Your Dog's Senior Years - What to Expect
On average, dogs age seven times faster than humans. The average life-expectancy of a dog is 12 years and depends upon many factors: breed, size, genetics, nutrition, environment, and vaccination history, to name a few. In general, large and giant breeds tend to age faster than the smaller and toy breeds. Great Danes, for example, seldom reach 12 years of age, while occasionally Chihuahuas may reach 20 years. Any dog between 7 and 8 years of age should be considered middle-aged or pre-geriatric. Some refer to this period as the "retirement years." Any dog 9 years of age and older is generally considered geriatric.
Once a dog has entered the pre-geriatric years (6-7), steps should be taken by the owner to ensure that the pet may enjoy its remaining years. The following are five basic recommendations in caring for an aging dog.
- Annual or Bi-annual comprehensive physical exam and diagnostic work-up:
A well-known phrase in veterinary medicine states: "For every one problem missed by not knowing, nine others are missed by not looking." A comprehensive physical exam by a veterinarian on a twice yearly basis will help to ensure that any health problem the animal is experiencing might be discovered early. The earlier a problem is discovered and therapy initiated, the better the chance of a favorable outcome. While many illnesses are incurable, if detected early and the proper treatment initiated, even incurable illnesses may be successfully managed for several months to years before causing deterioration and death.
A diagnostic work-up refers to tests performed as an aid in detecting disease. While the physical exam is very helpful, it cannot completely evaluate the function of many body systems. Blood tests such as the complete blood count (CBC) and blood (serum) chemistry profile are extremely useful in evaluating the function of many body systems. Other laboratory tests often utilized in a diagnostic work-up include urine analysis (UA), radiography, and fecal tests.
A bi-annual visit to the veterinarian will also give the doctor the opportunity to assess the need for ear and dental care, vaccinations, and to discuss any apprehensions or questions the owner may have regarding his or her pet’s oncoming geriatric years.
As animals age, their body’s nutritional needs change as well. Geriatric animals generally require fewer calories and less protein. Increased fiber may help maintain proper function of the digestive system. Most pet food companies offer a reduced calorie or senior diet made especially for aging pets. It is recommended that owners make a permanent switch during the pre-geriatric years to a diet specially formulated for the older dog, and that the recommendations for feeding be followed. Obesity from overeating or from a diet too rich in calories is one of the surest ways to put at risk the health of a pet.
Regular exercise for geriatric animals is important for a healthy and happy life. The key word here is regular. While the vigor, speed, and endurance associated with younger dogs will seldom be seen in most geriatric pets, this does not indicate that they enjoy exercise less, nor that it is any less beneficial to their bodies. Regular exercise helps prevent obesity, stimulates the cardiovascular (heart and vessels) and musculoskeletal (muscles and bones) systems, and contributes to the emotional well-being of a pet.
- Elimination of stress:
Geriatric dogs do not adjust to physical and emotional stress as well as younger dogs. Most domestic animals thrive on daily routine and often have developed biological clocks with incredibly precise punctuality! Change in routine, temperature, and diet (hence the recommendation above to switch during the pre-geriatric years to a senior diet) can all contribute to emotional and physical stress. Boarding and hospitalization can be particularly stressful to the geriatric dog. Home-care under the supervision of a veterinarian (hospice care), if available, may be more healthy for a geriatric pet than lengthy stays at a clinic or boarding facility.
Development of long-term, healthy habits will contribute to the emotional and physical well-being of a dog. These healthy habits might also be known as "de-stressors" as opposed to those things previously listed which contribute to stress. Healthy de-stressors include daily exercise, play time, brushing/grooming, and reinforcement of good behavior with praise and nutritious treats. Even brushing a dog’s teeth, if developed slowly as a routine and rewarded afterwards, can become an de-stressor while at the same time maintaining good hygiene.
- Be an alert pet owner:
Many diseases of geriatric animals are due to slow, almost imperceptible deterioration of body organs or systems. Unless an owner is extremely observant, many of these conditions may go unnoticed until the problem has deteriorated into the final stages. Careful observation of behavior, mobility, hearing, vision, hair coat, appetite, thirst, urination habits, defecation habits, weight changes, and other aspects of the pet’s daily routine, will help the owner notice differences or abnormalities if and when they do begin to surface. Early diagnosis and initiation of treatment may be of critical importance to the pet’s future and quality of life.
In summary, owners must be aware that dogs age much faster than humans. However, if given special care and attention during the geriatric years, pets can live healthier, happier, and longer lives.