As an animal’s body ages, it’s natural to expect there to be certain changes. The changes may not be identical in each species. For example, small breeds experience changes in their heart first whereas cats may first face issues with their kidneys.
We can assist older animals in adapting to the changes in numerous ways such as: diagnosing all problems as early as possible; using supplements and medications; changing the environment in which the dog lives; and modifying our own behaviour as we interact with our beloved pets as they age.
Changes in nutritional needs and weight changes.
When dogs age, there’s a change to their metabolism and the number of calories they need drops. Generally speaking, there’s a reduction of around 20% in the amount of energy they need to maintain their health.
Older dogs aren’t as active so their need for energy drops a further 10-20%. You can’t feed your dog the same amount as when he was young and very active. To do so would make him gain weight.
As the dog’s metabolism alters, it’s typical for his body to gain extra fat. This can sometimes make him obese which is one of the most common health issues older dogs face.
Apart from calories, older dogs have other nutritional needs including less fat and more fibre. If an older dog doesn’t eat like he should, or has a few medical problems, he may need supplements to ensure he gets sufficient nutrition.
Hair coat and skin changes.
As happens to people, older dogs may have some grey hair, most commonly appearing around his eyes and on his muzzle. His coat may grow duller and thinner. However, this may not be an aging issue; it can be caused by nutritional deficiency or a health problem.
He may need fatty acid supplements. These can return some of the coat’s lustre. If there are major alterations to his coat, you should take him to the vet. Older dogs need to be groomed more regularly, with extra focus on his anal region. Grooming is a great time for bonding and enjoying each other’s company. He’ll really love this kind of attention.
As his skin thins out, it can be more susceptible to injury. Older dogs can develop benign skin tumours. Vets generally don’t remove them unless they’re easily traumatised. Cancerous tumours may happen as well. Older dogs may have dry skin, hence another need for the fatty acid supplementation.
Older bigger dog breeds may commonly have calluses on their elbows. This occurs because older dogs spend more time lying down and generally being less active. If they’re lying on hard surfaces, calluses can be the result. If you can give your dog a comfortable bed, perhaps even an orthopaedic bed, calluses can be prevented.
Brittle nails and thickened foot pads.
The hair coat isn’t the only part of an older dog that may change. His nails can become brittle and his pads will tend to thicken. You must take care when clipping nails of your older dog and it should be done more often because older dogs are less active and are unlikely to wear their nails down by being active.
Decreased mobility and arthritis.
Arthritis is a typical problem in dogs who have aged, particularly in bigger breeds and breeds such as Bassets and Dachshunds who tend to have intervertebral disc disease.
Dogs who may have injured joints in their younger lives are more likely to develop arthritis when they get older. It can be the same as in people; it may only have minimal impact on their lives or may be very debilitating. Some older dogs can have trouble jumping into or out of the car, using stairs or walking in snow.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin are often used to help support healthy joints. The vet may also recommend anti-inflammatory pain relief medications. If you have a cat, NEVER give him any pain relief drug without verifying it first with your vet.
In the same way as it happens to people’s muscles (use them or lose them), (inactive older dogs can lose muscle tone and mass. This makes it more difficult for the dog to move so he favours moving less and there’s the beginning of a vicious downwards cycle.
Even older dogs need regular exercise to keep him mentally active as well as help with his digestive system and heart. You’ll gradually learn what your dog can and can’t handle, and change the exercises to make it easier for him to do. Several short daily walks and swimming are great ways to help your dog keep fit and healthy.
If your dog has pain when he moves and reduced mobility, you can use elevated feeders, ramps and an orthopaedic bed to make life more comfortable and easy to manage for your beloved pet.
The most significant problem that occurs in older dogs is dental disease. Research shows that 80% of dogs will have signs of dental disease before they’re three years old. Regular oral care and brushing of his teeth can minimise the possibility of dental problems from occurring.
Dogs who don’t have their oral health managed properly have a much higher risk of facing dental problems and, as they grow older, the problems can potentially become life-threatening. Caring for your dog’s dental health must include: brushing his teeth, regular vet visits to check for dental problems and professional cleaning is a necessity because it’s a more comprehensive clean than merely brushing teeth.
Decreased gastrointestinal motility (constipation).
