Senior Dog Wellness
Jody’s Story by Dr.S.Dewit-Kawiuk
Nine years ago, after repeated assurances by my children to help take care of a new pet, my family and I headed to the Humane Society to see who needed a home. Not quite sure what type of dog we were looking for, we entered into the kennel area and were greeted by cages full of dogs barking and jumping for attention. That is, all except for one.
A medium-sized mixed black lab lay in the back of his kennel, just watching us. He was strangely quiet and showed no excitement, barking, or tail wagging. We immediately asked why he was so different from all the other dogs. Found as a stray 5 months earlier, he was very thin and in rough condition since he had survived by hunting for himself. My daughter immediately warmed to him since he looked so sad and depressed. After a couple of visits to the Humane Society, we fell in love with his quiet and gentle nature even though he still seemed so low and didn’t respond to our touch or voice. We named him Jody.
As a family we had committed to give him the quality of life that he deserved. A complete physical examination and blood work revealed no health problems other than poor nutrition and bad teeth. He was immediately started on Medi-Cal premium food and had his teeth professionally cleaned. Since he didn’t walk very well on a leash, we tried a Gentle Leader which worked wonders. To keep both Jody and our family safe, he was vaccinated and started on heartworm and parasite prevention.
Within several months his coat had become black and glossy and his ribs no longer showed through his skin. As he began to trust us, he started to wag his tail when touched or spoken to and began to seek our company. Once his physical condition improved, I started taking him running with me early in the morning, short distances at first, then gradually increasing it over the next couple of years. Little did I know that the quiet dog from the Humane Society would become my running partner and one of my best friends.
Jody has run with me for the past 8 years. Every spring we start marathon training, gradually running longer distances until we have worked up to 35K in the fall. Jody has his own water bottle and treats and has never missed a single one of our training runs. Besides eating, running is his favourite activity!
Jody is now 12 years old. To keep him healthy in his senior years, he has annual blood screening tests and regular checkups. He now sleeps a bit longer after our longer runs but suffers no stiffness or pain since he’s on a veterinary supplement for his joints. He receives regular dental cleanings and his only health complaint was two fractured teeth from chewing on rawhides. Regular exercise and preventive medical care have helped keep his heart lungs, muscles and joints healthy.
Jody is a well loved and very important member of our family who amazes us each day. How many dogs (or people for that matter) do you know who can run 35K, sleep for a few hours, and then be ready for more exercise the next day?
Jody passed away in spring 2008. He was a wonderful dog and will be greatly missed.
How Old Is My Senior Dog Really?
Dogs are considered to become seniors as early as 6 years for giant breeds, and as late as 10 to 12 years for miniature breeds.
Our older dogs age 5 to 6 years in human years for every year of their life. Obviously, dramatic changes in their health can occur over this time period.
During their senior years, we recommend a physical examination at least once yearly, vaccination (if health permits), and examination of a stool sample. Dogs should also receive a heartworm and tick-borne disease test yearly.
Depending on your pet’s health status, semi-annual or annual blood and urine screening may be advised. Senior pets who develop specific problems may need to have blood and urine levels monitored as often as every few weeks or months.
What Conditions Are Common in Older Dogs?
Obviously as they age, pets are prone to develop age-related conditions similar to humans.
Eyesight and hearing deteriorates and in some cases deafness or blindness may be very sudden. Sudden onset blindness is very significant and may indicate hypertension, cataracts, glaucoma or retinal deterioration.
Dental disease is also very common in senior animals, due to long term tartar accumulation, gum inflammation, and recession of gum tissue. An infected mouth in an older dog often acts as a source of infection for other body organs and may cause premature deterioration of the kidneys or heart valves. Dogs with dental disease may have bad breath and exhibit pain while eating or decreased appetite.
Joint pain due to osteoarthritis is another concern with older dogs. Symptoms include: difficulty rising from a resting position, reluctance to exercise or climb stairs, limping, decreased appetite, or increased irritability. Evidence of arthritis can sometimes be found on examination as joints begin to “grind”, pain is observed, and muscles begin to deteriorate. Newer anti-inflammatories and pain control, as well as proven herbal supplements can provide excellent relief from arthritis pain in dogs.
As pets age, their heart valves may deteriorate, causing possible signs of congestive heart failure such as cough, exercise intolerance, and weight loss. Sometimes, an ongoing cough in older animals can be due to chronic bronchitis. A veterinarian can use a stethoscope to examine the chest, and determine if heart or lung disease may be present. X-rays, ultrasound, and appropriate blood tests can then be performed if a heart or lung problem is suspected.
Skin and coat problems are frequently benign, but many skin masses (growths) look alike. Growths require analysis to make sure they are not cancerous and likely to spread elsewhere in the body. You will likely see many skin and coat problems in older pets. Nutrients are not absorbed as well, increased skin oils and dander. Diet changes, shampoo, and fatty acid supplements can dramatically improve the coat quality of older animals.
Abdominal palpation, performed by a veterinarian, can detect changes in older dogs’ organ size. It also detects any abnormal masses or evidence of pain. Any of these signs would indicate the need for X-rays, ultrasound, or blood or urine tests.
Why Are Physical Exams Important for My Senior Dog?
During annual or semi-annual check-ups in older pets, weight gain or losses will be assessed and you will be asked questions regarding your pet’s appetite, lameness, change in drinking, urinating, bathroom habits, general attitude, and energy levels.
Changes in any of these areas may indicate any early problems and by performing diagnostic tests we can improve the quality and length of life for your senior pet.
Is Your Older Dog Confused?
Cognitive dysfunction is very common for dogs, as it is for ourselves. We have foods with supplements to help to slow down the brain aging process, and that can keep dogs more alert, help with their day/night cycle, etc.