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Commonly Asked Questions About Senior Dogs

By: Joan Paylo

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During your dog's senior years, you'll probably observe gradual or sudden changes in health and behavior. Your veterinarian will help determine whether these changes are due to illness, a reaction to medications, or the natural aging process.

Here are some questions that owners commonly ask about the health, habits and behavior of their older dogs.

Question: How will medication affect my dog?

Answer: Medications can cause weight loss or gain, vomiting, depression, lethargy, loss of balance, increased thirst, drooling, shivering or other symptoms that mimic minor or major illness. Ask your veterinarian about common side effects of any medication prescribed for your dog. Be sure to tell him if your dog is already taking another drug, since a combination of drugs can cause side effects. If you think medication is having a negative effect on your dog, call your veterinarian for advice.

Q: Why is my dog gaining weight?

A: The aches and pains of old age may prevent your dog from moving as freely as she once did. She may have developed a touch of arthritis or stiffness in the joints. Hormonal changes may also slow down the metabolism. Medications may add extra girth.

Walk your dog and play with her daily. You'll have to engage her in gentler activities than when she was young, but she still needs her exercise.

Discuss changing her diet with your vet. Seniors need nutritious diets that are higher in fiber, but lower in fat and calories. It's your job to help her keep her weight down, since obesity can make her more susceptible to diabetes, arthritis and heart problems.

Q: Why is my dog losing weight?

A: Is she eating? Are her teeth strong and mouth and gums healthy? Is her neck arthritic? She won't eat if it's a painful process. Age or medications can reduce her senses of smell and taste, which, of course, decreases her appetite. Metabolic disorders and heart or liver trouble can cause weight loss, regardless of how much she eats.

Try feeding the dog a veterinary-prescribed diet in frequent, smaller meals. If her memory or eyesight is failing, be sure to put her food and water bowls in the same place every day. To prevent strain on her aging spine, elevate the bowls to the level of her head.

Q: What if my dog has more than doggy breath?

A: Tooth or gum disease, accompanied by bumps on the gums or tartar on the teeth, are the most common reasons for extreme doggy breath. If you don't brush her teeth regularly, ask your vet to show you how. You'll probably need to do it daily. Chewing on synthetic bones, biscuits or hard rubber toys will help her prevent tartar build-up.

An unusually foul smell, accompanied by lack of appetite and frequent vomiting, could indicate liver disease. Kidney disease adds a hint of urine to the breath. Very sweet or fruity breath could indicate diabetes, especially if she 's been drinking and urinating more than usual.

Q: Why does my dog seems unusually thirsty?

A: Is her water bowl convenient? Always keep fresh, cool water available, not only beside her food bowl, but in the yard and on each floor of your home. Diabetes, a fairly common ailment of old age that also increases appetite, could be the culprit.

Q: Why does my dog toss and turn at night?

A: She may need an orthopedic dog bed to give her support to counter arthritis. Also, older dogs tend to develop painful elbow calluses that are more comfortable on soft bedding. The urge to urinate or defecate more often can also keep her awake. A syndrome called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), akin to Alzheimer's disease in humans, also affects sleep patterns.

Q: Why does my dog nap more than ever?

A: She may just be bored. Decreased stimulation because of poor hearing or sight and less activity because of arthritis can make your dog depressed. The urge to urinate or defecate more can disturb nighttime sleep. Medication and hormonal or heart problems can also make a dog drowsy. Or, CCD could be throwing off your dog's sleep cycle, so that she roams restlessly at night and naps during the day.

Q: Why has my dog has started bumping into things?

A: Failing eyesight is a bane of old age, but dogs learn to compensate. Make your home a safe environment with clear walkways. If you need to rearrange furniture, lead the dog around until she gets a feeling for her surroundings. Always greet her with a gentle voice before touching or petting her. Block entrance to stairs so she doesn't fall. Don't let her leave home without a human companion and keep her leashed when she goes out.

Q: Why won't my dog come when called?

A: Deafness is the most probable reason. If that is the cause, you can teach her hand signals. And, since many deaf dogs are sensitive to vibrations, clapping hands or stomping on the floor may also get her attention.

Arthritis, which makes moving painful, may be another reason she's unwilling to respond, along with more serious medical conditions, such as heart disease. If your dog has trouble seeing or hearing, it's still important that she exercise and play. On days when she prefers sleep and inactivity, spend time petting her and talking with her. Massage is an excellent way to keep her joints working and muscles warm and limber.

Q: Why did my gentle dog snap at me/my child?        

A: Senior dogs display aggression for several reasons. Does your dog have vision problems? Is she hard of hearing? If so, you may have surprised her. The physical and mental symptoms of aging also increase your dog's stress level. Because of arthritis or other movement restrictions, she may not be able to remove herself from an annoying situation as she once could. Changes – moving, a new family member, a high noise level, the quick movements of children - can be frightening, adding to her stress and its resulting aggression. Her behavior also could be a symptom of CCD. Don't leave your own child or a visitor alone with an aggressive senior dog, even though there hasn't been a problem in the past.

Q: Why did my dog snap at my younger dog?

A: As your dog's faculties decline, her dominant status in a multi-pet household may be challenged. When younger dogs test her authority, she may become aggressive. Honor her dominance as you have in the past, but make it clear to all of your dogs that you are the real leader of their pack. You may have to separate your dogs when you leave them home alone.

Q: Why has my dog forgotten her house-training?

A: As your dog ages, soiling the house becomes more common. A weak bladder, failing kidneys or an inflamed bowel is the usual explanation. But forgetting longtime habits may also be a sign of CCD. Besides medication, letting her go outside more often to urinate and defecate helps tremendously.

Q: Why is my dog constipated?

A: You may need to change your dog's diet and feed her smaller meals more frequently. She may no longer be able to tolerate table scraps. Eating more fiber will help move food through her intestines.

But be observant. Arthritis of the hip or spine and hip dysplasia can result in such painful bowel movements that your dog is reluctant to defecate. An enlarged prostate in males, or tumors, can cause blockages or pain.

Q: Why doesn't my dog want to go outside?

A: As a dog ages, she loses her ability to adjust to changes in temperatures. Her drier skin and thinner hair offer her less protection and her metabolism makes her less resilient. During extreme weather, limit her time outdoors. In heat and humidity, remember that a dog pants to cool her body, and that older lungs are not as efficient.

If her vision and hearing are not as sharp as they once were, she may be frightened of being out in the open. Always keep her on a leash and stay close to reassure her when she's outdoors.

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