Fully Vetted: Caring for the senior dog

Published 3:05 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The last “Fully Vetted” column focused on caring for the senior cat. While many points are the same for both dogs and cats, each species presents many different changes as they age.

One of the most notable aging differences between dogs and cats is the age at which they are considered “senior.” Since dogs are more genetically varied than cats, their life spans also vary more significantly.

In general, large dog breeds tend to have a shorter life span than their smaller counterparts. For example, a Great Dane may be considered a senior at the age of 5 or 6, while a Chihuahua would not be considered a senior until they are between the ages of 10 and 12. A large dog such as a Labrador retriever would be somewhere in the middle, being considered a “senior” between the ages of approximately 8 and 10 years.

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As with cats, it may be difficult to distinguish normal aging changes from signs of disease in an older dog. Sensitivity of vision and hearing decrease with age. Many dogs also have a decrease in their activity level as they age. Although some degree of decreasing activity is normal, it is often a sign of a treatable condition. 

One of the most common underlying causes of decreased activity in older dogs is arthritis, which affects a large number of senior dogs of all sizes. Arthritis is not curable, but it is usually manageable with joint supplements and medication to control pain and inflammation.

A decrease in activity level often leads to weight gain in senior dogs. Obesity may worsen arthritis, and it may complicate other illnesses common to senior dogs, such as respiratory and heart disease. It is important that older dogs are fed an appropriate diet and maintain an appropriate exercise routine, taking their exercise history, breed, and health status into careful consideration.

Another very common, yet treatable, condition of older dogs is dental disease. Dental disease can cause mouth pain and tooth loss. It may lead to weight loss, and in severe cases, systemic illness such as heart and kidney disease. 

Just as with senior people, age often affects older dogs’ minds as well as their bodies. Many senior canines are affected by a condition called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Symptoms associated with this condition include house-training problems, sleep disturbances such as night pacing and restlessness, inappropriate barking, obsessive licking, and failure to recognize familiar people. Canine cognitive dysfunction is not curable, but it can often be successfully managed with medications, diet, and environmental enrichment.

Cancer-causing tumors are very common in senior dogs. Any unusual lumps or bumps should be examined by your veterinarian. In most cases, early removal of a potentially cancerous mass results in a better prognosis.

Routine veterinary visits are important to help identify potential health problems early, when treatment is most likely to be effective.  Maintaining your senior dog’s health can help make their Golden Years some of the most fulfilling of their life.

Dr. Kelly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at animobiledvm@gmail.com.