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Caring for Senior Dogs

Over many years our dogs become an integral part of our lives. They share the sad times and are almost always part of our happiest memories. They have a way of weaving themselves into the fabric of our day to day routines in a way that feels as comfortable for us as it is for them. But, they go through the same life stages as we do culminating in their senior years where they need just that little bit more love and affection.

It’s often difficult to gauge the true age of a dog, especially with the considerable difference between breeds. The old classic of ‘one human year equals seven dog years’ is an easy way to calculate but it is not really the most accurate. In dogs, small breeds live the longest while larger breeds have a relatively short lifespan. For example, a Great Dane is considered senior at 6 whereas a Toy Poodle wouldn’t be considered old until in their teens. In both cases their diet, exercise and medical history have a major influence in how pets age and the number of years that they live.

The best way to tell if a dog is growing old is simply to observe changes in their behaviour or appearance. At some point, signs will become apparent that will indicate that your beloved pet is reaching old age but this doesn’t mean that you should begin to worry or become over-protective. You just need to adjust the daily routines, be a little more observant and take a little more care of their health.

Regular check-ups with the veterinarian are a must for older pets.  A visit once or twice yearly will allow the vet to screen for typical illnesses that occur with ageing.

DIET AND EXERCISE
Obesity is one of the most common problems in senior dogs simply because they begin to sleep more and receive less exercise although they are still given the same amount of food. In short, these pets are receiving more food than their activity level is able to burn off and this leads to obesity and all the associated health risks that come with it, potentially shortening their life span.

Gentle, low intensity exercise is important for dogs so that they burn off excess calories and maintain mobility in joints. Dogs enjoy a daily stroll to the park or just down the road and might even enjoy a play at the beach where water will help provide some low impact resistance as they walk.  The best way to control obesity in older dogs is to reassess the food that they are provided. Changing to one that is still filling but lower in calories and high in fibre will ensure that they are satisfied whilst eating in a manner to lose or perhaps maintain an ideal weight.

Premium pet foods are available designed specifically for seniors. These are made with high-quality, low fat protein and easy to digest carbohydrates for energy and have the addition of key minerals and vitamins to support ageing joints and to help improve the immune system and fight infection.  On occasions, a very old pet can become thinner and may need more food to maintain a healthy weight. This is probably caused by their digestion becoming less efficient at retaining the goodness in what they eat. If concerned, a visit to the vet to be assessed is the best approach.

In general, dogs of seven years or older should have their nutritional needs re-assessed based on their level of activity and slower metabolism. The diet of larger dogs may even need to be considered at five years, depending on their breed. The team at Better Pets and Gardens has undertaken extensive training to help to identify the best food to suit a senior dog and of course you can bring it into the store to be weighed. This will help to give you an indication of their ideal weight for their age and breed.

Senior dogs often benefit from being fed several small meals instead of one large one. Small meals burn more calories in digestion than do infrequent large meals and also help to deliver the energy that they need more evenly throughout the day. They are also far easier for the animal to digest allowing them to retain the nutrients within the food.

ARTHRITIS AND JOINT PROBLEMS
Older pets do not handle extreme changes or stress well. They become less tolerant of hot and cold weather and some with joint problems visibly struggle. In summer, dogs may resort to sleeping on hard floors to cool off but this sedentary behaviour along with the heat stiffens their joints and may result in hair loss and calluses which become a problem if they become raw and infected. Encouraging them to sleep on soft surfaces would help but water-filled cool beds especially for dogs are terrific at offering a soft base while still keeping them ultra-cool and comfortable.

In winter, beds with extra thick padding helps to keep their joints warm and make it easier for them to move after lying down for a long time. Raised dog beds combined with a cosy mattress keep the dog off the cold ground but also position the bed at a height that is easier for them to step off and on to. Older dogs will really appreciate a heated pet bed which may be electric, have a microwaveable insert or have a special inner panel that radiates heat.

Dog ramps are a brilliant solution for owners who have difficulty lifting a large dog with arthritis. The ramp allows the dog to walk straight into the back of a car or onto a bed without any pain for it or its owner.

Weight control in arthritic pets is very important so that extra stress is not put on their joints. Short, moderate exercise can be undertaken but it is important to start this very gradually and not to allow the pet to exercise excessively which will only result in pain later on. For dogs that are still physically active but who are showing signs of slowing down, it would be wise to change their exercise routine from a run to a walk or perhaps a swim at the beach. Don’t stop the exercise altogether as they will still enjoy the time with you and will benefit from the activity, albeit reduced.

Warm packs on the joints and simple flexing and extension of the joints will also help to maintain a pet’s range of motion.  Older dogs that spend their nights outside will benefit from extra warm bedding in their kennel or on their bed and will love a cosy jacket to curl up in. Put the jacket on them in the late afternoon before the sun goes down and the air begins to moisten and remove it again in the morning.

