Caring for Senior Dogs: How to Help Them Age with Dignity

Aging is inevitable and with it comes health and quality of life challenges.  Caring for senior dogs takes a bit of planning to help them to age gracefully and in this article I’m going to give you some suggestions on how to help your old dog age gracefully and stay happy.

 
 

In #DrAlexAnswers, I answer any dog or cat health related questions you might have.  If there is something you’re struggling with. If you’ve always wondered what the best way to keep your companion healthy is.  If they are ill and you’re not quite clear about something just let me know. Make sure you include #DrAlexAnswers in your question too!


Today I want to give my thoughts to a question sent in by Rene who runs the amazing tripawds community, helping pets who have needed an amputation, and providing some great information and support to their owners.

So Rene replied to my newsletter and said one of her biggest challenges with her pet is:

“Figuring out how to help him age pain-free, with grace and dignity, while keeping him engaged and happy.”

This is a fantastic question and something we should strive towards with all our aging pets with the overriding goal being to maximize their quality of life.

Caring for senior dogs

In my opinion, we can break the question down into 3 parts:

  • How to help a senior pet age with dignity

  • How to keep them pain free

  • How to maintain engagement and mental agility

How to help a senior pet age with dignity

Maintain a healthy weight

Starting with aging with dignity, the first thing is to recognize that either your pet is a healthy weight, or trying to get your pet to be a healthy weight.

We should never underestimate the importance of weight gain, being overweight and obesity in the overall health of our body.  Make no mistake, obesity shortens life.

Fat is pro-inflammatory, that has a detrimental effect on general body health and general body condition. Fat also plays also a role increasing the risk of arthritis (and we'll come onto pain later), diabetes as well and numerous other conditions. Trying to help your pet lose weight or maintain a healthy weight will certainly help maintain quality of life. It will also help reduce the risk of other problems that often develop in older age.

Age appropriate diet

Tied in with this, is also recognizing that dietary changes are different for a senior dog compared to a young dog. They need different protein levels, they need different energy levels and this means that switching and feeding a senior diet can make a big difference with things like the prevention of obesity but also the maintenance of muscle mass as well.

There are also supplements or other additions that can be added or that may already be included in a good quality senior diet that can help them remain pain free. Things like essential fatty acids can be really beneficial for this. We shouldn't overstate the role of supplements but feeding a diet specific to the stage of life that your dog is in could really play a role in helping them age well and again, reduce the risk of disease and optimize health.

Good oral health

Oral health is another issue so it's much like obesity, the disease within the mouth also affects the rest of the body. So if a dog has got heavy tarter, if they've got a lot of gingivitis, then that sets up a really pro-inflammatory situation. You start to get a lot of inflammatory proteins and even bacteria circulating in the blood. That has a knock-on effect on health. So a really unhealthy rotten mouth is going to result in really unhealthy body.

Maintaining good dental hygiene is very important. This could by by brushing, it could be by chews, it could be by specific diet but also taking the advice of your vet and getting any dental disease sorted sooner rather than later. Having a scale and polish or even getting any extractions that need to be done really done at an early stage while the disease is not so severe rather than waiting until the disease is really bad and starting to result in really detrimental consequences.

Don't leave it until your dog stops eating because their mouth is so sore. Just imagine how sore their mouth must be to make them stop eating!

Also, your dog will be that much older. This means that there will be an increased chance of other conditions being present, complicating the picture and making the risks of having an anesthetic at a dental procedure a lot higher. So maintaining good oral hygiene is very important.

Don't ignore minor concerns

Another way we can help our pets age with dignity is actually making sure that we don't avoid any minor issues or ignore any concerns that we might have. Remain vigilant and, if you think that your dog has started to drink more, if their weight has started to fall off, if they're started to become a little bit stiff, take action at an early stage.

It can very challenging sometimes to notice that our dogs are unwell or they're not quite right. The signs and the differences can be quite subtle. I'll often say to people who come in with a concern (and if I can't find anything on an exam), the likelihood is that there is something going on we're just not able to fully pick it up at this stage with a simple examination. That might be where a blood test comes in or further monitoring at home, for example recording the amount that your dog is drinking.

