their pups, which can ease muscle soreness and pain along with providing healthy tissue stimulation and love.
Practice Good Dental Hygiene
Dental care is just as important for pets as it is for humans. Dental disease is painful and may make eating difficult for your senior pet. If your dog won’t tolerate you brushing its teeth, consider dental treats or dental toys designed to help keep the teeth clean.
Don’t Skimp on the Affection
Nothing tells your pet that you love them like a good belly rub or ear scratch.
“As your pet ages, physical contact is more important than ever,” says Jennifer Adolphe, PhD, RD, senior nutritionist at Petcurean Pet Nutrition. Every moment you have together is precious, and increasing the physical connection between you will strengthen your bond.
Evaluate Your Dog’s Diet
Talk to your vet about what your senior dog eats and if you need to reevaluate their diet.
“Senior dogs have a much higher protein requirement than younger dogs,” says Alvarez. (75 g per 1000 calories, vs. 25 g per 1000 calories for adults dogs, and 55 g per 1000 calories for growing puppies.) They might also benefit from a prescription diet for certain health conditions or from a better quality commercial food. But don’t be swayed by false advertising or marketing to senior pets.
“The problem with "senior" dog foods is that the labeling is not regulated by any agency. This means that the nutrient content for senior dog foods is extremely variable, and in many cases may be worse than continuing with [your dog’s] regular adult food,” says Alvarez.
Talk to Your Vet About Supplements for Maintaining Your Dog's Brain Health
Talk to your vet about the possibility of your senior dog developing dementia, aka dog Alzheimer’s. Affected dogs may show confusion and personality changes. Preventive measures for enhancing cognitive function by using puzzles, games of search, or learning new tricks can be made a part of daily playtime.
“Nothing has been shown to definitely prevent dementia,” says Alvarez. “However, evidence exists for benefiting brain function [with] these supplements: apoaequorin, choline, phosphatidylserine, anti-oxidants (SAMe, green tea extract, vitamin E, alpha lipoic acid, among others), coconut oil, DHA (in omega 3 fatty acids).”
One or more of these supplements may be right for your senior dog.
With recent advances in veterinary science and nutrition, dogs are living much longer and healthier lives. Age can bring its problems, but maintaining good health starts with common sense, regular exercise, good nutrition, and regular visits to the vet.
This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM Katie Grzyb, DVM
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