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Like a Thief in the Night – Caring for Your Elderly Dog

By: Dr. Douglas Brum

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They say old age creeps up on a person like a thief in the night. This is especially true of your dog. Dogs seemingly race through adolescence and adulthood, and suddenly at around 9 years of age, they are entering their golden years. As our dogs age, they may have specific needs or problems that must be addressed. The aging process brings about a gradual decline in a dog's physical and sometimes mental abilities. Becoming aware of these issues allows you to provide the best possible care.

Not all dogs age at the same rate. Generally, smaller breeds live longer than larger dogs and mixed breeds usually live longer than pure breeds. A general guideline as to when a dog might be considered geriatric may be based on the dog's adult weight. Small dogs (under 20 pounds) are considered geriatric between 9 and 13 years old. Medium sized dogs (21 to 50 pounds) are considered geriatric between 9 and 11 years old. Large breed dogs (51 to 90 pounds) are considered geriatric between 7.5 and 10.5 years old. Finally, the giant breed dogs (over 90 pounds) are usually considered geriatric between 6 and 9 years old.

Ideally, caring for the geriatric dog should focus on preventive measures. Whenever possible, it is better to prevent a problem from occurring, rather than to wait for a problem to develop. Detecting diseases in the early stages greatly improves the outcome. Different dogs have specific risk factors that influence the diagnostic approach to geriatric medicine. Risk factors include characteristics of the breed, genetics, environment and lifestyle that may put your dog at greater risk of developing a particular disease or other age-related changes.

Veterinary Care

Within the last few decades, advancements in veterinary medicine have caused a dramatic increase in the longevity of our pets. Today, dogs are living longer and healthier lives. If there is a problem with your older dog, don't assume it is just because of old age, and that nothing can be done. With appropriate treatment, many conditions can improve. Your veterinarian may do the following to assess your dog's health and to maintain a healthy condition.

  • A thorough and complete medical history. Your veterinarian will note changes in behavior and physical abilities
  • A complete physical examination
  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Biochemical profile
  • Urinalysis
  • Fecal exam for parasites
  • Heartworm blood test, if appropriate for the area of the country

    Treatment

    All dogs should receive routine vaccinations as required by law (rabies), and vaccines that are appropriate for individual needs. Specific vaccines and frequency of administration may vary, and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Treating an older dog depends on the individual requirements or problems of your pet. The most common problems of geriatric dogs are:

  • Nutritional issues – managing obesity or special needs
  • Dental disease
  • Arthritis
  • Metabolic disease
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Heart disease
  • Skin tumors
  • Urinary problems
  • Prostate disease in intact male dogs
  • Cancer
  • Behavioral and cognitive dysfunction

    Home Care and Prevention

    A periodic inspection of your pet at home may uncover potential problems. Make sure that your pet has clean, warm and protected living conditions, and provide easy access to clean fresh water.

    Feed a good quality dog food that is appropriate for your dog's specific needs, and do not allow him to gain excessive weight; discuss unexpected weight gain with your veterinarian. Based on a complete geriatric work-up a prescription dog food might be advised. Groom your pet and, if possible, brush his teeth regularly. Finally, follow your veterinarian's recommendations as to exercise, nutrition and any medications that may be needed.

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