With most conditions of old age, be that arthritis, kidney disease, diabetes, skin disease, whatever; if we diagnose and we treat the disease in the early stage, then the impact on your dog's quality of life will likely be much less. The treatment will likely be easier or quicker to work. The long term prognosis is also likely to be better.

So definitely don't ignore any concerns and remain vigilant for any changes that you might see in your dog.

Stay on top of known conditions

Similarly, don't ignore any preexisting conditions. If you already know that your dog, for example, has had a cruciate ligament rupture and has had surgery for that, or if they've been treated conservatively, then that's not a problem that can now be forgotten. They're going to have arthritis in their joint, in their knee, so addressing that rather than just forgetting about it.  Also be mindful of the fact that this is a progressive condition and simply giving some joint supplements or changing their bedding is not good enough.  We need to continually monitor how effective our interventions are (and trying to be as objective as possible) and make changes or additions as they are needed.

It's really important to stay on top of all of the health conditions that your dog might already be suffering from as well as remaining vigilant for any changes in their behavior or changes in how they're carrying themselves, to get onto problems sooner rather than later.

Regular vet checks

My last way to help an older dog, in general, age more gracefully is just to keep up with regular appointments and health checks at your vet. If we think that one dog year is worth seven human years you can see how important regular checks are. Many people will recommend every six months, certainly every year should be a minimum because a lot can change in that three and a half or seven equivalent years of your dog's life.

If we can run monitoring blood tests or even just performing a thorough clinical examination we can detect and address problems at a much earlier stage. Again, if we can get onto these conditions earlier, rather than later, then that's going to set us up to be able to treat and manage any condition that does come up much faster and much more successfully.

Keeping senior dogs comfortable and pain free

The next part of the question of caring for senior dogs is how do we ensure that they remain pain free? If you've read any of my previous related articles, you'll know how important I think this is. I don't believe there's any reason why any dog should suffer from any unrecognized or untreated pain.

Know the signs of pain in dogs

The first step in ensuring that our older dogs are pain free is knowing what the signs of pain are. If we're just aware of what to look out for, we can pick it up at a much earlier stage. Again, like I've already said, that puts us in a much better position to treat it more effectively.

If we think our dog is in pain, for whatever reason, then getting them checked out and diagnosed is important.

Also, addressing the pain early is vital. Pain is something that if it's untreated, we get something called a windup effect. What this means is that the nerves coming from that painful area get so used to feeling pain that any slight stimulation just becomes accentuated (known as hyperalgesia). Also, any non-painful stimulus, like a gentle touch, will also become painful (known as allodynia).

So it's really, really important to avoid pain wind-up by addressing any pain early.  Wind-up can be reversed but takes many months of treatment before your dog will fully benefit from pain killing medication. Don't accept a difficulty getting up or a little bit of stiffness as just a normal aging process. It's not, it's a sign of pain and it should be addressed accordingly.

Change your dogs environment

Now, there are a number of different ways we can go about addressing and minimizing or even eliminating pain in our older dogs. Medications, obviously, play a role and they really are the cornerstone of any arthritis treatment plan or pain for other reason. We can though also make a lot of changes at home and they're good changes to make for any senior dog.

  • If you've got a lot of laminate, slippery flooring then put down carpets or rugs. This will increase the grip your dog has, so that they find it easier to get up and they're not going to slip or fall over.

  • It might be if they got a little bit of neck pain or back pain, actually raising up their food bowl off the ground will help them get to their food and water bowls with a much greater ease.

  • You could use some ramps to get up any stairs that you have around the house. You can also get car ramps (this one on amazon is strong and grippy) that will help your dog get up into your vehicle. You could always lift them on but clearly, if you've got a larger dog, having a ramp is much safer for them and for you. You're not going to drop them and you're also not going to put your back out trying to get them up into the car.


 

This is a great example of how a car ramp can make a huge difference to the life of both a senior dog as well as their owner.