Nutritional supplements are available to help ease the pain associated with arthritis but if the disease progresses further the veterinarian may recommend cortisone-like drugs or injections.  Visit any Better Pets and Garden store to discuss the supplements and bedding options available for pets suffering from arthritis or joint pain.

DENTAL CARE
Disease of the gums is more common in pets than teeth issues such as cavities. Over time, plaque forms on the teeth causing the gums to recede. As this occurs, more plaque is produced and the gums recede even further. Eventually the dentin covering the roots of the teeth are exposed and the teeth become loose and the gums sore. Lack of dental care can also cause bacteria to spread to other areas of the body and enter the bloodstream making the pet quite sick.

For dogs, including dry pet food in the diet will help to keep teeth clean as these scrape against the teeth cleaning the surface as they are eaten. Chew toys are also helpful as is brushing their teeth daily to remove food particles and plaque. Finger toothbrushes may be easier to use than a toothbrush with a handle but it is essential to use pet toothpaste and definitely not one for humans.  An annual professional clean by the vet is important and will also give them an opportunity to check for any oral health issues.

EYES AND VISION
Over time, a dog’s vision may begin to be affected by a problem often referred to as cataracts. This is obvious by cloudiness of the lens and to them, objects will appear quite hazy. Other problems also occur such as retinitis. Luckily, dogs rely on scent more than vision and since these problems occur gradually, they learn to cope very well, especially within the safety of their own home.

To find out more about caring for a blind dog, download our fact sheet.

GROOMING
Older pets benefit enormously from regular grooming sessions since as they age, they often don’t have the energy to groom themselves properly.  Older dogs really benefit from a daily brush and a weekly bath not just to remove dead fur and oil but also to stimulate the skin to reduce infections and calluses. Older dogs have a tendency to lick their sores or the hard, irritated skin and the saliva can cause infections and bacteria resulting in the problem getting worse.

All Better Pets and Gardens stores are equipped with a DIY Dog Bath which allows an older dog to be bathed with warm water and dried off quickly so that when they leave, they are clean, dry and full of energy.

BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS
Separation anxiety is one of the most common behaviour problems in older dogs as they become very anxious when they sense that their owner is about to leave or if there is a change of routine. If they have vision or hearing loss, this might add to their overall inability to cope. When the owner does leave, the dog may become destructive, bark or even soil the house even though they might have been very well house-trained when younger.

Consider changing the departure cues as dogs are very quick to pick up on patterns that you might not be aware of. For example, pick up the car keys and then sit back down on the couch for a while. Or, put your shoes on outside or perhaps even get dressed to go to work on a Saturday but stay home instead. Try small departures that the dog can cope with even if it is just 30 seconds but each time that you re-enter the home, reward them for staying calm. This may take some times to have an impact so patience is important.

Try associating your leaving with something good. Place treats in areas around the home so that the dog spends its first few minutes having fun following the trail around the house. Or, use a treat ball or hollow toy and stuff it with kibble or other favourite food to keep it busy and more relaxed. Leave some easy listening music on to mask any external noises and make the environment relaxing and comfortable. It may even be necessary to organise for someone to visit the home during the day to let an older dog outside to relieve itself and to give it a bit of exercise.  Keep in mind that pets that have been housetrained for years that start having accidents throughout the house may have more of a medical problem than a behavioural problem.

Where this is the case, it is best to start with a visit to the vet.   Aggression does occasionally become a problem in older dogs but often these are the result of medical problems. Pain from arthritis, dental disease and vision or hearing loss may make the pet feel more vulnerable to the point where it feels the need to protect itself from being hurt. It might even be lack of mobility where it feels that it can’t remove itself from an irritating stimulus such as an annoying puppy or kitten so tends to lash out instead. Stresses such as moving home, a new pet or a new family member may result in the older pet being more irritable and therefore more likely to be aggressive.

It is important that the family is aware of the older pet’s needs and adjusts its behaviour to suit. This may mean that the pet is moved to a safe area if young children or other visitors come to the home so that it is not put into a situation where it may become stressed.

INTRODUCING A KITTEN OR PUPPY
Since older pets do not handle stress very well, getting a new puppy or kitten may need some careful consideration.  Very old pets that might be experiencing aches and pains and mobility problems will probably not cope well with the introduction of a feisty young kitten or puppy that wants to play, climb on and generally annoy anything that is in its vicinity. The solution is to introduce a young pet into the household earlier, whilst the older pet is still mobile and able to get away from the youngster, is relatively pain free and still has good hearing and vision. There might still be a tussle over who is the boss in the household but this is normal behaviour in the animal kingdom.

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