5 Tips on Caring for your Senior Pet
We have had only ‘senior’ dogs in our household since our first pup, Sally Brown turned 8 in 2003 – so that’s almost 10 years ago.
Our next dog Tino was only a year younger than Sally and then we adopted Becca at age 9, Jack at age 8 and Maggie, also age 8. So for ten years, we’ve run somewhat of an ‘assisted living’ home for dogs. During that time we’ve learned a lot about caring for older dogs and adjusting for their needs both mental and physical. For those of you just entering this phase of your dogs life here’s a few tips we’ve learned:
1. Exercise: You know we are big on exercise, for ourselves and for our dogs. Our dogs have always run with us at least 3-4 times a week and then been walked on the off days. As your dog gets older, that has to be scaled back to accommodate their natural aging as well as the pain due to arthritis they may have. Several shorter walks are better than one long one. Skipping days is also an option. Playing fetch is another area where you may need to scale back. Dogs will let you know when they are tired or done. Becca used to just pick up the ball and go back in the house when she got tired from playing fetch. Follow your dogs lead.
Other low impact exercise options include swimming and balance/core exercises. Pilates even!
2. Nutrition: Nutritional changes should also be made. Your dogs digestive system is changing (and aging) and they may not be able to digest the same types of foods they did when they were younger. We switched all of our dogs to mostly a ‘senior’ food diet. It’s a bit lower in calories and since we have Labs, that’s always a benefit. If you do feed your dog treats or table scraps, be more careful about what you give them. Maggie has had a couple of her teeth pulled, so she can’t chew on hard bones or treats – she prefers the softer ones. Again, take cues from your dog – if they are leaving things uneaten, or are taking twice as long to get through something, you might want to rethink it.
3. Vet checks. Our vet suggests annual senior checkups once a dog reaches age 8. They do a regular blood panel and exam checking on all the basics. Being kind of a health freak, we are usually there more often than once a year, but it’s a good practice. Older dogs tend to develop lots of lumps here and there. Usually they are simple lipomas (a simple fatty lump), but sometimes they can be more significant lymphomas or mast cell tumor. Any new lumps you detect should be checked by your vet immediately.
You also want to watch for shortness of breath, fatigue, stomach upset or changes in bathroom habits – the same signs you watch for in an elder human. Follow your instinct and check with your vet if you are suspicious.
4. Rehab/prehab: Like humans, dogs can benefit from different rehab modalities. There are more and more canine rehab facilities available these days that offer underwater treadmills, electrical stimulation, laser therapy, and exercise modalities using peanut and balance balls. We have used rehab/prehab to help our older dogs both recover from injury as well as to prevent an injury from occurring in the first place.
5. Mental state: Yes, there is such a thing as doggy dementia. Our dog Tino, who passed when he was 14 developed a dementia. He was also blind from age 9, so sometimes it was hard to tell whether it was the blindness or the dementia when he acted weird sometimes. Dementia signs to watch for include a sort of restlessness, circling the room or circling in place – disorientation. They might forget where they are or where they were going, or get stuck in a corner (this is one of those areas where Tino’s blindness certainly didn’t help!). Loss of bowel or bladder control is also frequently observed, so be prepared with some doggy diapers (yes they have those).
Jack and Maggie feel almost like youngsters to us given their “young” ages of 9 and 8. Yet, I expect there will be lots more learning in the next few years as we continue to grow old with them.