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Helping Your Senior Dog Ease into Retirement

By Janet Riebe, DVM, Woodhaven Animal Health, Plover, WI

It seems like just yesterday that we brought Bailey home, our beautiful new black Labrador puppy, a mere six weeks old. She was extremely shy, especially considering her breed. At an early age, we discovered that she was affected by Hip Dysplasia – with two hip replacement surgeries when she reached middle age. She had four separate skin cancers removed throughout the years. Anaplasma infected in her joints when she was eight years old (similar to Lyme Disease), which caused an immune-mediated arthritis that permanently affected her wrists and toes. I removed a cancerous tumor from her mouth last November, and she is currently receiving treatment for a middle ear infection. Despite this extensive list of health concerns, I always described her as happy, energetic, loyal, and resilient.

Over the past few months, I have noticed that I tend to evaluate her as having a “good day” or “bad day” – you see, my thirteen and one-half year old “puppy” is a senior citizen. Her eyes appear “blue” from her cataracts, her body is a frail fifty pounds, her muzzle is grey, and her hearing is diminished. Some days, she does not want to eat, she paces and pants, and barks relentlessly at “nothing”. At times, she sleeps a lot, not even awakening to greet me when I arrive home. She has had both urinary accidents and bowel movements in the house. Her strength is diminished, as she circles several times before she lowers herself to lie down, does not like to sit, stumbles and falls occasionally. Yet she truly seems contented with her “new” life, still gives kisses, wags her tail, and loves her tennis ball. She has a certain dignity and grace. If anything, this has been harder for me to witness. I am used to trying to surgically or medically “fix” a problem – but she is teaching me to allow nature to take its course, and defining my new responsibilities as her caretaker.

There really was no actual turning point, no defining moment where she reached her retirement. It has been a gradual process. Each step of the way, we have made accommodations to help her along, to keep her comfortable, and to allow her to have as many “good days” as possible. For her arthritis, we have provided glucosamine / chondroitin / msm supplementation, Adequan injections, DMSO, pain control medications, padded bedding, and a “step” to allow her to climb into the vehicle. She received acupuncture (prior to her recent cancer diagnosis), and continues to receive chiropractic adjustments and therapeutic massage.

While all of these things have helped her, the most important thing we have done for her is to provide regular exercise. The temptation is to allow an “old dog” to lie around, but with several short walks each day, we are able to keep her joints more fluid, more comfortable, and to keep her muscles built up. It also provides wonderful mental stimulation for her, and bonding time for us together. When it is too slippery or cold outside, we walk her on our treadmill (I would not say she “loves” it, but she is a good sport about it!). We put boots on her feet if we need to walk on cement, since she occasionally drags her rear feet. We have a sling that we use on some days when she needs help on the steps of our home. And to keep her playing with her ball, we bounce it to get her excited and roll it for her to “fetch”.

While there is no ideal diet for an older dog, the pet food industry has provided many diets labeled for “seniors”. It is important to note that there is no legal definition for the term “senior” – it is merely a marketing term. Furthermore, the regulatory agency that establishes nutritional requirements for dogs (AAFCO) has not defined any basic nutritional requirements for older dogs.

To further assist her joint comfort, we have always kept her at a lean weight. Our challenge now is to be certain she is eating enough. Some days, it is trial and error for what she will eat. Other days, she will eat whatever we give her, and is looking for more. It is important that the diet incorporates good quality proteins, fats and carbohydrates. This is the time to invest in a premium pet food, ideally containing “natural” ingredients (note that “natural” is the only term used in the pet food industry to describe a food free of chemically synthesized ingredients – “organic”, “holistic”, “human grade” do not have any legal definition for animals). If your senior pet is a finicky eater, talk with your veterinarian regarding what types of dog and human foods you can try. Nutritional supplements may also be given to your pet, only after speaking with your veterinarian or a nutritional specialist for specific advice.
If your senior dog is overweight, it is not too late to help your pet to lose weight. You may be able to use your current diet, but you should consult with your veterinarian.

Even with exercise and proper nutrition, it does seem to be a challenge to maintain a healthy muscle mass in older dogs. As a result, I find that older dogs get chilled more easily. We have a coat for Bailey in winter, and we use a hair dryer after a bath to dry her hair coat quickly. I also notice that she overheats more easily in summer, so we plan our outdoor activities for early or late in the day, and soak her hair coat with water if we need to be out mid-day.

As noted earlier, Bailey is a cancer survivor. Cancer is very common among our dogs, with the relative risk increasing with age. I believe that many people do not seek veterinary care when they suspect that their pet may have cancer. This is understandable, as the assumption is that cancer is terminal, and it is human nature to avoid “bad” news. While some forms of cancer are terminal, there are many that can be treated or managed in a humane and affordable way for our pets. The key is early diagnosis and intervention.

Monitor your pet for changes in:

Appetite
Thirst
Defecation
Weight
Behavoir
Activity
Urination
Breathing
Voice (bark)
Vomit

Living with two veterinarians, Bailey’s physical condition is scrutinized daily. For senior pets, it is important to have routine physical exams performed, along with screening blood and urine tests to help assess any areas of concern. Discuss with your veterinarian any changes that you have noticed in your pet, no matter how minor. Early diagnosis and early intervention are essential to the management of any condition, including cancer. If a disease cannot be medically or surgically managed, your veterinarian can help you to assess quality of life issues in order to understand when it is time to schedule a humane euthanasia for your companion. It is always better to be prepared for what may come verses requesting heroic measures to diagnose and treat late in the disease process.

Another area of concern for Bailey is her occasional pacing, panting, excessive barking, her lapses in housetraining, and occasional “blank” stare. She also seems anxious if we leave the room, even for a few moments. I would categorize this as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, similar to Dementia in humans. This problem can add stress to the household, especially if the dog keeps everyone awake at night. But in most cases, the symptoms can be managed. For Bailey, I give her daily supplements that are believed to help with this problem in dogs, and I find that she seems to “snap out of it” with physical touch, or when I take her for a walk or try to play with her ball. Old dogs need to be mentally and physically stimulated every day, as much a possible. It is also helpful to maintain a routine from day to day, whenever possible. We are certain to let her outside several times each day, again at bedtime, and early the next morning – even if she does not “ask” to go outside, we make it a habit to send her out for frequent opportunities to urinate and defecate. If she has an accident in the house, we patiently clean up the mess – she either had a physical urge that could not wait, or she was temporarily confused as to where to go. In either case, we do not blame her for the accident. At her age, she has earned a “pass”.

When is my Dog a Senior?

Small breed – 9 to 13 years
Medium breed – 9 to 11 ½ years
Large breed – 7 ½ to 10 ½ years
Giant breed – 6 to 9 years

Every pet ages at different rates, and in different ways. Age is not a disease. The aging process will cause changes in vision, smell, taste and hearing – but most pets will adapt to the changes. Other health concerns need to be identified early, when possible, and managed in such a way as to provide relief from any pain or discomfort. We owe them this much. This is not a time to withdraw from our aged companions; rather, they seem to need us more than ever. These are indeed the Golden Years, and I cherish every day that I have with my girl!

Addendum: Bailey crossed the Rainbow Bridge on July 1, 2009. Her memories are cherished daily.

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