What to Expect When Your Dog Gets Older

Senior Dog
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Daily exercise, play time and reinforcement of good behavior with praise and nutritious treats can help reduce stress for senior dogs.

Dogs age faster than humans. The average life expectancy of a medium-size dog is about 12 years and depends on many factors, including breed, size, genetics, nutrition, environment and vaccination history, to name a few. In general, large and giant breeds tend to age faster than smaller and toy breeds. Great Danes, for example, seldom reach 12 years of age, while occasionally Chihuahuas may reach 20 years old. Any dog between 7 and 8 years of age should be considered middle-aged (although that would probably be considered senior for large breeds); a dog is a senior when he's reached the last 25 percent of his predicted life span.

Once a dog has entered his senior years, there are steps you can take to help ensure that your dog is as healthy and comfortable as possible in his remaining years. The following are five basic recommendations for caring for your aging dog.

1. Schedule comprehensive physical exams and diagnostic workups every 6 months.

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 regular basis (every six months) can help to ensure that any health problems your dog is experiencing are discovered early. Some pets may benefit from even more frequent veterinary visits, especially pets with pre-existing health issues that should be monitored. In general, the earlier a problem is discovered and therapy initiated, the better the chance of a favorable outcome. While many illnesses are incurable, early intervention and treatment may help slow the progression of a disease, relieve pain and keep your dog comfortable longer.

While the physical exam is very helpful, it cannot provide your veterinarian with all the information necessary to completely evaluate the function of many body systems. That's why a diagnostic workup, or tests to help detect disease, is also recommended. 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 incorporated in a diagnostic workup include urine analysis (UA), radiography and fecal tests.

An exam every six months will also give the doctor the opportunity to assess the need for preventive care, such as dental cleanings and vaccinations. Visits are also an opportunity to discuss concerns or questions regarding your pet’s oncoming geriatric years.

2. Change to a senior diet.

As animals age, their bodies' nutritional needs change. Senior dogs generally require fewer calories and less fat than adult dogs do. 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. Your veterinarian can recommend a diet specially formulated for older dogs. Obesity from overeating, lack of exercise or a diet too rich in calories is one of the surest ways to put the health of a pet at risk. Take at least a week or so to gradually transition your dog to a new food, though, since abrupt diet changes can cause gastrointestinal problems.

3. Provide regular exercise.

Regular exercise for geriatric animals is important for a healthy and happy life. The key word here is regular. Though the vigor, speed and endurance associated with younger dogs will seldom be seen in senior pets, this does not indicate that they enjoy exercise less or that it is any less beneficial to their bodies. Regular exercise helps prevent obesity, stimulates the cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) system and contributes to the well-being of a pet. Exercise also helps the musculoskeletal system by maintaining muscle tone and range of motion, which may be especially important for dogs with osteoarthritis. Talk to your veterinarian about what kind of exercise is best for your senior dog.

4. Reduce stress.

Senior dogs may not adjust to physical and emotional change as well as younger dogs do. Most domestic animals thrive on daily routine and often have developed incredibly precise biological clocks. Changes in routine, environment and even diet can all contribute to stress. Boarding can be particularly stressful to a senior dog. Home care with a skilled pet sitter may be more healthy for a senior pet than a lengthy stay at a boarding facility.

Development of long-term, healthy habits can contribute to the physical well-being of your dog. These healthy destressors may include daily exercise, play time, brushing/grooming, and reinforcement of good behavior with praise and nutritious treats. Even brushing your dog’s teeth, if taught slowly as a routine and rewarded afterward, can become a destressor, while at the same time helping to maintain good hygiene.

5. Be an alert dog owner.

Many diseases of senior dogs are due to the slow, almost imperceptible deterioration of organs or systems. Unless you are 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 your dog's daily routine can help you notice differences or abnormalities if or when they begin to surface. Early diagnosis and initiation of treatment may be of critical importance to your dog's future and quality of life.

In summary, it's important to be aware that dogs age much faster than humans. However, if given special care and attention during the senior years, your dog may live a healthier, happier and longer life.

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