Virginia Simpson and Chance

Senior Dog Care

by Elizabeth Gigis, DVM, West Chester Veterinary Center

We love our senior dogs.  They are an established landmark in our home with well formed good habits and they love us unconditionally.  They are also worth taking good care of as they age.  A “senior dog” is defined differently by the breed of dog.  Smaller dogs generally age more slowly than larger dogs.   The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) defines a dog of over the age of seven as senior.  With age, you may notice that your pet is not as energetic, has more trouble going up stairs, and that his wonderful “doggie kisses” just don’t smell as good as they used to.  Many people right this off as just their pet getting older.   However, the old adage “age is not a disease” is true in that any change needs to be investigated.  Small things that you notice can be signals of large problems, because dogs are stoic and hide their symptoms as an instinct.   A common example of this is the older dog that is stiff rising in the morning and going up stairs.  It is likely that this dog has arthritis.  The majority of these dogs are in pain, but it is not recognized because they are not crying out.   There are many treatment options for the older arthritic dog.  Pain medication may be prescribed, as well as a cartilage supplement.  It is also helpful to re-structure the dog’s environment, keeping him on a main level and placing mats down to prevent slipping.  

As your dog ages, it is helpful to have bi-annual medical exams to discuss any problems with your veterinarian.  A thyroid test should be done yearly on any dog over seven to rule out low thyroid hormone, the most common hormone disease of older dogs, and a likely culprit in your dogs “slowing down” in his senior years.   Thyroid disease may also be the culprit in an older dog with a chronic skin condition, ear problems, or a dog with hair loss.  

An oral exam will identify problems with the teeth in an older dog.  75% of dogs age 3 and older have dental disease.   Dental disease can lead to heart problems, kidney problems, and has been shown to reduce a dog’s life expectancy if left untreated by up to two years.   Dental disease or periodontal disease can also be extremely painful and can greatly affect your dog’s quality of life in his senior years.  Loose teeth, red gums, recession of the gums, excessive tartar, and visible teeth roots are all signs of serious dental disease and are painful.

Yearly blood work can detect early problems, leading to better treatment options.  You should work together with your veterinarian to determine how often blood work, urinalysis or other testing should be performed, depending on your dog’s age, breed and medical history. 

Cancers are common in older dogs, particularly certain breeds, so any lumps or masses should be investigated promptly.  Often the mass can be removed, if done early, preventing spread to the rest of the body.  If the mass has already spread, early detection can also provide more options regarding chemotherapy or palliative care can be instituted to prevent pain and suffering.   

Many older dogs develop a common lens opacity called nuclear sclerosis, where the lens thickens and then will appear slightly more white.  This is not a cataract, but should be examined and monitored.  Senior dogs can also develop a variety of ocular problems as they age that do need to be treated.  Glaucoma can be very common in certain breeds.  Glaucoma is very treatable, especially if caught early, leading to preservation of the eye, alleviation of pain, and also preservation of vision.  Any red or painful eyes should be examined immediately.  The sooner glaucoma is treated, the better the prognosis.  Cataracts are another common condition in older dogs.  Diabetes makes cataracts more common, as does breed predilection.  Cataract surgery is available at a veterinary ophthalmologist.  If your dog has gone blind from a cataract and surgery is not an option, then there are several things you can do in the home to help him adjust.  Keeping the layout of the house stable is key.  Also, scented oils can be used to mark doorways, furniture and his potty area outside.  Many people with blind animals note that unless they move the furniture, visitors would never know their dog was blind.  Dogs have awesome coping mechanisms.  Smell is actually their most acute sense.    

Senior dogs are the best.  They area faithful, loving, intelligent companions.  The senior years pass all too quickly.  Giving them the care they need as they age will make them an even better companion and give you many happy memories. 

Elizabeth Gigis, DVM
West Chester Veterinary Center
7330 Liberty Way, West Chester, OH 45069