Age Is Not a Disease: Caring for Senior Dogs
Age is certainly not a disease, but as your faithful friend grows older, there are certain things that need to be done to make their life easier. This article outlines some easy tips to help keep your seasoned dog happy and comfortable in their golden years.
Environmental Changes for Senior Dogs
Younger dogs have ample balance and strength, allowing them to navigate hardwood flooring and tile. As a dog ages, they lose muscle mass and strength, which makes that once innocent flooring into a slick indoor skating rink. Adding area rugs or yoga mats can significantly increase traction and make it easier for your dog to get around the house, as well as stop slipping that can lead to muscle strain and potentially serious injury. If additional traction is needed, special pet socks provide a comfortable solution. It is important to note that the latex paw boots for winter are not suitable and should not be used, as their cuffs are too tight and can restrict blood flow, leading to painful swelling. Latex does not allow the feet to breathe, which can lead to skin infection between the toes.
Food & Water
A dog enjoys lunch from an elevated bowl.
Dogs normally carry 40% of their weight on the rear limbs and 60% of their weight on their front limbs, which is a comfortable distribution. An older dog will likely have some arthritis in their knees, hips, and back. This leads to shifting additional weight forward onto the front legs. One way you can help ease excessive pressure on the front of the body is by raising both food and water up to just below shoulder height, so that your dog doesn’t have to lean forward to get food and drink. If your dog’s meal area is on slick flooring, add a small area carpet or cut yoga mat around their food and water bowls to provide extra traction.
In the summertime, it can be particularly difficult for an older dog to cool down. Taking longer walks early in the morning and late in the day and making outdoor trips shorter on excessively hot days can help avoid overheating. When inside, provide easy access to cool flooring to lie on, keep the indoor temperature cool, and turn on a floor fan for a local breeze to offer comfort on hot days.
A senior dog makes its way up the stairs with the help of a harness.
Older dogs have difficulty getting up stairs as they start to lose strength in their rear limbs. The addition of adhesive carpet treads on wooden stairs and lighting for darker stairways can be incredibly helpful. Many people find the use of a harness with front and back components can aid in guiding a dog that needs a little extra support up the stairs.
Older pups have a harder time getting in and out of the car. Providing a ramp can facilitate this transition while preventing undue pressure on the joints. There are many options for ramps that fold up and are easily portable in the trunk of your vehicle. Ideally, it is best to train a dog to use a ramp before it is needed, so there will be no problem assimilating if and when it’s necessary.
Indoor Steps & Ramps
Smaller senior dogs need extra help getting on and off the couch or bed. Pet steps or indoor ramps can aid in preventing injury resulting from jumping off of the furniture. While it may take a little patience to train your pet, it will be worth it.
While the flattened, well-loved bed from your dog’s puppyhood may still be a favorite, adding in a newer, more supportive bed is worth the switch. Many dogs like to raise their head while resting, making orthopedic bedding with soft bumpers an excellent investment that will pay off in comfort and support for older joints.
Exercise & Mental Stimulation
Contrary to popular belief, you can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact, stimulating the brain is key to keeping your dog young at heart and mind. Little activities like food dispensing toys or easy strength and flexibility exercises help stimulate the mind, as well as create bonding time and help preserve strength.
A dog enjoys its golden years in the forest.
Exercise is just as important as play. While a seasoned dog may not be able to do a 4-hour hike, getting outdoors and using their remaining muscle is still very important. Taking a road trip to a new area, like a trail, can be doubly beneficial. New smells stimulate the mind and uneven ground like dirt, grass, and roots challenge gait and paw placement. For dogs that like to swim, monitored water therapy, such as swimming in a local lake or pool, can be beneficial too. Hydrotherapy at a center that provides swimming or underwater treadmills for dogs can offer the benefits of water in a safe and controlled environment with a professional.
Senior Dog Diet
Dogs do not have as many taste buds as we do – their incredibly sensitive sense of smell more than makes up for that. As dogs age, their sense of taste lessens and they can become picky eaters. It may be necessary to rotate through foods, offer softer/wet food, include toppers, or wet down regular food. Even the act of warming in the microwave can make their food more enticing to eat.
Grooming & Hygiene
As range of motion and flexibility declines, dogs may not be able to keep themselves clean. Making sure to keep the rear area free of debris can help with preventing urinary tract infections, and daily brushing and grooming can prevent matting and keep nails and hair neat and clean. Good hygiene will not only help your dog stay fresh, but can also help you with monitoring lumps and bumps, as well as irritated spots and calluses.
After several years of playing fetch and chasing squirrels, it goes without saying that a senior dog will likely have arthritis in some joints. As a dog ages, the fluid that provides nutrients to the joints becomes less viscous and more watery, resulting in cartilage wearing down, less joint cushion, and painful bone-on-bone contact. As the body tries to heal joint damage, inflammatory factors arrive to help, but in overdrive, leading to more pain. Over time, scar tissue may form, further decreasing nutrition to the joints, as well as range of motion. In order to compensate, extra weight is placed on other areas of the body. While this process seems like a never-ending cycle, starting a pain management plan can help disrupt the cycle and assist with overall comfort. It is of the utmost importance to get ahead of pain before wind-up and over sensitization occurs, whereby even a light touch will register as extreme discomfort.
Remember, animals do not overtly display signs of pain, so pay careful attention to small changes in behavior and activity. Not wanting to go as far on walks, panting more often, having difficulty lying down, being slow to rise, and not jumping (on the bed or in the car) can all be clues that a dog is in pain.
Steroids like prednisone and non-steroidal medications such as carprofen, deracoxib, and galliprant all act at the site of inflammation to decrease pain by decreasing inflammation. These medications can provide some comfort to an older pet, but must be dosed under the guidance of the veterinarian.
Pain management should be thought of as a multi-modal treatment. By taking this approach, one can achieve great success in managing pain and potentially be able to use lower, yet effective, doses of oral medications. Supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, green-lipped mussel extract, ASU, turmeric, MSM, and UC-II are some well- known nutraceuticals for pets. When choosing a supplement, it is important to note that they are not FDA approved, meaning there isn’t proof of product standardization and quality control. Make sure that what you are spending your money on is actually in the bottle, pill, or chew. Look either for third-party testing (not tested or paid for by the company itself) and/or the yellow NASC symbol on the package. If the supplement does not have the NASC seal or third-party testing, there is no evidence that the product contains what it says on the label and it could potentially feature unlisted ingredients that are harmful to your pet.
Other Pain Medications
Often, older dogs will have a variety of medications, frequently a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) in conjunction with another pain medication like gabapentin or amantadine. These combinations complement each other by acting on different parts of the pain pathway.
Other intervention options for pain modification include CBD (a component of hemp), pulsed electromagnetic field treatment (PEMF), acupuncture, laser therapy, physical therapy, and massage therapy, all of which have proven benefits for modulating pain.
Routine Physical Examinations for Aging Dogs
It is often noted that one year in a dog’s life is approximately 7 in human terms, therefore, as a dog ages, it will become more important to check in with your veterinarian for physical examinations, blood work, modification of pain plan, monitoring of lumps, and general well-being. For most dogs after the age of ten, it is important to be seen by a veterinarian once every 6 months – more frequently if there are underlying conditions that need to be monitored closely.
Though there are some additional considerations when caring for a senior dog, the love you receive back makes it worth it. Remember that you and your veterinarian are a team in keeping your pet happy, healthy, and pain free.