After so many years of loyalty and support, your older dog deserves the best care you can give them.
As your cuddly companion gets older they need to be treated with extra patience and kindness. Older dogs have special needs – they may need more time to sleep, to wake up in the morning, to finish a meal or get out to the toilet. it is your responsibility to ensure that they are warm, comfortable, fed well and pain-free.
Little things can make life easier for your dog: to reach its food, get outside when nature calls and have comfortable resting places.
Senior dogs are senior. As with all seniors you need to adjust the frequency and intensity of exercise. If your dog doesn't use its muscles it will lose mass and tone and moving about will become even harder.
Shorter, more frequent walks or swims can help keep your dog in shape and its weight under control.
If your dog has arthritis or is stiff and sore there are many things you can do to make it more comfortable. These include:
||Over time, a dog's teeth accumulate tartar, just like our teeth do if not cleaned regularly. This can cause gum disease, tooth deterioration and infection, and tooth loss. In turn this causes pain and difficulty in eating. Dental disease can spread infection to other organs of the body, causing serious illness in your pet.
Provide your older dog with the following for healthy teeth:
- a nutritious diet
- dental chew treats and bones
- regular teeth brushing at home
- yearly dental check-ups by a veterinarian.
Some dogs are lucky – they have healthy teeth and make it to old age with few dental problems. Other dogs (especially the small breeds) need regular dental cleaning and a dental maintenance program, and their owners can be reassured that this care will help their dog's health in its senior years.
However, older dogs may develop health problems that prevent the ongoing feeding of a dental biscuit food. And many old dogs that have not had good preventative care may have areas of tooth and gum infection that can really affect their health and their happiness.
Owners can be worried about their older dog needing an anaesthetic to remove rotten teeth – but rotten teeth can contribute to and exacerbate kidney disease, heart disease and other health problems. Sore teeth can also stop your dog from eating and make them feel miserable. The anaesthetic is less risky than leaving infected teeth and will restore your dog to a pain-free mouth. It is important to talk to your vet and sort out any dental problems for your older dog.
A good diet for your dog is one that provides all the essential nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals) for health. This results in a dog that is energetic, has a healthy, glossy coat, is a good weight and does not have bulky or unformed faeces.
The easiest way to provide this is to feed a good quality commercial dog food, as these are formulated using strict testing to meet nutrient guidelines.
Read the dog food label for these important details:
- The food should be ‘complete and balanced for maintenance’.
- It should be AAFCO tested (Association of American Feed Control Officials).
- Check the ingredients panel. Dogs are carnivores and need the nutrients found in animal protein sources. Some type of animal protein should be the main (first) ingredient on the ingredients list: egg, chicken, chicken by-product meal, fish, lamb, poultry, poultry by-product, beef and meat meal are all good protein sources.
Create a good routine around feeding your dog: have pet bowls that are easy to clean and for your dog to eat from.
Many dogs start to slow down and are less active as they age. Lifestyle foods marketed for ‘senior’ or ‘mature’ dogs contain less calories and the correct balance of nutrients for this stage of life. Of course, if your dog is one of the active oldies and is not gaining weight on regular dog food, there is no need to change.
Older dogs are more likely to have health problems, and diet can play an important part in the control of many illnesses. Your vet may recommend a special diet based on your dog’s health problems, and it is important to follow this advice. Special ‘prescription’ diets that are only available from your vet have greatly improved the health of many older dogs with illnesses including arthritis, skin disease, kidney failure and liver disease.
Wet or dry foods?
Premium dry foods are beneficial for healthy teeth and have high quality ingredients and high digestibility, so are good value for money. Avoid cheaper brands that contain mainly cereals. Wet foods (sachets/canned/dog rolls) add variety and some owners like to feed these or mix them with dry food. Some older dogs can get fussier about what they eat, and mixing these foods is also a good way to stimulate these oldies to eat well.
Table scraps and leftovers
Many owners want to be able to feed some table scraps and can follow the 15 per cent rule. As long as the non-commercial dog food you are feeding is less that 15 per cent of the total diet, you do not need to worry about dietary deficiency or adding extras nutrients. Again, this is a great way to get older dogs that have become picky about their food to eat well. Note that onions and garlic are toxic for dogs (and cats), so avoid giving these in your scraps.
Home prepared foods and table scraps
Some owners prefer to feed a home-prepared diet. Based on nutritional evidence, most veterinarians will try to steer owners away from feeding homemade diets and usually can find an acceptable alternative. Sometimes owners are concerned about the presence of synthetic preservatives in commercial foods. An alternative is to feed a commercial dog food preserved with vitamin E. Other people worry about the quality of ingredients in commercial dog foods, and are recommended one of the premium foods that contain high quality ingredients. Many dogs have been spoiled by being fed treats or human food and refuse dog food completely, which can lead to a very unbalanced diet. For these dogs, there are techniques for changing behaviours (for both the owner and the dog!) so that the dog will learn to eat appropriate food. Talk to your vet.
