Guest post by Jennifer Kachnic
dogs become seniors it’s time to return to them all that they have given to us
through the years. Dogs age much faster than people and their life spans depend
greatly upon their size. A year does not
seem like a long time, but is equivalent to four to five human years. In
general, the larger the breed or size of the dog, the shorter the life
span. Smaller dogs generally become
senior around the age of 10-12 and the largest breeds around 6-7. Dogs are considered
senior in the last 25% of their lives.
Those are the years they start slowing down, becoming less active and
sleeping more. These changes often come with age, but they also can be signs of
conditions that might benefit from treatment.
are symptoms, treatment options, and most important, ways to prevent (or at
least slow down) the progression of some of the top three common health issues
with our geriatric pets.
often do we really look in our dogs’ mouths? Brush daily? Provide proper chew
bones – which they actually use? Not as often as we probably should. Not
surprisingly then, if there is one problem that almost every senior dog seems
to have, it is dental disease. It’s a shame, because in comparison to some of
the other afflictions that befall our aging friends, advanced dental disease is
One of the best things you can do to
ensure a healthy life for your dog is to take care of their teeth. Dental
disease isn’t just a cosmetic problem; in advanced cases, your pet may not want
to eat hard food or treats, may act restless at night or even have a soft bulge
over the base of their cheek bone, a result of a tooth abscess. All you have to
do is open up your pet’s mouth and take a look. Are there signs of gingivitis?
Tartar or calculus (calcified tartar)? How about loose or missing teeth?
Exposed roots (ouch!)? What do you smell? Is there a strong odor that is more
than just dog breath? Toxins can be
released into your dog’s body affecting his organs and then lead to other
diseases and health problems as time goes on.
Despite the fact that treating dental
disease is usually successful in clearing up any problems, prevention of dental
disease in the first place is certainly the preferable route. Simple measures
such as treating dental conditions early on can prevent dental pain and tooth
loss further down the road. Daily brushing of all teeth, using a finger brush
or soft-headed child’s toothbrush, and canine toothpaste is recommended.
Good chew toys – such as raw carrots,
edible bones meant for dental health and chew ropes can be very helpful in
removing dental plaque and strengthen gum tissue. These chew toys must only be
used under supervision at all times, and the pets’ chewing habits must be taken
into account. A very strong and determined chewer should not be given the same
chew toys as the older Chihuahua!
If we all live long enough, we will all
probably suffer from a form of arthritis. In fact, 90% of Americans will have
some level of arthritis by the age of 40! Unfortunately, so will many of our
pets. Arthritis is an inflammation of a joint, due to many different causes
including trauma, infection, degeneration, or
metabolic reasons. Most often we
deal with age-related degeneration, or osteoarthritis. This is a wearing and
thinning of the cartilage in the joint, leading to bone spurs and cysts that
induce inflammation and pain.
The diagnosis of osteoarthritis is often
made by patient history and physical exam.
Radiographs (x-ray) can help determine severity and location, but they
do not often tell the whole story. For this reason, it is important that owners
be aware of even small changes in their pet’s mobility and appearance. Early on
in the process of developing arthritis, the signs can be quite subtle. A
stiffness first thing in the morning or after a long rest, having to ‘warm up’
into an activity, or not being as interested in a long walk or prolonged play
As the disease progresses, limping after
activity, refusing to do any type of exercise, or loss of muscle mass may be
noted. In the end stage, our pets can be in chronic pain even without activity,
have a significant decreased mobility in the joint, and need assistance with
simple activities such as squatting to go to the bathroom.
Treatments for osteoarthritis range from
simple supplements to radical surgery, depending on the severity of the
condition. Glucosamine, fish oil, and MSM all have benefits to the joints. In
addition, herbals such as Boswellia and turmeric have been used for many
generations to treat the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Physical therapy to help
increase range of motion and build muscle mass has also been shown to be very
helpful when treating pets that are suffering from osteoarthritis. Even
alternative therapies such as acupuncture, canine massage, cold laser therapy,
homeopathy, traditional veterinary Chinese medicine, and chiropractic care can have
Drug therapy to control pain is
necessary in some patients to keep them active and improve their quality of
life. Arguably though, the most important treatment (in addition to being a
preventative measure) is to have the pet lose excess weight. Extra pounds put
additional stress on the joints and can make symptoms worse. In end-stage
arthritic patients, surgery can be beneficial – modern medicine has made total
hip replacements almost routine, and we are perfecting knee and elbow
replacements as we speak.
Preventing osteoarthritis is more
challenging. Certainly controlling excessive amounts of weight through the use
of appropriate amounts of quality food and exercise, before there is an issue
is the most ideal approach. Providing supplements like fish oil, MSM, Glucosamine,
Omega 3, and buffered aspirin to arthritis-prone breeds early in their life can
be beneficial, as these supplements have little to no side effects and are
inexpensive. While these supplements may not prevent arthritis, at least they
will be present in the body the day they are needed rather than six months
later when a joint problem is identified.
Sensory perception is the way our pets
interpret the world around them – using smell, hearing, vision, taste, and
touch. Our pets live very much “in the moment,” and they require keen sensory
perception to understand what is happening around them.
The symptoms of sensory loss can be
quite varied depending on which sense is affected and the severity of loss. Vision
loss often starts with a pet having difficulty seeing in dim light – perhaps tripping
on the stairs at night or getting lost in a dark room or backyard. Hearing loss
can include “ignoring” you while they are being called or looking in the wrong
direction. Taste and smell are integrally related, often reported by the owner
as a “pickiness” with their foods – preferring soft foods, warmed food, or
table foods over their regular kibble. Touch is really a combination of several
issues – balance, conscious and nervous input. Losses in touch sensation are
often noticed when the pet walks unsteadily, especially when turning or
attempting quick movements, and uncertainty on irregular surfaces.
There are some simple ways to help our
pets compensate for sensory loss. Good lighting, particularly in areas where
there are steps or obstacles, is an easy way to help a senior pet who is having
difficulties with sight. Keep water dishes on all levels of your home. With
hearing issues, clicker training or using a deep voice can be helpful as pets may
still hear those frequencies even as other frequencies diminish.
In addition, since your pet may not
respond to commands, it is not advisable to allow them off-leash in unsecured
areas. Loss of taste and smell senses can be easily compensated for by using
foods with strong flavors and smells, warming them up to release some of those
odors, and adding a small amount of broth or baby food to the dog’s food can help. Putting small amounts of unique table foods
such as chicken, sardines, cheese or hamburger in their food can also increase
the palatability without unbalancing the diet.
Senior dogs need regular veterinary check-ups; twice a year is a good
idea at this stage. That may seem like a lot, but because dogs age differently,
twice yearly canine checkups are similar to a human senior citizen visiting the
doctor every four years. Your veterinarian will screen for health problems
typical of older dogs so you can get your dog the help he needs early on.
The last few decades have shown an increased life span for pets because
veterinary science, as well as alternative therapies, have made such great
strides. Talk with your veterinarian about age-related health problems,
alternative therapies, and preventative steps you can take to ensure a long and
healthy life for your old friend.
Jennifer Kachnic is president of The Grey Muzzle Organization providing grants to rescues and shelters
nationwide for senior dog
programs. She is the author of the award winning book Your
Dog’s Golden Years. Her business, Canine Wellness, LLC in
Colorado provides alternative and complementary therapies for injured, post-surgery and
senior dogs. Jennifer teaches senior dog care classes at a Denver University and trains service dogs
for Canine Companions for Independence.
(Photos from The Grey Muzzle Organization website)