As dogs grow old, the journey their food takes through the digestive tract reduces its speed and this may cause constipation. This problem is common in dogs who feel pain while they defecate, i.e. dogs with gland disease or hip dysplasia. Low activity levels may also cause constipation or this may be an early warning sign of a more serious disease. If your dog has this problem, he should be seen by your vet. A fibre-rich diet and/or laxatives may be prescribed and your dog must drink lots of water. Many older dogs are prone to having upset stomachs.
Reduced ability to fight off disease.
The immune system doesn’t work as well in older dogs so they’re more susceptible to infectious diseases. If an older dog has an infection, it’s more serious than if it happens to a younger, healthier dog. Always ensure your older dog has all the latest vaccines.
Reduced heart function.
When your dog ages, his heart will also age and loses some of its efficiency. It pumps less blood per hour than it used to. The heart valves lose some elasticity, thereby also hindering the heart’s attempt at being efficient. The mitral valve is the main valve affected, particularly in smaller dog breeds.
Some changes to the heart are no surprise but other severe issues may also occur, and are more likely in dogs who, when they were younger, suffered a few minor heart complaints. Diagnostic tests can diagnose heart disease. The tests include:
x-rays, an echocardiogram and an electrocardiogram (EKG). Your vet may prescribe specific medications to treat heart disease, however it manifests itself.
Reduced lung capacity.
Reduction in kidney function.
Kidneys are also affected by the aging process. The kidney itself may alter or problems with other organs may directly affect the kidneys. For example, if the heart doesn’t pump properly, less blood will flow into the kidneys. Your dog’s kidney functionality may be tested through urinalysis and blood testing.
Testing will reveal problems long before there are any physical indicators. The primary indicator is an increased thirst and more regular urination. However, these won’t happen until the functions have dropped by 70%.
If kidneys won’t perform properly, your dog’s diet and his medications and anaesthetics may have to be altered to help his body eliminate the broken down products. Vets recommend pre-anaesthetic blood tests to discover potential issues before any anaesthetic is applied.
Urinary incontinence and loss of housetraining.
Urinary incontinence is defined as an “involuntary or uncontrollable leaking of urine from the bladder. In older dogs, including spayed females, a small amount of urine can leak from the dog’s urethra while he/she sleeps or rests. Treating this problem is fairly easy. Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) and such estrogens as diethylstilboestrol are the more commonly used methods.
Lots of older dogs, until a certain age, have been properly house trained and never made a mess inside. Suddenly they begin to have small “accidents” inside your home. There are a few possible reasons for this change in behaviour.
If your dog is doing this, take him to the vet for advice. You’ll need to give a lot of important information to the vet so make your notes before you go. He’ll want to know a thorough, accurate history of the amount and colour of the stool or urine that caused the mess each time. He’ll need to know how often this happens, changes in his drinking and/or eating habits, and if the little “messes” only happen when you’re not at home or if they happen at any time. If he has medical problems causing this change in behaviour, they should be treated immediately if possible.
Once a male, unneutered dog is eight years old, he has more than an 80% chance of facing prostate disease. However, it’s generally not cancer, but an enlarged prostate. This enlargement can affect the way he defecates or urinates. Older, unneutered dogs must have a regular prostate gland exam. The risk is much lower if he is neutered.
Reduced liver function.
The liver has unique, remarkable methods of regenerating when it suffers an injury. However, as with other body organs, it’s not immune to the effects of age. As the dog grows old, the liver’s ability to produce proteins and enzymes reduces in amount. It’s harder for the liver to detoxify his blood.
Liver enzymes tested in a chemistry panel can be unusually high in an animal that seems normal. On the flip side, some animals who have liver disease may have the normal number of enzymes in their blood. These factors make it extremely difficult to correctly interpret the data.
The liver metabolises numerous anaesthetics and medications so drug doses have to be reduced if the liver isn’t functioning at peak efficiency. Pre-anaesthetic testing of the blood must be carried out to find possible problems with the liver before an anaesthetic is given to the dog.
Alterations to the glandular function.
As they grow older some glands make less hormones and others make more (e.g. Cushing’s Disease). Older dogs are often faced with hormonal complications and this tends to occur more often in some breeds than others. As an example, the Golden Retriever is in a high risk category for contracting hypothyroidism. Blood tests are used for diagnosing such diseases which can then be treated with medications.
Changes in the mammary glands.