 

Regular exercise

Then, the last thing would be to maintain exercise. We want exercise to always be regular. The worst thing we can do is to have a dog being a couch potato during the week and then at the weekend go on a ridiculously long hike or a run. That's just asking for pulled muscles, swollen joints and pain the next day. We want any exercise to be regular, ideally daily or a couple of times a day, and we want it to be at a level that they enjoy. They should get a reasonable amount of exercise or enough time to get a good sniff around, but not more than they can cope with at the time or result in discomfort the next day.

If you're finding that when your dog gets back, after they've had a bit of a sleep or rest, that they're really stiff getting up or they're stiff the next day, then the likelihood is that you're doing too much exercise with the them. Now this might mean that you have to put the ball away that they like to chase. You might have to limit their playing with other dogs or shorten your regular walk. You want to be doing regular, low impact exercise if possible, especially if there is a problem with joints.

Use your dog's behavior and their recovery as a guide for how much exercise is right for them.

Maintaining engagement and brain function

The last part of Renee's question about caring for senior dogs was how to maintain engagement and mental agility? Mental stimulation is so important for our senior dogs. There are a number of steps we can take to make sure this is the case:

Puzzle toys and feeders

We can buy new toys, especially problem-solving toys.  These will frequently involve your dog having to work out how to get a treat.

It can also be something as simple as a muffin tray and tennis balls: put treats in a few of the different muffin sections, cover some sections with tennis balls, your dog has to pick the balls out to get the treats underneath.

Interactive toys are great, especially when they are changed regularly.

Teach old dogs new tricks

You absolutely can teach old dogs new tricks. You might want to keep them simple, it might take a little bit longer but it really does give their brains a good workout. Something that's very important.

Encouraging interaction, including them in the family, being patient when it's taking them a little bit longer to come to you is also important. Be patient and encouraging that interaction.

Recognize the signs of senility

These are all techniques that are really important in preventing something called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. We might think of it as senility, dementia, or just a reduction in mental agility and awareness. It's something that I'm publishing an article on next week so come back to check that out.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is something that's really important, it's actually really common and it's much more common than we might think it is. If we can take a few of these steps in the early stages it can actually really help slow down that degeneration in brain function and senility that some senior dogs (or a lot of senior dogs) will develop as they get older.

Adapt to changing needs

We also need to adapt to a senior dog's changing needs. Eyesight might be going so we should try and keep furniture layouts similar. If we go about changing around the layout, they're more likely to bump into things or experience confusion and disorientation.

A senior dog might have a reduction in their hearing. If we're calling them, they might be quite slow to respond and so we just need to be patient with the them and accept that this is the new normal. Getting angry or frustrated will anly negatively affect their quality of life even more.

A geriatric dog may become a little bit lean, or their hair coat may thin. Put a jacket on them when you go out if it's cold outside. They might never have needed one before but putting a jacket on your senior dog in the rain might be great.

They might also find grooming themselves a little bit more challenging. You might need to be regularly cutting their nails. This is something that's really common in older dogs, they develop overgrown nails. Just taking steps to prevent that being the case can make a big difference, especially if you have an older dog with arthritis in their toes. If their nails are growing too long than that can actually push the toes up and out, and this will be painful. It can mean that every time your dog takes a step then they're in a lot more pain than then need to be. Simply cutting their nails can make a significant difference.

Quality of life is key

Really, with all of these thoughts, quality of life has to be our overriding goal. We want to try and assess our senior dog's quality of life. We want to always have in the back of our mind: "Are they happy?", "What are they struggling with?", "Is there anything that I can do to help them cope with the challenge of aging in a much better and more dignified way?".

There is so much that we can do but the vast majority of it comes about through simply being aware that there might be problems, trying to recognize those problems early and actually taking steps to address them and to put plans in place to make life easier for your senior dog.


I hope that gives you a few action steps to consider, Rene, and addresses any particular concerns that you might have had.

If you have a question like Rene that you'd like me to answer, then you can leave a comment here, you can tweet me @ourpetshealth, or if you reply to my newsletter then your questions will get priority. Just make sure that however you get in touch, you include "#DrAlexAnswers" and I'll know to include your question in on my planning.

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