As a result of advances in veterinary medicine, more knowledgeable care and improved nutrition, dogs are now living much longer, healthier lives. But, just as for humans, the passage of time has its effects, and you may begin to notice that your once-frisky pet seems to have slowed down a bit.
Being aware of the natural changes that can occur as your dog becomes older, as well as what you can do to help keep your pet as healthy, active and comfortable as possible, can ensure that you both enjoy this final stage in your dog’s life to the fullest.
As dogs move into the geriatric phase of their lives, they experience gradual changes that are remarkably like those of ageing humans: hair can turn grey, their bodies are not as supple and reflexes not as sharp as they once were.
Hearing, eyesight and the sense of smell may deteriorate and energy levels, as well as attention spans, seem to diminish. In fact, the first sign of aging is often a general decrease in activity, combined with a tendency to sleep longer and more soundly.
Such signs may begin to manifest themselves before 8 years in large breeds like Great Danes, while smaller breeds can remain youthful until 12 years and even longer.
Furthermore, a healthy dog will most likely age later than one that has been affected by disease or environmental problems early in life. Again, as with humans, the ageing process will vary with the individual. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to judge when it’s time to consider your dog a “senior.”
As your dog ages, regular checkups at your veterinary practice become more important than ever. In fact, at this stage of your dog’s life, it is recommended that he or she receive a thorough examination every 6 months, as adult dogs can age as much as 3 years (in human terms) within the period of one calendar year. Besides the usual complete physical examination, your veterinary surgeon may conduct a urine and faecal analysis as well as an ultrasound or other imaging tests.
Furthermore, many vets now recommend minimum yearly blood screens for senior pets.
Most importantly, you should tell your veterinary surgeon about any noticeable change in your dog’s physical condition or behaviour. A problem that you may assume is simply related to your pet’s advanced age may actually be the result of a treatable medical condition.
For example, your dog’s reluctance to exercise may not stem from the normal decrease in energy that comes with age, but from arthritis or a heart condition – both of which can be managed with the proper treatment.
Regular, semi-annual checkups can thus help your veterinary surgeon work out a suitable preventative health program for your pet and catch any problems sufficiently early to provide effective treatment. Working together, you can both ensure that your dog’s senior years will be healthy and happy ones.
As your pet ages, your dog’s nutritional needs may also change. You may find that, although your pet is eating less, he/she still puts on weight. This could be due to a slowdown of metabolism or a decrease in activity. Excess weight can aggravate many canine medical conditions, including heart, respiratory, skin and joint problems.
To help a portly pet slim down, try feeding smaller quantities of food or gradually switch to a diet that is lower in calories. Other dogs have entirely the opposite problem – they lose weight as they age, sometimes as the result of heart or periodontal disease or diabetes. In either case, ask your veterinary surgeon for advice about your pet’s individual nutritional requirements.
You should also ensure that your dog is comfortable while eating. Most pet owners place food dishes and water bowls on the floor, but this may be a source of discomfort for a large or overweight dog, or for one whose arthritis makes it difficult – or even painful – to bend down.
Many pet supply outlets have eating tables that are specially designed with cut-outs for food and water containers and available in various heights to suit various sizes of dogs. Or you can fashion your own inexpensive solution to this problem: for example, a plastic crate covered in a towel to absorb spills.