Dog sleeping in dog bed

It used to be that anything wrong with an older dog was just assumed to be part of being “old.” Even the most loving and attentive pet owners didn’t realize there could be ways to make getting older less painful for their dogs – and less difficult, too, for pet lovers to watch.

Trouble getting up after sleeping? “He’s old.”

Can’t get up on the couch anymore. “She’s old.”

Obesity? Exercise intolerance? Doggy breath so bad it could peel wallpaper? “Old.”

Think about it: It used to be that way in people too. Many of us remember when someone who was 50 seemed “old.” But now yesterday’s “geezers” are today’s active 50-plus generation. With a focus on exercise, healthy food and never giving up or in to aging, being old doesn’t mean what it used to.

The same is true for our dogs. With a change of attitude, good medical care and the strategic deployment of products aimed at the senior set, your dog can be happy, healthy and active for years longer than you’d ever have imagined.

Less Pain

The transition from puppy to active young adult to middle age comes quickly in dogs, especially big ones. The signs of aging turn up early in large dogs, and we veterinarians see them as early as age 5. (Little dogs age more slowly.) Middle age is the time when the annual wellness check really ought to be a semiannual, so that the changes brought on by aging can be quickly diagnosed and addressed. (Especially dental care: Doggy breath is neither inevitable nor normal.) Your veterinarian can recommend two products designed to help with mobility that really can make a difference in your aging pet's life: joint supplements and pain medication.

The combination of glucosamine and omega-3 oils is clinically proven to help aging joints in both pets and people. My colleague Dr. Robin Downing of the Downing Center for Pain Management in Windsor, Colo., has long advocated for the use of these supplements. Like Dr. Downing, I lean toward recommending brands I know and trust, to be sure the ingredients are as advertised. If your pet seems to be having trouble getting around, talk to your veterinarian. You’d be amazed at what a difference these supplements can make.

Difficulty getting up and going can also be caused by chronic pain. Pain used to be ignored in pets, but now we know that it needs to be managed. Chronic pain affects both your pet's quality of life and his overall health: Pain is stressful, and stress uses the body’s resources for coping, which can lead to other illnesses. Some of the changes brought on by research on pain management are so new that I had to revise Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual to get them in the book. In short, no more aspirin, not even buffered. Your dog doesn’t need ulcers. Ask your veterinarian to examine your dog and talk to him about prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that are effective and have good safety margins when used properly. Check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s pamphlet on NSAIDs for more information.

Better Food

While you’re at your older dog’s wellness review, you and your veterinarian should discuss nutrition. There are more choices in dog food than many of us could ever have imagined — reduced calorie, grain free, organic, “human grade” and even kosher — and pet food is available in formats from kibble to canned to dehydrated to freshly frozen. Products vary by location as well: Pet supply retailers, grocery stores and “boutique” pet retailers all offer different types of food, and that’s before you start shopping online. There is no “best food” for all dogs, and I pride myself on helping people select what’s most appropriate for their dogs no matter how much they have to spend or where they shop. Your veterinarian can do that too.

A Softer Bed

The hard floor is no place for an aging dog. No wonder he’s stiff getting up! Two more accommodations that you need to consider as your pet slows down a bit: a soft bed and a ramp.

Many people love sharing their beds and their couches with their pets. Ramps make that possible for you both as your pet ages. Check online for a large selection, or (if you’re handy) it’s a great do-it-yourself project. Use treats and praise to teach your dog to use the ramp to get both up and down. This is really important for long-backed dogs, such as Corgis and Dachshunds, who are already prone to back injuries. No big jumps for these little dogs! And don’t forget travel help: Ramps make getting in and out of your vehicle easier for your older pooch. (Check out this Vetstreet article on how to teach your senior dog how to use ramps and stairs.)

Teaching your dog to get up on the bed is a good start, but make sure the bed is really comfortable. If you’re crawling into your own bed every night in pillow-topped or cushion-foamed happiness, make sure your dog is likewise covered. Orthopedic foam beds are a must for older dogs, and as with so many other pet care products these days, there’s a bed for every pet and every décor. If your dog is sleeping on hardwoods, get him up and onto something that will support and protect those joints. You know he has a big day planned tomorrow – or he should.

By trying these easy steps, you may start seeing the clock roll back on your older dog. There’s no reason anymore to accept a limited life: Aging isn’t optional, but feeling old definitely is.