Older female dogs can experience infiltration of fibrous tissue into the mammary glands, causing a level of hardening to occur. Unspayed dogs commonly contract breast cancer in a similar way to human females. Mammary cancer is top of the list for creating tumours in female dogs and it’s also the single most malignant type. When the vet does his regular check-up on your dog, he should also check her mammary glands.
Bone marrow replaced by fat.
As mentioned earlier, older dogs usually lay down extra fat. Fat can also get into the bone marrow. This bone marrow creates: red blood cells that carry oxygen; white blood cells: to ward off disease; and platelets: that help with blood clotting.
If most of your dog’s bone marrow has been replaced by fat, your dog can develop anaemia. This is yet another reason for regular blood tests including a complete blood count (CBC) conducted as part of every regular check-up.
Changes in the behaviour and activity level.
Older dogs usually become less active. The reason may simply be that he’s getting old. However, it may be an early warning sign of a medical condition such as senility or arthritis.
Regular exams by your vet every six months and your own observations of your pet’s behaviour can aid in telling the difference between healthy aging signs or some type of medical problem.
Aged animals lose nerves because they’re not replaced when they die. In certain scenarios, specific proteins may surround nerve cells and trigger a malfunction. The vital communication between nerves may also change. The alterations to a dog’s nervous system may be severe enough to alter his behaviour. If particular signs are present, this is called “cognitive dysfunction.”
Studies show that some symptoms of this cognitive dysfunction problem occurs in 62% of dogs older than 10 years of age. Such symptoms include: disorientation, confusion, restlessness during the night, reduction in activity level, lost housetraining abilities, reduction in attentiveness and not being able to recognise family members or friends.
Older dogs have a lower capacity for coping with stress and this may alter their behaviour. Other issues older dogs may develop or get worse include: phobias of noises, aggression, separation anxiety, an increase in barking and other vocal sounds. Behaviour modification techniques and medications may help solve many of these issues.
As older dogs don’t cope with stress easily, bringing home a new puppy to introduce to your older dog who already demonstrates aging problems usually isn’t wise. If you want a new puppy, it’s best done when the older dog still has mobility and can escape if he chooses to do so. He should be relatively free from pain, has good sight and hearing and doesn’t have cognitive dysfunctionality.
Increased sensitivity to temperature changes.
As dogs grow older, their innate ability to control their body temperature is reduced and this means they find it hard to cope with changes in temperature. If your dog easily coped in cold weather when he was young, he may lose that ability over time. You need to keep your dog comfortable and happy and this includes making adjustments to his environment and temperature. You may have to move his bed closer to the heater or, in hot weather, you may need to keep him inside where it’s cooler.
Many dogs face some degree of hearing loss as they grow old. It’s hard to tell if it’s only a minimal loss. Not surprising, the loss may be severe by the time you actually realise it. The first indicator may be aggression but the truth is that he didn’t know you were approaching him and when you touched him, he was startled and reacted instinctively. Some owners claim their dogs don’t obey them anymore. The reality is that the dog would obey IF he could hear his owner.
It’s generally impossible to reverse hearing loss. However, modifying the way you interact with him may decrease the effects. Teaching dogs hand signals for particular commands when they’re young is ideal as it means if hearing is lost, communication lines are still available.
Lights are another way to communicate. For example, turning the yard light off and on a few times to tell him to come inside the house. Although a dog has lost his hearing, he can still sense vibrations. Stomping on the floor or clapping hands may show him you need to communicate.
Changes in the eyes and loss of sight.
Some dogs have an eye condition called nuclear sclerosis. The eye’s lens looks cloudy although the dog sees well. Owners are often worried that it’s a cataract (this does affect sight) instead of the nuclear sclerosis. Cataracts and glaucoma are common eye problems in older dogs. If his sight suddenly changes, ring your vet urgently. Ophthalmic examinations must be part of a regular vet check-up for older dogs.
As dogs age, many functions within their bodies can change in some way. Some changes are barely noticeable and others are severe and blatantly obvious. Some issues start at a young age. Learning what changes to expect can help both your dog and yourself when it comes to adjusting your lives to cope as well as possible. There are a myriad of ways you can help your aged dog adapt to changes he faces.
As he ages, he needs closer, more frequent monitoring. Never ignore an alteration in his behaviour and assume it’s a sign of old age. Many changes are symptoms of serious diseases and conditions. If you have doubts or questions ask your vet for advice or information. Make sure that your beloved pet has regular thorough check-ups.
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