Caring for the Older Dog

Old Dogs and Their Health

Old dog lived to be almost 18

Bear, a friendly mixed-breed dog, lived to be almost 18 years old.

Obesity

One of the most common problems found in older dogs is obesity. Dogs age much more quickly than humans, and as they age they tend to slow down. If an old dog that spends most of its time snoozing is given the same food in the same amounts that he got a young, energetic dog, he'll likely start to gain weight.

Run your hand over your dog's chest, back and tummy. Can you feel his ribs? Is his belly plump? Does he lumber around under the extra weight?

If your older dog is gaining weight, you need to adjust his diet so that he receives only the amount of calories that he needs to support physical needs. You can do this by feeding him smaller portions, or by using a different dog food specially formulated for older dogs, which is designed to supply his nutritional needs without overfeeding. These low-fat, high-carb dog foods are typically also high in fiber, which will help keep his digestive system functioning well, too.

You might also consider breaking your dog's meal into multiple meals during the day. If you've been feedig him once daily in the evenings, give him half of his daily portion in the morning, and the other half at night.

An overweight older dog can also benefit from an increase in exercise. Be careful not to overdo it — a senior dog that's been sedentary for a while should not be suddenly hauled into a 4-minute mile. But increasing his exercise in moderate amounts will help increase his fitness as well as burn more calories. If you normally just turn him out in the yard, you can begin taking him for walks, or if you already walk him regularly, you can gradually increase the distance or speed of the walk. He might also enjoy romping at the local dog park, or a few minutes of chasing a frisbee or ball daily.

Weight Loss

Unexpected weight loss in an older dog can be worse than obesity, because it is often a symptom of some other, more serious condition, such as heart disease or kidney failure. If your dog loses weight for no apparent reason, you should have him examined by your veterinarian so that the underlying problem can be treated.

Arthritis and Joint Troubles

Older dogs, particularly the large breeds, tend to develop arthritis or other problems with their joints. Arthritis will usually be worse in the mornings and improve throughout the day, and some days may seem to be absent entirely. Although there is no cure for arthritis, non-steroid anti-inflammatory medications such as Rimadyl can help keep the pain under control. It is important to keep the weight under control in arthritic dogs, and moderate exercise is helpful in keeping the joints as limber as possible. During especially bad arthritis attacks, warm packs on the dog's joints can help ease the pain and provide the dog with some relief.

Glucosamine with chondroitin is commonly used to help ward off the develoment of arthritis and to minimize the pain and swelling when it does occur. Anti-arthritis drugs for humans should never be given to a dog, but when the time comes that other remedies no longer help, your vet can prescribe cortisone to relieve the pain and inflammation.

Eyesight

Many older dogs develop cataracts. The cloudy cataract formation in the eye will blur the dog's vision, but dogs in general are near-sighted at best, and since dogs rely on scent more than on vision, poor eyesight usually won't have much debilitating effect. If the dog goes nearly or completely blind, however, you'll want to keep the dog under supervision so it doesn't wander into the street or get lost in a closet.

Teeth

Tooth loss and gum disease are as much of a problem in dogs as they are in people. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations on a high-quality dry food for your older dog. Soft foods tend to leave food particles in the mouth, stuck between the teeth and at the gum line, which allows bacteria to form quickly, but dry crunchy foods actually help clean the teeth and gums. Brushing your dog's teeth twice a day helps too, and ideally should be done throughout the dog's life to help keep his teeth and gums healthy.

Kidney Problems

Uremia is a common condition in older dogs, as well as other types of kidney problems. Plenty of water should be available at all times for the uremic dog. Anabolic steroids can also help, by encouraging the development of more red blood cells to counter the lower red blood cell count that results from the uremia. Iron supplements and other prescription medications can also help in treating the problems associated with weakened kidneys or other kidney problems in your older dog.

Behaviorial and Cognitive Changes

It is common for old dogs to develop a sort of canine Alzheimer's disease — nearly all dogs that live long enough will eventually develop this disorder. Known as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, this disorder has been confirmed to be similar to Alzheimer's through post-mortem examination of the brain.

If your dog develops doggy Alzheimer's, he will likely begin to show less interest in his surroundings, a diminished desire to go for walks or engage in other activities that he used to enjoy, and he may bark at inanimate objects or become confused in familiar environments.

Your veterinarian can prescribe medications that will slow the development of the disease and may even reverse some of the deterioration. As long as your dog is otherwise healthy and not in pain, he can live for a long time with this disorder, and will usually retain a healthy appetite. You'll need to take extra care that he doesn't wander off or get into dangerous situations, but he's likely to spend much his time sleeping.

Conclusion

Dogs can live for a very long time if properly cared for. But even if he's been healthy all his life, as your dog ages, he's likely to develop health problems in his old age. Knowing what to watch out for, and when to call on your vet for assistance, will help you provide the best care possible for your beloved pet.