Caring for Your Senior Dog

Caring for Your Senior Dog

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Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM

Caring for an aged dog can be a mixed blessing. What a glorious achievement that best buddy has become a senior citizen. However, now it is incumbent upon you to recognize and care for special medical needs created by the aging process. Age-related problems can progress so slowly that they may go unnoticed. Here are some tips for recognizing common age-related problems.

Stiffness: Pay particular attention to your elderly dog first thing in the morning. If she appears stiff upon waking, but gradually warms out of the stiffness with activity, chances are she is experiencing some arthritis pain. Talk with your veterinarian about your observations. These days there are a plethora of ways to take the edge off of arthritis pain including supplements, anti-inflammatory medications (made specifically for dogs), acupuncture, and rehabilitation therapy (the equivalent of physical therapy for people).

Ocular changes: Have a close look at your dog’s eyes. Most over the age of ten experience a change in the normally crystal-clear lenses of their eyes that cause the pupils to become gray or cloudy. Your veterinarian can determine whether this change is caused by lenticular sclerosis (an age related condition within the lens that does not impair vision and requires no treatment) versus cataracts (opacifications within the lenses that impair vision). If cataracts are diagnosed, referral to a veterinarian who specializes in ophthalmology is warranted to determine if cataract-induced inflammation within the eyes is present. Depending on your dog’s overall health (and your budget), surgical removal of the cataracts to restore vision may be a viable option.

Decreased appetite: There are a number of reasons why senior dogs may become less interested in the food they used to eat with gusto. The explanation may be a simple one, such as an infected, painful tooth or reluctance to bend down to the food bowl because of neck stiffness. Other more serious causes include age-related organ failure or an underlying infectious or cancerous process. If you find yourself hand feeding your elderly dog or having to “doctor up” her food, time to schedule an appointment to see your veterinarian.

Increased thirst: Have you been filling the water bowl more than usual? Are you finding puddles of urine around the house? If so, your dog may be drinking more water than normal. Many different medical issues can cause increased thirst in older dogs including urinary tract infections, hormonal imbalances, and kidney or liver failure. Even if your elderly dog appears otherwise happy and healthy, her increased thirst is a “heads up” that a trip to the vet is warranted. Her urine will need to be tested, so arrival with a full bladder (hers, not yours) will be appreciated!

Urinary incontinence: Finding a puddle of urine where your dog normally sleeps is evidence that she has urinary incontinence (involuntary urine leakage). There are a myriad of causes for this messy problem in senior pets including urinary tract infections, loss of sphincter tone where the bladder joins the urethra, hormonal imbalances, organ failure, and urinary tract cancer. Medications that can be administered at home have the potential to result in significant improvement. So, if your snookums is soaking the bed, be sure to schedule a visit with your veterinarian to discuss diagnostic and treatment options.

An elderly dog is one who has entered the “final trimester” of his or her life based on anticipated longevity (breed and size dependent). Such seniors should receive a thorough veterinary health exam at least twice a year. The sooner medical issues are detected and diagnosed, the greater the likelihood for a positive outcome.

Are you caring for an older dog? If so, what medical issues have become apparent?

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Dr. Nancy Kay is a renowned author and veterinarian who has written two books on being a better medical advocate for your pet and about maximizing the client-veterinarian relationship:Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life and Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect from Your Vet. She also authors both the Speaking for Spot website and informational blog

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