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Geriatric Dog Care

By: Dr. Douglas Brum

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Pets today are living longer and better quality lives than ever before. Many factors are responsible for this increase including improved nutrition, veterinary care and educated owners. This increased longevity means that there are more dogs reaching an older age, and that owner's will be faced with the special demands and problems that become apparent with age. Understanding the aging process and the most common problems that face the geriatric dog is the first step in providing the best possible care to your older animal. The main focus of geriatric health care is owner education and the early detection and prevention of disease.

It is important to first realize that aging itself is not a disease; it is simply a stage of life. Increasing age causes a gradual decline in the body's ability to repair itself, maintain normal body functions, and adapt to the stresses and changes in the environment. Many changes occur in dogs as they age. Changes in metabolism occur so dogs require less food. Older dogs are also usually less active and thus, commonly gain weight, making obesity one of the more frequent problems seen in the senior dog. Changes in a dog's environment or routine may actually contribute to behavioral changes or even illness. Trying to minimize severe or sudden changes in the geriatric animal is always a good practice. With time, dogs begin to have a gradual decline in their senses (hearing, smelling, vision and taste). Your pet may not respond to stimuli as rapidly or in the same manner as when he was younger. It is not uncommon for older dogs to spend more time sleeping and have more difficulty being roused.

Additionally, the body's ability to repair itself decreases, and the function of the immune system is compromised with increasing age. Metabolic and endocrine problems, organ dysfunction, and cancer are all seen with increased frequency in the senior pet. Degenerative changes in the muscles, bones and joints are commonly seen as arthritis and muscle weakness.

Some of these problems may be difficult to help, however it is usually possible to significantly improve the quality of your pet's life by educating oneself, and becoming aware of potential problems. Most veterinarians will recommend more frequent veterinary visits and additional diagnostic tests for geriatric animals in an effort to find the early stages of disease, before they become problems. Practicing prevention is always better than treating a disease already present. In the long run, preventative medicine improves quality of life, and is more cost effective than waiting for problems to appear. A well-educated and proactive owner is the first step in optimal senior dog care.

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