What do I need to know about my aging dog?

Well yes, older dogs (and cats) are like older people—their healthcare requirements go up. Among other things, older dogs require more frequent visits to the veterinarian. This article is written for dog owners, but in many ways the needs of cats are similar though the problems may be different.

The age groupings of dogs that Astoria Anima Hospital (AAH) uses are as follows: 0-1 puppies, 1-6 adult, 7-11 senior, and 11+ geriatric. Please note that these ranges are not fixed, rather they are fluid. For example, a Great Dane’s groupings are different as puppyhood lasts longer and the senior/geriatric years hit much (much) earlier. Therefore, breed may play some role in the older dog but the general AAH groupings are used for this article.

The AAH groupings are based upon the clinical reflections that this author has seen in a decade and in two countries of veterinary practice. By the age of 1 most canines have matured both in stature and in mentality to the point that they are able to function well in may situations, are able to obey commands, and most of our canines are hopefully spayed or neutered by this age to prevent unwanted additional dogs in our society that fill up our animal shelter. Adulthood is the general healthy working/pet age for most canines. After 7 years, on average, is where age and health related problems started cropping up. These are the problems and concerns that are the focus of this article and written for dog owners to help facilitate home care and prepare for veterinary care.

One of the first things that people with dogs seem to notice at around the adult/senior threshold is bad breath. At AAH we see a number of dogs whose breath seems to have suddenly changed from normal to bad. This can be for a number of reasons, including cracked teeth, loose teeth, tartar build up, or other systemic diseases. If at all possible the mouth should be inspected during the yearly exam and a dental plan or a dental cleaning should be arranged. In Oregon, a proper dental cleaning requires anesthetic. It is wise to discuss blood work with your veterinarian prior to anesthesia.

Around 7 years, the incidence problems that can be picked up with general blood work seem to rise. These include diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, anemia, adrenal complications (hypo and hyper adrenocorticism), hypercalcaemia and a variety of others. General blood work is important on a yearly basis starting at age seven to rule these out and hopefully reset the timeframe at which normal values were last measured. It is also important to catch problems early, as the earlier they are diagnosed often the more successfully the animal can be treated and/or regulated. I will only discuss a couple, the rest you can discuss with your veterinarian at your dog’s yearly exam.

Diabetes mellitus is one of many types of diabetes. Diabetes mellitus is often referred to as sugar diabetes, due to the inability of the dog to successfully utilize the sugar gained from eating daily foods. Diabetes is often suspected on clinical signs and confirmed via general yearly diagnostic tests on blood, urine, and feces. In dogs (and cats) diabetes mellitus is treated and regulated with insulin injections either once or twice per day. Periodic blood sugar testing or glucose curves which help determine how effectiveness of the insulin therapy and to ascertain if any changes need to be made.

Thyroid is a metabolic related hormone, which affects many aspects of your dog’s body. Low thyroid levels may cause weight gain, inability to keep warm, hair loss, laryngeal paralysis, or reduced energy. Thyroid should be tested on a yearly basis starting at age seven—that way thyroid replacement therapy can be started and many of the basic activities of the dog can be retained into the senior years.

Often dogs start showing signs of age-related arthritis around age 7. The reasons for this in older dogs seem to be many: breed related conformation, injury (exercise, hunting, surgery), exposure to elements (farm or outside dogs), or perhaps life at home (prolonged crating, stairs, slippery floors). A consultation with your vet is the best way to get advice on the care you can give at home, the medications that are best for your dog and what are fads, and making sure this is arthritis and not something else.  Arthritis is a painful condition and early care will help prolong the dog’s good years by keeping the musculoskeletal system in good working order for as long as possible.

Older dogs with or without medical conditions as outlined above (or others) may need extra care at home to facilitate happy living. As mentioned, dogs with low thyroid get cold, so provide extra thick bedding. Dr. Davis prefers medium density foam that is double layered so about 4-10” high, to woven fluffy fill dog beds.  The reason for this preference is because foam will not provide a dip in the middle, which aggravates spinal arthritis. Thick medium density foam will also lift the older dog up so the sore, arthritic, or weakened dog doesn’t have to lift him/herself off the ground as far. The foam also is better at insulating the dog from the coolness of the floor (even carpeted) and supports sore aging joints.

Care for the older dog can become complex as the aging process causes the body to not respond and recover to life changes as it did when the body was younger. I hope that this summary helped and encouraged owners of older canines to seek regular help in the form of consultation and exam from your veterinarian.

Dr. Dannell Davis
Astoria Animal Hospital