Caring for an older dog is part of the deal we sign up to when we first bring that fluffy ball of energy in to our lives. One of the most common queries older dog owners have relate to caring for their senior dog – how much exercise is right, is the diet right, is there anything else I should be doing?
In this comprehensive guide to caring for an older dog, we’ll discuss all of the key elements of ensuring your senior canine pal is happy, comfortable, mentally stimulated and as mobile as they can be.
How to make an old dog comfortable
Be more aware. Your dog may be very good at hiding low to moderate pain. He won’t yelp or cry. Instead, you may notice that he is reluctant to get involved in some activities or is slower than normal.
Dogs are warriors. They may stumble or express small signs of discomfort when their pain is actually quite significant. Understanding this will allow you to ensure you never mistake their baseline comfort level for what is in effect, pain that could easily be managed with proper veterinary intervention.
Get in touch with your veterinarian if you are in doubt about his comfort level. Early detection of a problem will allow you to have it treated before it becomes too severe.
How to cope with an old dog
Elderly dog care incontinence
What happens when your dog loses the ability to control his bowel movements? What do you do when you realize that your well-trained life companion – who has been potty trained for years – all of a sudden starts urinating and defecating all over the house? Well instead of punishing your dog and making matters worse, you may want to look into the fact that he may have a condition known as “incontinence”.
Decline of the senses in older dogs
Deaf and blind dogs do just fine, as long as you do your part to keep them out of any danger their disabilities may cause. Blindness, in particular, is a problem dogs adjust to with an ease that stuns their owners. But consider the following: Dogs don’t have to read the newspaper, they don’t care about TV, and they count on you to read the ingredients label on a bag of treats.
Sight isn’t their primary sense anyway; they put much greater stock in their sense of smell. After they learn the layout of the land, they rarely bump into things (as long as you don’t keep moving the furniture). Handicapped pets should never be allowed off-lead on walks, because they can’t see danger and cannot hear your warnings.
Even if your older dog is blind, there may be something that you can do. Ask your vet for a referral to a specialist like a veterinary ophthalmologist. Problems such as cataracts may be treatable with medications and surgery.
Stiffness and declining mobility in older dogs
Your vet can help you determine if the stiffness is because of temporary muscle soreness – say from overdoing it – or the onset of arthritis. Many dogs are worse in cold weather and first thing in the morning. Arthritis is common in older dogs, and while no cure exists, treatments are available that can make your pet’s life comfortable.
Your vet may prescribe buffered aspirin, food supplements, or anti-inflammatory medications, all of which your pet may need to take for the rest of her life. For your part, you need to be sure that your pet is not overweight and is kept consistently, but not strenuously, active.
Why is my older dog suddenly peeing in the house?
Urinary incontinence could be caused by conditions of the bladder and urethra. A relatively common cause in older spayed female dogs is reduced estrogen levels. This type of condition may respond well to hormone treatments.
Why is my older dog suddenly pooping in the house?
Faecal incontinence in older dogs has been associated with damaged anal sphincter muscles, which perhaps can be surgically repaired, or injuries to the lumbar or pelvic area, with results from a nerve damage.
Nerve disorders usually are difficult to treat. Where loose stools associated with improper feeding are a part of the problem, dietary adjustments may be helpful. The saddest situation is one in which the dog owner, unaware of possible corrective measures, believes that incontinence cannot be cured and automatically warrants euthanasia.
You do not need to have your dog put to sleep just because they’ve started showing signs of incontinence.
Even if the problem cannot be handled medically, some minor adjustments may make the incontinent dog easier to live with, and thus prevent the injustice of sending a faithful companion to his death.
Take this example of an older dog: An 11 year old, spayed, female dog is healthy in all other respects, but had had urinary and faecal incontinence for about 1 1/2 months.
There are several things that a veterinarian might do for the dog. With a diet change and medical treatment, the incontinence could be reduced to the point where the diapers and bloomers were working acceptably. Other affected dogs have responded well to paper training or installation of a pet door.
Changes you can expect as your dog gets older
As your dog gets older, on the outside, he can appear as healthy and active as any younger dog, but inside his organs are not functioning as efficiently as when he was younger. As he ages, you need to ensure his complete health by adjusting his diet, exercise, and by keeping a close watch on his behaviour. In fact, you’ll notice many problems first through behavioural changes before his body shows the outward signs.
As the muscles atrophy, the skin will appear looser or baggy. Overall, your dog becomes a different dog as his senior years take over. He moves more slowly, picks at his meals, and may bump into things that he can’t see. However, the biggest change will be in his behaviour. As he ages, he may not only slow down, he will also become less excitable in general. He will still greet you with a wagging tail, but not jump on you or perform aerial leaps when you come home. When going out, he’ll walk to the door and wait patiently as you search for his leash – no more racing in circles, barking excitedly, and jumping about.
Exercise for older dogs
The well-being of your canine senior citizen depends a lot on maintaining his fitness level, which is achieved through a balanced diet, appropriate exercise and regular veterinary checkups.
As he ages, these three pillars of good health and fitness remain important. However, they will need to change and adapt to his different needs.
It is amazing how quickly muscle can waste away when it isn’t used. Anybody who has had a cast will immediately recognise the truth in the statement. That’s what will happen if you let your dog snooze all day — even though he’d prefer to spend his time napping.
