Senior dogs are special dogs. They don't have the cuteness or flashiness of puppies, and they're usually not the athletic partner that they were in their prime.
Nonetheless, they're special because they've earned the right to be our true companions. We know them and they know us, which is why we owe it to them to provide them with the best quality of life and comfort in their golden years.
With improved diet and veterinary care, dogs are now able to live longer than ever before. Older dogs, like older people, can now live long enough to experience more age-related conditions and challenges.
So when does a dog become a "senior" dog? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, depending on a dog's breed or type, a dog that is 6 to 8 years of age can be considered a senior dog. Large and giant breeds mature late but have shorter life spans and age much more quickly than do small or toy breeds.
Dogs can develop many of the same physical problems that humans experience as we age, such as metabolic or endocrine disease (kidney, liver, diabetes), heart disease, vision and hearing problems, joint issues and degenerative weakness.
Though dogs (and people) can get cancer at any age, it becomes more prevalent in older dogs. Almost half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer. Here are some basic considerations when caring for older pets:
Increased veterinary care. Geriatric pets should have semiannual veterinary visits instead of annual visits so signs of illness or other problems can be detected early and treated. Senior pet exams are similar to those for younger pets, but are more in depth and may include dental care, blood work and specific checks for signs of diseases that are more likely in older pets.
Diet and nutrition. Geriatric pets often need foods that are more readily digested, have different calorie levels and ingredients, and include anti-aging nutrients.
Weight control. Weight gain in geriatric dogs increases the risk of health problems.
Parasite control. Older pets' immune systems are not as healthy as those of younger animals. As a result, they can't fight off diseases or heal as fast as younger pets.
Maintaining mobility. As with older people, keeping older pets active through appropriate exercise helps keep them healthier and more mobile.
Vaccination. Your pet's vaccination needs may change with age. Talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination program for your geriatric pet.
Mental health. Pets can show signs of senility. Stimulating them through interactions can help keep them mentally active. If you notice any changes in your pet's behavior, consult your veterinarian.
Environment. Older pets may need changes in their lifestyle, such as sleeping areas to avoid stairs or more time indoors.
Reproductive diseases. Non-neutered/non-spayed geriatric pets are at higher risk of mammary, testicular and prostate cancers.
Dogs can also develop behavioral changes such as confusion, increased vocalization, anxiety, changes in sleep cycles and house soiling. Older people can develop what we call senility. In dogs, we call that behavior canine cognitive disorder, but it's a disorder that should only be considered once other medical conditions (such as urinary tract infections, brain tumors, etc.) have been ruled out.
Next time you take your senior dog in for a checkup, be sure to talk to your veterinarian for more advice about caring for your aging companion.