Golden Retrievers For Dummies
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Large breeds like Golden Retrievers mark the beginning of their geriatric period at about 8 years of age. Your Golden may still look and act like a puppy, but don’t be fooled. He’s entering his sunset years.

Of course, you want to make his golden years as healthy as your own, and being a smart dog owner, you know that senior dogs need special care. Besides his checkup once a year, what else can you do to prolong his life and keep him healthy longer? This article explains common old age problems and gives you advice on how to add quality and hopefully longevity to your aging Golden’s life. For starters, rigid weight control and proper oral hygiene are the two primary canine life extenders.

Slim and trim—keep a senior dog's weight down

Obesity strains every major system of a canine’s body and will take years off his life. As your Golden ages, his energy needs will decrease, so you should adjust his food portions accordingly as well as the type of food he eats. Overweight dogs need a higher-fiber, lower-fat diet. Most dogs over 8 years old who are not active in competition or working in the field should eat a “senior” diet designed for aging dogs. If you’re changing diets, consult your veterinarian first.

Do a rib check every month. You should be able to feel your dog’s ribs with light pressure, but you shouldn’t see his ribs. Even an extra 5 pounds puts added stress on older bones and joints.

Healthy teeth and gums

Just as important as his weight, good dental hygiene will add healthy years to your dog’s life. Too many dogs suffer from heart, kidney, liver, or respiratory infection and disease, conditions that often start at the gum line, and could have been prevented with good dental hygiene. Gums that are loaded with plaque and tartar easily become infected. Left untreated, that bacteria will enter the bloodstream and attack a dog’s vital organs.

Studies show that 85 percent of dogs over 6 years of age have some form of periodontal disease, which is an infection in the deep portions of the teeth and gums. If it’s not treated promptly, the infection invades the body and can become life-threatening, especially in an older dog with an equally old immune system. The infection will attack his vital organs, resulting in heart, respiratory, kidney, or liver disease.

One prominent veterinarian tells of dogs in his practice who have come in for seemingly innocent gum or mouth problems such as an abscessed tooth. The bad tooth has caused a major infection in some vital organ, the owner doesn’t even know it, and the dog is in effect dying. If that doesn’t make you brush your dog’s teeth, nothing will!

An older dog’s gums are often more pigmented than when he was a youngster. His teeth should still be white, although some yellowing is normal with age. Very pale or whitish gums are warning signs that say, “Take me to the veterinarian!” They are symptoms of a circulation problem that can be due to any number of serious and life-threatening conditions.

Exercise, arthritis, and your aging dog

Exercise is important at every life stage, but it is especially important for the senior dog. A senior dog who is sedentary for long periods will grow out of shape more quickly and will take longer to handle an exercise routine. However, geriatric exercise should be tailored to fit your dog’s age and physical condition.

Walking and running are still the best maintenance workouts (the dogs in this figure are enjoying a good run on the beach). Even the change of scenery will stimulate him mentally, and he’ll be extra grateful for the time you spend together. Just be careful not to overdo it. Some Goldens have more heart than stamina and will press on even when exhausted. (Sound like someone you know and love?) If he seems to tire quickly or appears to be hurting the next day, slow down and see your vet.

Golden Retrievers running © Close Encounters of the Furry Kind.

Exercise is a primary ingredient for your dog’s health.

Be conscious of your dog’s mobility. If your old guy is stiff getting up in the morning or after heavy exercise, he may have arthritis or degenerative joint disease. Your vet should examine him and perhaps take x-rays and prescribe medication to reduce inflammation and ease pain. If steroids are prescribed, ask about side effects and watch for them. Steroids, especially used long-term, can create a whole new set of problems.

If your dog has arthritis, make sure that he has a soft, warm place to rest and sleep. If your Golden doesn’t already have one (he should!), surprise him with one of the many cushy orthopedic dog beds, and put it in his favorite place and away from drafts. I guarantee he’ll sleep like a baby. (Ummm, I mean, a puppy.) My old Golden has several beds all over the house, so she can be comfy whenever she’s with me. For some reason, my other Goldens never even try to sleep on one of her beds.

Arthritic conditions are significantly more prevalent in obese dogs. Watch that diet!