Equally amazing is how quickly muscles recover their strength when exercised. Stronger muscles reduce the likelihood of injury while your dog enjoys an active lifestyle, which, in turn, maintains muscle strength — a cycle that we can all benefit from!
Here are some of key points to keep in mind when exercising your senior pet.
Reduction in intensity. Needless to say, his exercise must reduce in intensity. As an empathetic owner, you will notice if he appears to be over-taxed after a workout. If so, lower the intensity.
The duration of his activity need not change if he is comfortable with what he is doing. With the lowered intensity, you will find that his walks or runs cover a smaller distance. This is OK.
Changes in activity. You should also consider changing his activity. For example, swimming is an excellent low-impact alternative to walking if your dog’s joints are sore.
Consider a playmate. This may not be feasible, but allowing your aging pet to mix with another dog on a regular basis can help perk him up both physically and mentally. Be aware that a young dog may play too hard, so watch closely to prevent him overdoing it.
Joint supplements. Nutritional joint supplements are commonly used to support joint and cartilage health in older dogs. When used alongside appropriate nutrition and exercise, these supplements can help your dog to stay fit and active in its senior years.
The basics of healthy living do not change as your pet ages, but the specifics do. Along with modifications to his exercise regimen, he will need changes in his diet and a heightened awareness from you about the status of his health. Your veterinarian is your partner in making sure your ageing dog enjoys life as much as possible.
Older dog behaviour
Can you train an older dog?
Yes. Absolutely, categorically. You can teach an old dog new tricks. Don’t believe the popular old myth.
Older dogs not only can be trained, they love to be trained. Don’t fall in to the trap of thinking just because a dog is obedience trained that they don’t like learning new things. Dogs brains stay more active and agile the more they are put to work.
Try less physical training and perhaps introduce dog brain games for your older dog. They’ll love it!
Note of caution about training older dogs
Dogs very often tell you when they are in pain, although not always. Should you find the down placement very painful for your dog, and should he find it painful to lie down apart from his obedience lesson, then it may be more beneficial to dispense with the DOWN command altogether. Remember, when we’re caring for an older dog we’re not just talking about their physical health, but their mental health too.
What to expect with an ageing dog
Lumps and bumps on an older dog
Benign fatty tumours are common in older dogs, and the vast majority are nothing to worry about. Benign tumours are round and soft, with well-defined edges. Caring for an older dog means we need to increase the amount of times we give them a physical examination at home.
How to perform a physical examination of an older dog
You can usually get your fingers nearly around them, and they don’t seem well-anchored. Showing them to your vet for a more complete evaluation is important, and you should inform her of any changes in size or shape, especially if they happen rapidly.
Your vet may be concerned enough about the size, appearance, or location of a mass to suggest its removal and a biopsy; most bumps, however, are left alone. The best time to check for lumps and bumps? During regular grooming, weekly, at least.
Run your hand over every inch of your dog, and don’t forget to talk sweetly – she’ll think it’s petting.
Best book on caring for an older dog
We’ve been lucky enough to get an insight into a brand new dog book called Living With An Older Dog – Gentle Dog Care, to bring you some top tips on caring for an older dog.
It can sometimes be quite difficult to define exactly what we mean by the term ‘older dog.’ After all, a two-year-old dog is older than a one-year-old dog, but, in this case, both would be thought of as positively youthful in canine terms. We must also consider the fact that some kinds of dogs are much more long-lived than others, and therefore, the number of years at which elderly or senior status is recognised varies from breed to breed.
Giving an older dog a new lease of life
However, these are rarely signs that we need to worry about unduly. After all, if a dog lives until, say, thirteen or fourteen years of age or more, then when ‘older dog’ status kicks in at around seven years or so, he’s only about halfway through his lifespan!
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Instead, we should come to regard this canine ‘coming of age’ as a cause for celebration and simply another phase in his life; we can think of our companion as a wise and trusted friend, instead of an unruly teenager, and look forward to our golden years together.
If anything, the bond between dog and human becomes stronger at this time, giving us a chance to re-evaluate and appreciate the contribution that our dog brings to our lives.
Your faithful friend will gradually make his own adjustments as he gets older, and we should be prepared to do the same.
By understanding what is going on at the canine level, we can help to enhance his lifestyle, improve his health, and make him an even more valued member of the family. If for example, our dog wants to play less often, we must respect his wish, rather than try to encourage him to play, simply because that’s what he always used to do. Instead, make play time with your dog a shorter, quality experience for all concerned.
Preventing long-term problems before dogs get old
There is also an important role we can play in a dog’s early years to help offset the effects of ageing. In this respect, dogs are somewhat like humans: a dog that has been given plenty of exercise – both physical as well as mental – and lots of interaction with humans and other animals, will often be slower to show the effects of the ageing process.
His diet throughout his earlier years can also play an important part in determining how and when the signs of ageing begin to show, for example using raised dog bowls as early as you can could help to keep arthritis at bay.
An overweight dog will be less likely to actively exercise, and this, in turn, will mean that he may begin to show his age much earlier, and may even succumb more quickly to some of the diseases to which older dogs are often prone.