Caring for Elderly Dogs

Today’s blog article is the second in our series on caring for elderly pets. Last week we talked about the special requirements of elderly cats to keep them happy and healthy long into old age, and this week we are going to spend some time talking about the needs of our canine companions, and how we can support them through their senior years.

We all age, and with ageing there are often subtle and gradual changes in the way we lead our lives. Our pet dogs are no different, and having an awareness of the needs of older dogs and a knowledge of problems which they may face, can help us maximise their quality of life for as long as possible. General care and the effective treatment of diseases and conditions of old age are both equally important parts of this.

We talked about the rate at which cats age, and how there is significant variation between individual cats. This is even more the case with individual dogs due to the huge variation between breeds, with size often playing a part in this. Sadly, many dogs of the larger breeds can even start to show signs of ageing from around five years of age, often a stark contrast to some dogs of smaller breeds which have much greater life expectancies and therefore don’t tend to start to show signs of ageing until they are well over ten years of age. This is a very important point to remember when deciding whether any changes we are seeing in our pet dogs are due in part to the ageing process.

What are the common signs of ageing in dogs?

As we discussed with cats, ageing is a natural process, and many of the common signs result from this natural process:
– reduced mobility and reduced willingness to go on long walks
– reduced general activity levels and more time spent sleeping
– increased or reduced appetite
– changes in body condition, sometimes with significant weight loss or gain
– fur loss or other coat changes
– behavioural changes, loss of hearing and sight

There are also particular conditions and diseases that are much more common in older dogs, some of which we have discussed in earlier blog articles, for example osteoarthritis and diabetes. These conditions often cause characteristic signs and symptoms, for example:
– increased thirst (seen with kidney disease, Cushings’s disease, diabetes and pyometra in unspayed bitches)
– stiffness and lameness (seen with osteoarthritis and some tumours)
– weight gain (seen with hypothyroidism)
– reduced appetite (seen with dental disease, kidney disease and some tumours)
– hair loss (seen with hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease)
– coughing (seen with heart disease and lung disease)
– halitosis and appetite changes (seen with dental disease)
– vomiting and/or diarrhoea (seen with kidney disease, liver disease and some tumours)
– constipation (seen with prostate disease in males)
– behavioural changes, loss of memory (seen with senility and dementia)
– apparent blindness (seen with glaucoma)

Of course, this list does not cover all the conditions we see in older dogs, but it does demonstrate that many of the signs caused by these conditions could be confused for ‘general ageing’ and therefore being aware of any of these changes is a vital part of managing our pet dogs as they age.

General care of the senior dog

General tips:
– Coat changes in older dogs are common, therefore regular grooming is an important part of ensuring the coat does not become matted and the skin remains healthy. Dietary supplements and topical oils can help with this.
– As with older cats, it is vital to keep a check on the length of your older dog’s nails. Due to reduced activity levels and changes in the nail texture and direction of growth of nails as they age, it is often more difficult for an older dog to keep it’s nails short through daily wear and tear. Regular trimming is an important part in ensuring your dog is as comfortable as possible. Sometimes longer nails can grow into the pads of the feet, particular dew claws, causing severe pain. It is important, however, not to trim the nails too short, and your Vet can advise you on the best technique and also trim your dog’s nails for you.
– Exercise- regular, gentle exercise in old age is an important part of keeping joints and muscles healthy, and reducing the chance of obesity.
– A regular routine is important to an older dog, particular as the senses of hearing and vision start to fail. Being aware that your older dog may not be able to see or hear you whilst walking in the park is important to help keep your dog safe. Some owners use hand signals to communicate with older dogs that can no longer hear so well.
– Feeding the right diet is a major factor in ensuring good health in older age. There are many good senior diets available which account for reduced activity levels commonly seen in old age, and therefore help prevent obesity. There are also many good diets available which can specifically help with the management of more common conditions seen in older dogs, including arthritis, kidney disease and diabetes. Ad lib water is also important, and keeping an eye on water intake is key to picking up any problems.
– Provide a warm, comfortable bed in a peaceful part of the house. Arthritis can sometimes make it more difficult for older dogs to sleep comfortably, therefore providing extra bedding is important.
– As with elderly cats, regular  check-ups are one of the most important parts of caring for your elderly dog.
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> Why are regular check-ups important?
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> Its a very common story, owners of older dogs will notice physical and behavioural changes in their dogs, but since dogs are often very good at getting on with life despite these symptoms, some owners may simply consider these changes an inevitable part of ageing. We know that many of these changes may indicate the start of age-related conditions which either need treatment to cure them, slow down their progression or to prevent discomfort. As with so many conditions, early diagnosis of many of the conditions we see in older dogs will generally mean treatment is more successful, quality of life can be more effectively improved and life expectancy can be maximised. The problems we generally encounter in older dogs can be very different to those in older cats, due to species differences and other management differences, for example, most cats are neutered but many older dogs are not spayed or castrated. Regular check-ups are the perfect way to spot problems as early as possible.
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> What happens at a check-up and what will the Vet be looking for?
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> If you have any concerns that your dog is starting to show the signs of ageing, and you are worried about any physical or behavioural changes, do make an appointment with one of our vets or nurses here at the surgery so that we can check for any age-related problems.
> At the check-up, a thorough history will be taken, to find out what changes are occurring and what problems you may have noticed. A full clinical examination will follow, to check for evidence of any health problems, including dental disease, arthritis, heart and lung problems, glaucoma, hormonal and reproductive problems and also to check for any abnormal lumps or bumps.
> If necessary, your Vet may want to take a blood sample and also check a urine sample, since this is an important part of ruling out many of the common age-related conditions. Bringing a urine sample from your dog with you to a check-up can be very helpful. Further investigations such as X-rays and ultrasound will be discussed with you if appropriate.
> Thankfully, most elderly dogs do not need further tests, but we can give you advice on general health care. Worming and an appropriate vaccination protocol are important parts of preventive health care in older dogs, and it may be appropriate to consider neutering if this has not already been performed earlier in life.
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> What if a disease or illness is found?
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> As we have discussed before, early diagnosis of any condition increases the chances of successful treatment, and that is where regular check-ups during old age can be so important. Thankfully with modern treatments, many of these conditions can be managed well, if not cured, and after discussing all of the options with you, all appropriate steps will be taken should any problems be found. The majority of the common conditions we see affecting dogs in old age can be very effectively treated or managed, often with simple changes to routine or tweaking diet.
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> As veterinary medicine advances, there is more and more that can be done to help our beloved pet dogs cope with the ageing process, so please don’t hesitate to contact us here at the surgery if you have any concerns, and our caring team of vets and nurses can advise you. To help with the cost, we are offering blood tests to check kidney function with a 25% DISCOUNT during the months of April and May. Kidney disease is a significant condition in older dogs, and checking a blood sample is an important part of ruling the condition out. Ask at reception or give us a call to find out more.