If your senior Golden has trouble getting on or off the couch, his bed, or other favorite spot, treat him to a pet ramp, available at pet supply stores. You’ll find a variety of pet ramps suitable for every dog and situation. Indulge your aging buddy.

Senior dogs and changes in vision and hearing

If you notice a change in your senior Golden’s eyes or vision, it may be due to cataracts, genetic disease, or simply old age. In many cases, a veterinary ophthalmologist can surgically remove the cataracts and dramatically improve his vision.

Many geriatric dogs develop lenticular sclerosis, a hardening of the lens that causes a bluish-gray haze or tint in the eyes. It does not affect vision or require treatment. However, whenever you notice any change in your dog’s eyes or vision, see your veterinarian to determine if it is a problem and whether it is treatable.

Some dogs grow deaf with age, while others never do. Try to distinguish between selective hearing, when he just wants to ignore you, and actual hearing loss. When my 13-year-old Golden stopped hearing the treat jar open, I knew she wasn’t faking it. Like most hearing-impaired dogs, she startled easily, so I avoided sudden movements and gently stomped the floor before I touched or petted her so that she didn’t jump. We developed a communication system of hand signals to say, “Time to come in,” “Let’s go,” “I mean right now!” and other conversational commands.

Beware of hearing loss in a “city” dog. He won’t hear a car approaching on the street or in his driveway. I personally know of dogs who were killed because they were deaf and didn’t hear the oncoming danger.

Monitoring lumps and bumps in your senior dog

Some lumps and bumps are normal, but many are not. While grooming or just petting your Golden (of any age), feel his entire body for lumps and bumps. Although skin masses like cysts, warts, and fatty tumors are common in older dogs, you should always have your vet inspect any new growths you find. Cancer in all breeds of dogs has become more common and can attack any organ or body part. Breast and testicular cancers are common in unspayed bitches and intact males. Spay/neuter is the best prevention.

A senior dogs' skin and coat

A little gray hair here and there is normal, but overly flaky skin and hair loss can indicate a late-onset hormonal problem with the thyroid gland. (A dog’s thyroid gland gets tired and wears out just like its human counterpart.) Your vet can diagnose hyperthyroidism and treat it with an oral replacement dose of supplemental hormones.

More frequent brushing will help stimulate his oil glands and decrease the extra shedding. Your vet may recommend a nutritional supplement to add lubrication to his skin. Senior foods are low in fat and can contribute to dry skin and coat.

Signs of kidney disease in senior dogs

Does your dog urinate more frequently? Does he now have accidents in the house or have to urinate in the middle of the night? Does he drink more water than he used to? All can be symptoms of kidney or bladder disease or diabetes.

Unfortunately, by the time you see any of these symptoms, there may already be significant and irreversible damage to his vital organs. His kidneys will be over 50 percent damaged before those signs show up. And if you miss the signs of increased thirst or urination, the dog will continue to get worse.

The prevention key in all of these old age diseases is to know your dog and be observant!

Dogs over 7 years of age should have annual blood work and urinalysis to test for kidney and liver function before those visible signs appear. Dogs who are already in kidney failure can be managed with special diets prescribed by the veterinarian to reduce the workload on the kidneys.

Most veterinarians offer a geriatric exam that includes a thorough physical exam, blood work, urinalysis, thyroid profile, and EKG to diagnose problems in the early stages. It’s not cheap, but your Golden is worth it. It may save his life.

Detecting heart disease

How do you know if and when heart disease occurs? Changes in sleeping habits, restlessness, coughing (especially at night or on first waking in the morning), panting, shortness of breath, and decreased exercise tolerance can indicate cardiovascular problems. If you catch the problem early, you will have greater success in treating it.

Coughing can be serious. It’s the most common sign of heart disease in canines. If your Golden has been coughing more than 24 hours, see your veterinarian.


Urinary incontinence is a common problem in older spayed bitches. They start to unconsciously dribble urine. You may be surprised to find wet spots on her bed in the morning. This is one condition that is easily remedied with a supplemental hormone that can improve the muscle tone of the bladder.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Nona Kilgore Bauer has shared her life with Goldens for more than 40 years. Her dogs have won many obedience and other working titles, and Nona is a 15-time Dog Writers Association of America nominee (and winner). She has written over two dozen books on canine subjects, including the previous edition of Golden Retrievers For Dummies.

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