Snap Out of the Senior Slump: Your Senior Dog’s Health

Help your dog age gracefully and live life to its fullest.

Thankfully, with advances in veterinary care often mirroring those in human medicine, our dogs are living longer than ever. However, by gaining these wonderful years with our dogs, we have to help our senior canines live their lives to the fullest. With aging comes many challenges. While older dogs experience a variety of age-related physical and behavioral changes, “Old age is not a disease,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, section head and program director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.

senior dog health 

Owners play a key role in determining their aging dog’s quality of life, Dodman says. “A proactive human partner is a senior dog’s greatest ally,” he adds.

You and your dog can meet the challenge of these common canine aging issues head on. Here are some steps you can take to help your senior friend get the most out of his golden years.

Mobility Issues

Senior dogs may need help getting around for a variety of reasons, from arthritis and spinal degeneration to chronic illnesses such as heart and respiratory issues. Large-breed dogs who are too heavy to lift themselves up may prove particularly challenging for owners. Fortunately, a variety of special harnesses and slings can lend a helping hand. 

Los Angeles-based Dorna Sakurai, a certified professional dog trainer-knowledge assessed, turned to a lifting harness when her late Akita, Tomo, began experiencing age-related joint issues last year at age 15. “The harness enabled me to easily help him get up as well as safely lift him into my SUV,” Sakurai says.

Other accommodations for mobility-impaired dogs include:

  • Slings that cradle your dog’s abdomen, offering a quick lift or support while walking
  • Wheelchair carts. Rhys Miller, a dog owner in Sarasota, Fla., says her black Labrador Retriever Cliffie’s wheelchair cart enabled him to enjoy romps on the beach until days before he passed away in August 2012 at age 11. “Cliffie’s face would light up when he saw his cart, because he knew he was about to have a great adventure,” Miller says.
  • Dog booties with nonskid soles, which provide traction for slip-prone senior dogs. Booties can also protect dogs who drag their hind feet from getting sores on the tops of their paws.
  • Anti-slip sprays, designed for show dogs, which create a tacky consistency that prevents sliding.
  • Doggie stairs, which help seniors who can no longer jump up and down from raised surfaces, such as sofas or beds.
  • Ramps that help mobility-challenged dogs get into cars or up stairs.

dog ramp 

Arthritis and other age-related conditions may also cause pain. Signs your dog may display that can indicate pain include decreased appetite, difficulty rising, excessive panting, decreased socialization, agitation, and hiding. 

“Giving your dog a gentle at-home massage can help ease stiff, aching joints,” says Jacqueline Davidson, D.V.M., clinical professor of veterinary small animal clinical sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Urinary Incontinence

Incontinence is a medical issue, whereas house soiling not caused by a medical condition indicates a cognitive issue. “Urinary incontinence — where the dog cannot hold his urine — should not be confused with inappropriate urination, where the previously housetrained older dog becomes confused as to where to relieve himself,” Dodman says. 

Doggie diapers for females and belly bands for males can help control urinary accidents, but should never substitute for medical treatment, says Kristen Frank, D.V.M., staff internist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. “Incontinence is not a normal part of the aging process,” she says. “Medications such as phenylpropanolamine, which helps strengthen the bladder’s sphincter muscle, and diethylstilbestrol for spay-related incontinence may be indicated.”

Consult your veterinarian about other prescription medicines that may aid in dealing with this situation. Dogs who have lost the cognitive ability to determine when and where to relieve themselves may benefit from medications that enhance cognitive function, Dodman says.

Dental Disease 

Many owners underestimate the importance of oral care. Dental disease is rampant in older dogs and can lead to serious systemic health problems, including heart disease. Steven Rowell, D.V.M., hospital director for Tufts University’s Veterinary Emergency Treatment and Specialties in Walpole, Mass., recommends the following at-home dental care:

  • Daily brushing to remove tartar
  • Monthly home examinations to check for inflammation, redness, sores and ulcers of the gums and palate, as well as any broken teeth
  • Regular dental cleaning, performed under anesthesia by a licensed veterinarian, as part of preventive veterinary care. Older dogs should visit the veterinarian every six months

“Dogs who shy away from having their mouths touched, or who suddenly avoid eating, may be suffering from dental-related pain,” Rowell says. If your dog experiences these symptoms, call your veterinarian.

A Mouthful of Problems in My Senior Dog>> 

Cognitive Decline

Senior dogs can suffer from normal cognitive decline or from a more serious condition called canine cognitive dysfunction, the canine version of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dodman advises monitoring for signs of CCD using the acronym DISH:

  • Disorientation
  • Altered social interactions
  • Sleep disturbances
  • House soiling without medical cause

A detailed checklist, available in Dodman’s book “Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable”(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) helps identify possible CCD-related changes. “You check off the signs that apply to your dog,” Dodman says. “If you put more checks over time, the condition is progressing.”

Treatment options, administered under a veterinarian’s supervision, include:

  • An antioxidant-rich diet recommended by your veterinarian
  • Nutrients shown to help with brain function and memory 
  • L-deprenyl, also known as selegiline, sold under the name Anipryl, the only prescription medication approved specifically to treat CCD
  • Alzheimer’s medications such as donepezil, sold under the name Aricept, and memantine, sold as Namenda
  • Melatonin to reduce sleep disturbances
Dodman says all senior dogs benefit from staying mentally active. Brain-boosting activities include:
  • Appropriate levels of exercise
  • Social interaction with people and other dogs
  • Species-specific activities, such as Frisbee for herding breeds, or a stroll along a flower-lined trail for scenthounds
  • Mentally stimulating toys, such as treat puzzle toys and food puzzles that require the dog to solve a “problem” to get the reward

“Even homebound dogs with minimal mobility can enjoy mental stimulation,” Dodman says. “Adding scent such as vanilla or anise to a favorite toy stimulates the olfactory senses and makes it more interesting.”

Senior dogs may also experience increased anxiety. Sakurai suggests soothing frazzled nerves with classical music or compression garments, designed to promote calm.

Vision and Hearing Loss

As dogs age, their eyesight may become less acute and their hearing dulled. To prevent startling a visually impaired dog, Sakurai advises shuffling your feet or calling his name as you approach. “Replace verbal cues such as Sit, Come, or Lie Down with hand signals for hearing-impaired dogs,” she says.

Weight Gain

According to the 14-year Nestlé Purina Life Span Study, dogs fed to maintain an ideal body condition can extend their median life span by up to two years compared to their overweight counterparts. But Dodman warns against automatically switching your dog to a senior diet. “There’s no rhyme or reason as to what goes into senior food,” he says. Instead, consult with your veterinarian regarding a healthy diet containing the appropriate amounts of nutrients and calories.

dog massage 

Exercise is important to keep senior muscles toned and joints healthy, and to help maintain ideal body weight. But how much is enough, or too much? Once your dog has received veterinary clearance, Davidson advises observing your dog’s responses during and after exercise. Is he panting excessively? Does he want to quit before you do? Is he sore the next day? “Some days may be better than others,” she says. “You must constantly adjust the exercise level based on how comfortable your dog seems.”

Of all the gifts we can give our senior dogs, experts agree that love and affection is by far the greatest. “They have given us their all, and now they need us to return the favor,” Dodman says. “It’s the least we can do.”

DIANA LAVERDURE is an award-winning dog healthcare writer. Her book, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing, 2011), with W. Jean Dodds, D.V.M., was named Best Care/Health Book of 2011 by the Dog Writers Association of America and received the 2011 Eukanuba Canine Health Award. She lives with her rescued shepherd mix, Chase.

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