Knowing how much to feed
We have said that some older dogs get fussy about their food and lose weight, and you may need to use moist foods or human foods as mixers to ensure they eat well. The opposite can happen too – older dogs that get less exercise can gain weight, which can exacerbate conditions such as arthritis. Older dogs can be fed once or twice a day (or even three times if you prefer!) – it is the total food intake that matters, not how often they eat. Use guidelines on the food package for the weight of your pet, measure the food carefully, and adjust the amount according to your dog’s weight loss or gain.
- The dog should have a waist (tuck in after the ribs).
- You should be able to feel the ribs through a thin layer of body covering.
There is a lot of evidence that leaner dogs are happier and suffer from fewer health problems than dogs that are overweight. Ask your vet to help you work out the ideal weight for your dog.
There is no one ‘best’ diet that suits every older dog. Particularly for dogs with health issues, talk to your vet to help find the diet that is best for your senior dog.
With the senior years you will find your dog will generally slow down. Just like us. Outward signs will be more obvious first.
Outward signs of ageing:
White hair around the muzzle.
Less energy and not as willing to play or exercise.
A little stiff when getting up or climbing stairs.
Hesitation trying to stand up after a nap or difficulty climbing into the car.
Inward signs of ageing
Then there are the internal signs we can't see, like dulled senses (sight, hearing and smell), a slowing metabolism and changing nutritional requirements. Dogs heading into their later years (a dog at seven years of age is considered senior) require special attention to help comfort and extend their precious time with us.
Symptoms of old age
It is important not to miss the signs of old-age disease, which may include:
weight loss or gain
loss of appetite or increase in appetite
foul breath/dental disease
drinking and/or urinating more than usual
difficulty in passing stool or urine
incontinence or toileting inside
decrease in vision
excessive panting or exercise intolerance
sudden collapse or weakness
persistent coughing or gagging
changes in behaviour.
Being alert to these signs of illness and addressing them promptly with your veterinarian gives your dog the best chance for the problem to be cured or managed.
Here are some typical diseases of old age
Arthritis is a common ailment in older dogs and one that is often not addressed by owners as it is seen as ‘old age’. Arthritis is a debilitating and painful disease that robs a pet of much of the enjoyment of life. Symptoms include difficulty rising, stiffness, slowed walking, irritability and reclusiveness.
You may also notice that your old dog's muscles are atrophying as their activity level declines. There are many food supplements and medications that can be used to reduce pain and increase enjoyment of life for arthritic dogs.
Cancer can occur in older dogs, with signs including abnormal growths under the skin, swellings, poor appetite or increased drinking, and difficulty breathing, exercising or toileting.
Kidney disease is common in old dogs. Signs can include increased thirst and urination, vomiting and weight loss.
Liver disease may occur in the oldies, with general unwellness, vomiting, lack of appetite and sometimes noticeable jaundice (with yellowing of the gums and conjunctiva of the eyes).
Cataracts are common in older dogs. The eyes become cloudy and loss of eyesight may cause the dog to bang into things and stop retrieving objects. However, many old dogs also develop a greying of the eyes from changes in the lens that does not generally affect sight. It is important to get any eye changes checked by your vet and treatment sought if cataracts are diagnosed.
Behavioural changes are also common. Just as ageing humans begin to forget things and are more susceptible to mental conditions, your ageing dog may confront age-related cognitive and behaviour changes.
Regular check-ups with your vet are recommended
Most of these changes are rather subtle and can be addressed in a proactive manner. Regular senior health exams can help catch and treat these problems before they control your dog’s life.
The best way to care for an older dog is to ensure he or she receives good preventative health care. Most health problems in dogs occur when they are older and many old-age problems may not be detected by owners at home so do require regular vet visits. The good news is that many of these problems are treatable, and even if not curable, your dog can have a high quality of life for many additional years with a combination of veterinary and home care.
Many health problems may be detected by a vet check or simple tests before the owner has even realised that the dog is unwell. Regular veterinary checks for older dogs will detect problems early – when they can be best managed or treated.
As well as increasing the quality of life for your older dog, you benefit by having controlled health care costs, as early disease detection is less costly than treating a dog during a crisis episode.
A senior dog visit
At their annual check, your senior dog will get a thorough clinical examination and your vet will ask you questions about any changes in behaviour (drinking more, change in amount eaten, difficulty in getting up, going up stairs or walking) that may indicate a problem. Based on this, your vet may also recommend a blood test and urine test to check for age-related problems.
There are common old-age dog problems, which include arthritis, skin lumps, dental problems and kidney disease (see 'Old age changes and illness').
Some symptoms of old age
You may see signs of old-age disease, which you should bring to your vet's attention. These may include:
- weight loss or loss of appetite
- foul breath/dental disease
- drinking and/or urinating more than usual
- incontinence or toileting inside
- decrease in vision
- swollen belly
- excessive panting or exercise intolerance
- persistent coughing or gagging
- changes in behaviour.
If your vet detects any of these problems, a treatment plan can be worked out to suit you and your pet.
Just as the health care needs of humans change as we age, so do those of our pets. It is critical to work closely with your veterinarian to devise a health plan that best suits your senior pet.
Regular check-ups and reviews of your dog’s health give them the best chance for a comfortable and long life.