The Golden Years: Caring for Your Aging Dog

Feeling less frisky? Hard of hearing? Getting a little grey? I mean your dog, of course, but Calgary veterinarian Dan Schlesinger says there’s no reason to believe that the process of aging is any different in animals than it is in humans. The fact is the body deteriorates gradually over time, its various systems function less and less perfectly, and physical and behavioural changes become more and more evident.

Aging itself is not a disease in dogs any more than it is in humans. Because the body systems are not quite up to par in an older dog, says Schlesinger, it is more serious when an older dog gets sick, but they can respond very well to treatment, even surgery. According to veterinarian and author George Whitney, dogs age remarkably well, their aches and pains being no more severe than our own. And your aging dog won’t necessarily be crippled with arthritis, lose his eyesight or have accidents in the house.

The more serious ills are not as common as you might think. In fact, the two most common problems vets see in older dogs are preventable and fall to you, the dog owner.

The first is dental disease, and it is far more serious than bad breath. In addition to making eating difficult, rotten teeth and gum disease can spread harmful bacteria not only to the jaw itself, but through the bloodstream to other organs in the body. This is a serious problem in any dog, but the older dog is particularly at risk because critical systems are not operating at their peak. Solution? Get brushing!

The second common problem is obesity. Says Whitney: "It can’t be overstated: Every year thousands -hundreds of thousands – of good old dogs are killed by their owners: by decent, gentle, kindly, concerned people who go on loving and feeding and overfeeding and fattening their dogs until they kill them.” Like older humans, an older dog is less active and requires fewer calories. By feeding him the same amount as you always have, additional stress is applied to the already weaker organ systems. Solution? Feed him the same amount of lower calorie food or a smaller amount of regular food.

If you own an older dog, it’s easy to attribute a change in eating habits, behaviour, or energy level to old age. But what might be signs of old age in someone else’s dog could be a sign of something wrong in yours. For example, explains Schlesinger, urinary incontinence could be traced to a weak kidney unable to deal with the added volumes of water the older dog tends to drink, but it could also be a neurological problem, an orthopaedic problem, or a hormonal problem; it could be a urinary tract infection or diabetes. See your vet if anything out of the ordinary concerns you, and remember – most illnesses can be successfully treated.

As they grow older, dogs do need an extra measure of care and attention: failing senses may mean on-leash walks, sore joints may mean help getting into the car, more water intake may mean more frequent trips to the back door. But as one of your dearest companions, your older dog deserves all of the patience and love you can give.

Today, more young dogs are living to be old dogs. Improved understanding of nutrition and advances in diagnosis and treatment of disease mean dogs are healthier longer than ever before. It’s a good time for older dogs, so enjoy their golden years.

Penny Grey is a freelance writer in Nanaimo.