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All dogs age, just not at the same rate. Smaller dogs tend to age slower than larger ones, so while a small or toy breed will only be considered old at 11 to 12 years of age, a giant breed of dog would hit seniority when 7 or 8 years old. Medium to large breeds would be viewed as elderly when they reached 9 to 10 years of age.
The ageing effect on a dog’s physiology, however, is broadly the same across all sizes and breeds. These include a decline in activity level, a decrease in sensory acuity, slower reflexes, and a reduction in lean body mass with a concomitant increase in body fat. Arthritis, diminished bladder control, as well as senility are all common conditions associated with ageing.
Individual dogs, however, will express these effects to varying degrees, and so it is important to consider each dog’s requirements for caloric intake, exercise, and comfort based on their personal circumstances. A lot of this will have been determined by the amount of exercise and the quality and quantity of their diet through their earlier years.
Nevertheless, even for the athletic older dogs, routine is very important. As with people, old dogs tend to get set in their ways, taking comfort in knowing at what time they will be going for a walk or when they will be fed. That doesn’t mean that life needs to become boring. Both physical and mental stimulation are vital to abate some of the more negative effects of ageing.
Simply be aware that geriatric dogs don’t respond well to change, so introduce alterations to their daily regime gradually to give them time to adapt to those changes.
As in humans, the onset of ageing can lead to cognitive decline in elderly dogs. The term Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CDS, relates to a range of clinical signs and behaviours that are neurological in origin. It is therefore important to check with your vet that symptoms are indeed related to a mental issue rather than to a physical one, such as arthritis, cancer, kidney or liver issues, or sensory degradation.
Behavioural changes may include: Decreased energy levels, increased anxiety, a lower threshold for irritability and aggression, inattentiveness and disorientation, elimination issues, disruption of normal sleeping patterns, and decreased interactions with owner and other familiar pets.
There may be gradual signs of memory loss and a decline in learning or being able to adapt quickly to changes in their surroundings. But it is worth bearing in mind that, as with senility in humans, dogs are more likely to retain their early memories, even though they may not be able to preserve their later ones, so their broad familiarity of people and places from throughout their lives will remain. If your dog did not like that cat from next door, chances are that won’t change!
Consult with your vet as to the best course of managing the condition, but the general rule of thumb would be to stimulate your dog’s mind while not adding to their anxiety or distress. Stimulating their visual and auditory senses by providing them with a sensory-rich environment will also help delay their deterioration. Keep to a strict routine of feeding and exercise, and try not to further disrupt their sleep-wake cycle by having lights on in their sleeping area when it is time for them to bed down or having curtains drawn during most of the day. Be understanding of any inappropriate toileting, and help them to succeed by providing easy access to outdoors and taking them out for shorter walks, but more often.
Foods enriched in antioxidants can certainly help reduce the effects of ageing in the canine brain, so adding vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, kale, and squash to their diet may slow the rate of cognitive decline.
When it comes to feeding, if your senior dog appears to become more fussy than usual, it’s not necessarily that he has simply become a grumpy old canine. He still might be that, but there may be a few other issues at work, as well.
A dog’s sense of taste diminishes with age, and so what may have tasted palatable before may now no longer hold any interest for him. Joint and dental pain may also make eating no longer a pleasure but a source of pain. All of these can lead to a decreased intake and a loss in weight.
By placing their food and water bowls on a platform, reducing their need to bend down, and by mixing some wet food in with their kibble, or even moistening their dry food with some warm water, you can help bring out the food’s flavour and reduce the stress on their joints.
But at the same time, one should consider that an elderly dog may have reduced daily energy needs, and therefore should possibly be consuming less calories than they used to. Their metabolic rate will have also declined, and so too their body’s ability to absorb all the nutrients. By moving from two meals to three smaller meals a day, you can improve nutrient intake and reduce any feeling of hunger between meals, which you may have dealt with by providing unnutritious treats.
It’s not only the quantity that you feed but the quality of the foodstuff, as well, that is important. As just mentioned, a dog’s ability to absorb nutrients diminishes with age, and so you want to feed high quality ingredients to your elderly dog. Geriatric dogs may, in fact, benefit from a slight increase in high quality proteins, so ensure that the food you are providing has meat and not vegetables as its primary protein source.
Special diets and supplements are available for senior dogs that suffer from joint issues, as well as heart and kidney problems. Consult with your vet or a canine nutritionist as to what feeding regime is best for your hoary hound.
Crucially, remember to always have fresh water readily available to them.
Even the most active dog will invariably begin to slow down as grows into his advanced years. Nevertheless, he should still be exercised regularly, as this will help him to maintain both his fitness and muscle tone. Regular exercise is also important for circulation, digestion, and overall gastrointestinal function.
Be sure, though, to exercise the dog according to his own ability at each stage in his life, and be considerate to any underlying ailments, such as joint pain, heart condition, or breathing problems. For some senior dogs, it may be advisable to take them out more frequently but for shorter walks.
Playing games with your dog is a great way to get your dog to exercise while at the same time building in some mental stimulation and healthy interaction, especially for those that may be suffering the onset of cognitive decline. These can be as traditional as ‘fetch’ or ‘tug-of-war’ but can equally be as inventive as hiding treats that he loves in and around the house or garden and getting him to seek them out.
Swimming can be an enormously beneficial activity for dogs suffering from arthritis. Treating your dog to a course of hydrotherapy or providing him with a paddling pool in the summer can be a great way to exercise both his body and his mind.
But remember, let him move at his own pace while out on walks. He may no longer be as interested to socialise with other dogs or chase after tennis balls, but instead he will be wanting to smell the roses, or more likely the scent and tracks of others that have been before him.
As a dog grows older, his ability to self-maintain is greatly reduced. Not only are his claws more likely to grow, no longer being worn down naturally because of reduced exercise, but he may also have problems cleaning extreme areas of his body, owing to arthritis or general stiffness.
It is therefore vital that owners of elderly dogs be more vigilant and proactive when it comes to their pet’s ablutionary needs, brushing them regularly to remove dead hair, checking their ears for waxy buildup, trimming their claws, and brushing their gums and teeth.
Dental hygiene is incredibly important for senior dogs, as the buildup of calculus and the onset of periodontal disease can make it painful to chew, resulting in decreased food intake. It may already prove an uphill battle to get your elderly dog to eat, owing to the reduced palatability of his food, so adding dental disease to the mix may prove disastrous to your pet’s health.
With regular grooming, you will also be able to feel for any lumps or bumps that might appear. Early detection means that your pet will stand a better chance of recovery should they prove to be malignant or cancerous.
Elderly dogs tire more easily and will tend to sleep and rest more. Therefore providing them with a safe and cosy resting place is essential. But be aware that an elderly dog that feels isolated and unable to be part of his family pack, owing to poor mobility, will be at greater risk of anxiety and depression than a dog that is accommodated in spite of his advanced years. And a dog that suffers from joint pain or discomfort may become more irritable and defensive when disturbed.
Consider placing comfy low-lying beds with additional blankets in each of the rooms that you and your dog frequent., keeping them away from droughts and out of direct sunlight. Install ramps over steps and baby gates at both ends of stairs so that the dog can only access the stairs under supervision. Place rugs or carpet over hard floors to help the dog maintain traction.
Be aware that your dog will need to toilet more frequently, so provide frequent access to the garden. If it is raining or cold, invest in a dog jacket or jumper to give him some added protection.
Your dog has been a loyal companion for many years, and you would want to reward him for his steadfast trust and friendship by providing him with a safe, age-friendly home.