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Geriatric Dog Care

By: Dr. Douglas Brum

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The treatment of the geriatric dog varies according to individual requirements, and the problems found. The following is a list of the most common geriatric problems and their general treatment recommendations:

  • Nutritional concerns. The proper diet is very important in the care of a geriatric dog. There is no best food to feed a geriatric dog. The best food to feed depends on the specific problems or nutritional requirements of the individual animal. For example, obesity is a very common problem of older animals. Obesity is a serious concern in the geriatric animal because it directly correlates to a decreased longevity, and may contribute to other problems. Dogs that are arthritic have a far more difficult time moving and may require strong anti-inflammatory drugs to ease their discomfort. Weight loss in these animals may have great impact on improving their quality of life. Your veterinarian can prescribe or recommend special lower calorie, high fiber diets that make weight loss easier. Additionally, through the geriatric work-up, special nutritional requirements or restrictions may be recommended. These diets attempt to either slow the development of the disease process, or improve specific organ function. Special diets for many diseases (even in the early stages) including kidney, liver, gastrointestinal, heart, dental and skin disease are available. Even diets for diabetes and cancer may be recommended. Proper nutritional management is a very important part of the care for your geriatric dog, especially since it is something that you have control over.

  • Dental disease. A very common finding on a geriatric exam is dental disease and gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). A dental cleaning may be recommended by your veterinarian. Many times an owner is reluctant to put their geriatric dog under anesthesia; however, if there is significant dental disease present, a dentistry may be in your dog's best interest. Untreated dental disease usually leads to tooth loss, and may serve as a reservoir of infection for the rest of the body. In this manner, severe dental disease may pose a risk to other body systems. It is not uncommon for an owner to comment on how much better their dog feels after a dental, when they were not even aware that their dog may have been ill prior to the dental.

  • Arthritis, also called degenerative joint disease, is another very common issue affecting geriatric dogs. While it is to be expected that older animals will tend to "slow down" with age, animals with arthritis may feel much more comfortable if appropriately treated. Signs of arthritis in dogs include difficultly rising, having trouble on stairs or jumping, falling on slippery floors, having difficulty getting comfortable or being restless at nights. Many times your pet will be worse right after he gets up, and then "warms out of it" and improves with time. There are many anti-inflammatory medications that may significantly improve your pet's quality of life and comfort level. Never start medication on your own. Your veterinarian can recommend the best medication for your dog.

  • Metabolic problems. One of the biggest benefits of routine geriatric diagnostic testing is the early detection of a variety of metabolic conditions. Finding evidence of early kidney disease is probably the most common. Underlying liver disease may also be discovered. In some incidences further testing may be suggested. Other times specific dietary or lifestyle changes may be advised, and potential medication started.

  • Endocrine disorders. Endocrine problems may be suspected based on historical, physical or laboratory findings. The two most common endocrine problems affecting geriatric dogs are hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease) or hypothyroidism. Both disorders are treatable, and proper treatment may dramatically improve your dog's overall attitude and strength.

  • Cardiac disease. Newly discovered heart murmurs are a common physical exam finding in the geriatric dog. Many times these murmurs are found before a dog is symptomatic of any heart disease. Finding a heart murmur in an older dog does not mean that the dog has cardiac disease, but it is an indication for further diagnostics. The most common cardiac disease in the senior dog is chronic valvular heart disease. Thickening and irregularities of the valves of the heart may lead to abnormal blood flow within the cardiac chambers, eventually causing cardiac enlargement and heart failure. Early detection of this disease and proper therapy may slow its progression.

  • Skin tumors. On the basis of the size, location and aspiration results, your veterinarian may recommend removal of one or many skin masses. Sometimes these masses may be removed with only local anesthesia, other times general anesthesia is required. Your veterinarian may also decide not to remove a mass. In this case, the mass should be closely monitored for any changes in size, shape or texture.

  • Urinary problems. Excessive urinations are usually related to increased thirst and metabolic problems or urinary tract infections. Older dogs may sometimes become urinary incontinent, leaking small or even large amounts of urine when lying down or when sleeping. If the incontinence is due to infection, antibiotics will usually help. If infection is not present, there are other medications that can safely and effectively treat the problem.

  • Prostate problems. If your dog is an intact male, he is at significant risk of prostatic disease. Prostatic infections, hyperplasia, abscesses and cysts are all potential problems in the intact male. Tumors of the prostate occur with equal frequency in both neutered and intact males. A rectal examination is required to fully evaluate the prostate.

  • Unfortunately, cancer is a significant problem facing the geriatric dog. Some common breeds such as golden retrievers and boxers are at increased risk of potential disease. Not all cancer needs to be fatal. Surgery, chemotherapy, even radiation therapy, is available that can significantly extend your pet's quality time, or produce a cure. The prognosis depends on the type and location of the cancer.

  • Behavioral and cognitive dysfunction. As dogs age they may become more "set in their ways", more inflexible, less patient and more irritable. Sometimes they will forget learned behaviors including normal urinary and defecation habits. Geriatric dogs may sleep a lot more, and be less responsive to external stimuli. These signs may be related to underlying disease, or may be due to the gradual decline in their senses and cognition (thought process). If no underlying causes of the deterioration can be found, some dogs might respond to medications that treat cognitive dysfunction (Anipryl®).

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