Old age creeps up on everyone, but for dogs it often comes way too soon. Often, people don't realize their dog is slowing down until the dog is very old. It's better to be aware and monitor your dog's health and behaviors in the earliest stages of old age. For the average dog, old age is considered to start around six to ten years of age.
How to Care For a Senior Dog
Although old age is inevitable, there are some things that can slow it down and other things that can keep your older dog comfortable longer. As a minimum, there are three signs you should watch and three veterinary tests to keep up.
Personally Conducted Tests
1. Does your dog seem to have hearing or vision trouble?
Test your dog frequently and make note of changes: Does he respond to your voice? Does he bump into things? Does he seem to get lost in his own yard? Is it easier to sneak up on him? Don't rely on your own tests alone. Take the notes from your results to the veterinarian and let the doctor test your dog as well. The doctor will usually be able to notice changes sooner than you will.
2. Keep notes about your dog's activity and diet.
Watch for signs of arthritis, loss of hearing or sight, loss of appetite and unusual gait. If your dog is slow to come when called or seems to get lost in the yard, it could be a sign of deafness or vision trouble - or it could be a sign of senility. If your dog seems to lose its appetite, it could mean dental problems, digestion problems or pain. Tiring more easily and sleeping more are usually normal, but a sudden or dramatic change in either should also be mentioned to the veterinarian.
3. It's not always easy to know the source of the problem.
For that reason, it's recommended that aging dogs see their veterinarian every six months even if they seem to be doing well. The more frequent wellness checkup helps your veterinarian more readily notice slight changes and get to the root of the problem quickly. Many dogs have suffered for years, needlessly, because their owners simply didn't understand there was a problem. Older dogs may slow down but they still want attention, playtime, walks and treats. Any change in those desires is likely a symptom.
Be sure the veterinary examination is thorough. A senior dog's examination should always include the skin, joints, eyes, ears, feet and more frequent blood work. There are some areas the veterinarian should pay particular attention to:
Veterinarian Conducted Tests
4. Blood Work
More frequent blood work is necessary for senior dogs. Many vets recommend a baseline for blood work should be taken, depending on your vet's recommendation, when your dog is healthy and around five to seven years old. This will show your dog's natural blood profile, so the doctor can compare future changes against the baseline. From there, your veterinarian will suggest the frequency of blood work, based on your dog's overall health at the six-month examination.
In some cases, your veterinarian may suggest radiographs (x-rays) or other tests to better understand problems such as arthritis. These can show arthritis or other, more serious problems that could be masquerading as arthritis.
6. Skin Tests
A thorough skin examination should always be done. You can help with this by noticing and tracking any lumps, bumps or growths that you see when grooming and petting your dog. Most of these will be benign, but some will require attention or a biopsy. The biopsy is a minor procedure that allows the vet to send a sample from the growth to the lab to determine if there are cancerous cells in the growth.
There are challenges to living with a geriatric dog, but the end results are well worth any of the challenges. Enjoy your older dog in his twilight years and take the extra steps to keep him as healthy and comfortable as possible. When it's time, be ready to let go, and stay with him to the end.
This article was written by Erika Remmington. Erika is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her husband and 18 month old daughter. Click here to contact Erika.
Information Credit to Central Animal Emergency Clinic, a Vancouver Veterinary Hospital.