The Aging Dog

posted: 05/15/12
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Depending on the breed, dogs slip into the golden years at anywhere from 5 to 9 years of age.
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Even though your dog may be considered a canine senior citizen, you wouldn't necessarily know it to look at him. Depending on the breed, dogs slip into the golden years at anywhere from 5 to 9 years of age. Smaller breeds, such as the West Highland white terrier, tend to live up to 14 years or more, whereas some of the larger breeds, including the Great Dane and Irish wolfhound, often don't live beyond 8 or 9 years and begin to slow noticeably around the age of 5. Generally, the smaller the breed, the longer its life span, with most of the in-between sizes enjoying a life span of between 10 and 12 years.

With aging comes a slowing metabolism, which often means fewer of those long wrestling and fetching sessions. This, coupled with your dog's tendency to store fat, may produce a pudgy pooch, so ...

- Ask your vet to help you choose the right food.

- Change his food to a higher-fiber, fat- and calorie- reduced "senior" formulation (high-protein foods may help your dog maintain his lean body mass).

- Your vet can also help you keep track of any changes in your dog's weight, which may signal an illness.

- Another way to keep your dog fit is to avoid letting his daily exercise slide, no matter how content he seems to be watching the world from the front window.

- Slow down your pace and shorten your walks, if need be, but don't forgo activity altogether.

To help your dog get his stiff, arthritic joints moving each morning, or to help ease the nagging pain of hip or elbow dysplasia, spend a few minutes gently messaging his joints. If you're short on time, you might consider focusing on his ears and feet to give him a jump-start to a pain-free day: According to practitioners of dog acupuncture and massage, the ears and feet contain all the energy paths for the entire body (although such pats are scientifically unproven). As an added bonus, when you're massaging your dog, you'll be likely to notice any lumps, bumps, and skin and coat changes, all of which should be reported to your vet. Softer bedding and vet-approved vitamins might also soothe creaky joints.

A little compromise is to be expected. If you notice that your dog is having trouble hopping up onto his favorite couch, either teach him to stay down, place a stool nearby to help him hoist himself up or provide a soft pillow for him to lie on. Loading your older dog into the car can also become a problem. If he can't jump into the back of a high minivan, or even hop into the back seat of a car, use a strong plank of wood with a nonslip surface as a ramp to help him walk with dignity into his favorite cruising seat. Elevating his food dish to chest-height is an especially good idea with an older dog, since bending only contributes to more pain and neck-strain problems. Do all that you can to ensure that his comfortable daily routine doesn't change too much. Dogs don't like to veer too far off their familiar course.

That distinguished gray beard, those white tufts between his toes and his salt-and-pepper coat are other signs that your dog is getting along in years. However, don't let the gray fool you into thinking that he doesn't need as much grooming as he used to. Brush and clean him as always, using a more delicate touch if necessary. In addition, don't chalk up consistently bad breath to the normal aging woes. It may be a sign of illnesses such as liver disease, chronic indigestion or stomach ulcers. Chronic halitosis can also be caused by periodontal disease, which can, itself, lead to other health problems, including heart, lung and kidney disease. Keep up with your dog's dental and gum-care routine and report consistent or recurring breath problems to your vet. As always, check your dog's ears, eyes, nose, coat and full body, keeping alert for any changes that may signal illness.

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Geriatric Problems

You'll notice small, telltale signs of your dog's aging as time goes by. His eyesight and hearing may not be as sharp as when he was a rambunctious puppy. He'll tire more easily, be breathless on occasion and may limp a bit in the morning. All this is natural, and neither you nor your vet will be able to turn back the clock. If the dog is experiencing pain, however, a vet can prescribe something to help. Happily, several age-related illnesses can be treated, if caught in time, so don't assume that every change in your dog's health is inevitable and natural. Many vets keep an eye open for the so-called "big five" age-onset illnesses:

- Liver disease

- Kidney disease

- Diabetes

- Heart disease

- Cancer

A yearly series of "geriatric screening" tests -- including liver, kidney, protein and blood sugar checks -- beginning when your dog is 6 years old, will help your vet catch any problems before they become unmanageable. Blood tests can often catch diabetes and kidney and liver disease before there are even any symptoms. A stethoscope, electrocardiogram or X-rays can help your vet check for heart disease, and simply checking your dog for lumps is the standard first route to detecting cancer.

Although most types of heart disease can't be prevented, they can often be controlled with drugs, diet, nutritional supplement and exercise. Symptoms to watch for include excessive panting, coughing and fainting. Diabetes can also be controlled with drugs, diet and exercise. Symptoms of diabetes include diminished eyesight and a change in eye appearance and color.

Loss of appetite, depression and increased volume and frequency of urination and voiding may be signs of kidney failure. Results from blood and urine tests, sometimes X-rays or a ultrasound test, and possibly a biopsy or exploratory surgery can help your vet determine the treatment plan.

If your dog is suffering from liver disease, the whites of his eyes may be yellow, his urine may be darker and he'll be weak and lethargic. He may also eat less and drink more. To diagnose liver problems, your vet will need to do a complete medical work-up.

Biopsies from lumps and tumors will determine whether or not they are malignant. Some of these come simply as a result of age. If it's cancer, your vet will most likely remove the lump and/or local lymph nodes, or may start a course of radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy. But you and your vet need to decide together whether the treatment and degree of improvement to your dog's quality of life is worth the stress he may undergo.

Arthritis and other joint inflammations may be a normal part of growing old, but the pain and soreness can be controlled with vet-prescribed medication. Don't take it upon yourself to medicate your dog. Aspirin and other drugs that can relieve these symptoms in humans can irritate a dog's stomach and lead to ulcers in the intestines or kidney disease.

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Saying Goodbye
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Despite your best efforts at keeping your dog healthy and safe, chances are that he will become ill at some time or other in his life. But since he can't tell you about any physical changes he's undergoing, or if he's feeling ill or is in pain, you'll need to pick up on any physical symptoms or subtle (sometimes not so subtle) changes in his behavior. The earlier any warning signs are detected and brought to your vet's attention, the sooner treatment can begin, possibly preventing a much more serious and potentially expensive problem. Your vet will certainly look for any physical signs of problems and ask you about behavioral indicators during your dog's annual checkup, but keeping an eye out for changes between vet visits can make a big difference to your dog's health.

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