Handling the Problems of Old Age in Your Dog

One of the more difficult parts of having a canine friend is that you must watch him or her age. As they age, dogs experience many of the same physical and mental changes that humans do. They find it a little more difficult to get around, their vision deteriorates, and they get a little hard of hearing. With some help from you, your dog may enjoy added years of health and vigor.

Because older dogs tend to have more medical problems, you should have some extra tests done during your senior dog's annual physical examination:

  • Always bring a morning urine sample. Collect a midstream sample (let a little urine flow first before collecting) in a very clean or sterile container the day of your appointment. Try to get the sample to your veterinarian within two hours after the time of collection. Your veterinarian will perform a urinalysis, which tests for kidney malfunction, bladder infections, and other problems of the urinary system.
  • Also, ask your vet to take blood for a serum chemistry panel, which provides information about the function of the liver, kidney, pancreas, and other organs. By doing these screenings in addition to a thorough physical examination, you may be able catch some old-age problems early enough to slow the process.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a common malady in older dogs. After all, your dog's joints have flexed and extended millions of times as she ran after balls and tumbled with her human and canine buddies. Arthritis isn't inevitable in older dogs, however. It is much more common in dogs who have hereditary disorders of the joints such as hip or elbow dysplasia and in dogs who have injured a joint (for example, by tearing or rupturing ligaments). In addition, if a dog is overweight, increased stress is placed on her joints, accelerating the progression of arthritis. This is a good reason to keep your furry friend fit and trim, even in her senior years.

Make sure your elderly canine has a soft bed on which to lie. It'll help ease her aching joints.

If your dog is very stiff when she stands up, if she avoids stairs, if she hesitates to jump on the couch or into the car, or if she limps when she first starts moving, ask your veterinarian to check for arthritis. He will feel your dog's joints, flex and extend her legs, and probably take some X-rays.

A little carpentry can make it much easier for your arthritic dog to get around. If you have steps leading to the backyard, make a ramp for her to walk up and down. Some people even make a small ramp so their old dogs can get on and off the bed at will. Make sure you apply a non-slip surface to the ramp.

Obesity

Obesity is a common problem in canine senior citizens. If your older dog isn't exercising as much, cutting back on her food rations is important so she maintains her youthful figure. Obesity increases the incidence and severity of arthritis, makes exercising less fun, and increases the risk of injury during exercise. This can set up a vicious cycle of less exercise, more weight gain, and less desire to exercise.

Vision problems

If your dog loses her vision to the point where she bumps into furniture or can't find objects you place on the ground, have her eyes examined by a veterinary ophthalmologist. She may have glaucoma or another treatable ocular disease. If her vision loss is permanent, she won't be as devastated as a human who loses his vision would be. Blind dogs do very well at home as long as you don't move the furniture. They also learn to take a certain route in the yard when they go out to exercise so they can find their way back to the door.

Deafness

Have you ever noticed that your older dog can't hear you call her to get her nails clipped, but she can hear a potato chip bag open in the next room? Before you blame her for deliberately ignoring you, consider the fact that dogs first lose their ability to hear low sounds like voices. They usually retain the ability to hear high-pitched sounds for much longer. If your older dog is having trouble hearing you, you can either speak louder, which helps for a while, or speak in a normal volume but with a higher pitch to your voice.

Incontinence

Many older dogs suffer from incontinence, the inability to hold their urine. If your dog starts to leak a little urine while she is sleeping or if she can't seem to make it through your workday without having an accident, a visit to the veterinarian is in order. Be sure to bring a urine sample collected first thing in the morning.

Some of the causes of incontinence can be cured; some just have to be managed. In older dogs, kidney failure and urinary tract infections are the main reasons for incontinence. If your dog begins to drink and urinate more frequently, a veterinary exam should reveal the reason. If kidney failure is the cause, a low-protein diet may help slow the kidney's degeneration. Your veterinarian also will have other recommendations specific to your dog's needs.

Gingivitis

Gum disease is a very common problem in older dogs. Gingivitis can make eating painful for your dog, and the bacterial infection in the gums sometimes spreads to other tissues. Gingivitis eventually causes the teeth to loosen and drop out. It also can cause a tooth abscess (infection). Good tooth care is important throughout your dog's life, but it is especially so in her older years when a little bit of comfort can make such a difference in the quality of life.

Throughout your dog's life, whenever she has to be anesthetized for any reason, have her teeth cleaned. In addition, try your best to regularly brush your dog's teeth, especially those of your older dogs. Check your senior's teeth regularly. If there is a buildup of plaque or swollen gums, talk to your veterinarian about a dental visit. Having healthy teeth really does a lot to bolster an older dog's spirit.

Cognitive problems

Sometimes older dogs develop an Alzheimer's-like condition called cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Dogs with this condition become disoriented and may not recognize where they are or who they are with. They also sometimes experience changes in their sleep patterns and develop housetraining problems. This condition is thought to be caused by chemical alterations in the nervous system that can occur during old age. If your older dog fits this description, visit your veterinarian to learn about new drugs that can treat this condition.

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