CARING FOR SENIOR DOGS

Older dogs have special needs. Their bodies are beginning to slow down and the wear and tear of life has started to take its toll. The life span of dogs can vary enormously and is partly dependent on the individual breed although many other factors are also involved. A good start in life - through proper care and nutrition as a puppy and young adult - will go a long way to prolonging his active life and see him through to old age.

Being with him every day, you may not notice the gradual onset of old age in your dog. With a little extra care you can make your old dog comfortable and with regular veterinary checks and other considerations your dog can remain healthy until nearing the end.

By the time he is about 8 or 9 years, it is likely that he will be beginning to age. Giant breeds may be considered old by the time they are about 8 years - or even earlier - whereas terriers and many mixed breed dogs can live to 15 years or more.

Slowing down

As his body ages, there is a gradual deterioration in the vital organs of the body. He is less active, and may therefore need fewer calories, and his organs may function less efficiently. Because his body is slowing down, it cannot cope so readily with disease or other stresses, so these should be kept to a minimum.

You will need patience to cope with your dog’s health since he will be slower. He may not be able to hear or see you so well - when he doesn't respond it doesn't mean he is deliberately trying to ignore you! He will need a little more help and company now. Be patient - he deserves it.

Making your old dog comfortable

Because your dog is less mobile at this stage of his life, he will spend longer lying down in one place. Make sure that he does not lie in a cold, damp spot or out in the hot sun for any length of time. Keep his bed in a warm, draft-free position and make sure that it is well padded. If he lies for long periods on a rough or hard surface - particularly if he is one of the heavier breeds - he may develop calluses of rough skin over the bony prominences of the body, such as the elbows and the hocks. These can become ulcerated and infected, so it is important to provide plenty of bedding.

Make sure that he can get to his bed easily. If he has trouble climbing the stairs, put up a gate to prevent any accidents - and keep his bed downstairs. Don't forget that his senses are beginning to fail and his eyesight, hearing and sense of direction may not be quite what they were. This means he may be easily disorientated - so don't make too many changes in the home or in his normal routine. Try not to leave him alone for long periods - and particularly not in a strange place.

Regular veterinary checks

Annual booster vaccinations are just as important in old age as in younger dogs. Older dogs may be less resistant to disease and cannot easily fight off infections. This also gives your veterinarian the opportunity to examine your dog regularly (he may recommend more frequent check-ups for some dogs) and assess the state of health of the important organs, such as the skin, heart, kidneys and liver. He will also feel for any abnormal lumps and will check the condition of your dog's mouth.

Some conditions, such as kidney disease, may be detected and treated at an early stage - before any clinical signs of the disease are apparent - by examining a blood sample from your dog. Urine samples can also provide useful information about your dog's health so you may like to take a sample along to the vet when his booster and check-up are due. Be sure that you only use clean and dry containers to collect and transport the urine sample and take it to the vet in a clean, screw-top jar. Your veterinarian may be able to provide you with a special specimen bottle.

This is also a good time to check your dog's weight - ask your veterinarian if it is about right. He will be able to advise you on the correct feeding program for your dog. As your dog grows older and slows down, he may need fewer calories.

Some conditions, such as kidney failure and heart disease, may benefit from modifications of certain parts of the diet. Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with special prepared diets, or may be able to advise you how to prepare a special diet at home.

You should always seek veterinary advice if your dog is unable to control the passage of urine or feces. Often, this is due to an underlying medical condition that can be easily treated. Occasionally, accidents may occur because the dog is unable or unwilling to rise from his bed or move to the door. Sometimes, the nervous control of these bodily functions is impaired. For these cases, treatment can be difficult and may not always be successful.

Other considerations

Dogs become less active as they get older. Instead of running on ahead as he may have done in his youth, you may find that he is now content to walk by your side.

Keep your old dog well groomed - it will help to make him feel more comfortable and healthy. Brushing improves the circulation to the skin and keeps his coat shiny and free from tangles. Grooming your dog regularly means that you can also check his coat for any abnormalities such as hair loss, wounds, irritations and evidence of fleas or other parasites.

You can also feel over his body for any new lumps or bumps. Warts and benign fatty tumors (lipomas) are very common in old dogs. They should not cause any problems unless they are in a position where they can cause damage to other structures (on the eyelid, for example) or where they are uncomfortable or are easily traumatized. Any unusual swelling should be checked by your veterinarian - especially if it is growing quickly. Your vet can put your mind at rest and will advise you of the best form of treatment. If an operation is required, it is best that this is done at an early stage - so don't delay in seeking advice.

Check his nails regularly - they may become long if he is exercising less. This is particularly important if he walks mainly on soft ground since this is not effective at wearing down the nails. Pay special attention to the dew claws - sometimes these will grow round in a circle and back into the nail pad, which can be very painful. You can trim his nails yourself, but if you are not familiar with the procedure you should ask your veterinarian or a professional dog groomer to do this for you.

Take this opportunity to examine his mouth and look at his gums and teeth. Brown tartar deposits on the teeth will lead to bad breath, gum disease and infections and will eventually cause the teeth to fall out. Your veterinarian can scale the teeth to remove the tartar and will remove any loose teeth. This usually requires a general anesthetic. It is far better to aim to prevent or minimize the occurrence of gum disease by feeding your dog some hard foods (such as hard biscuits or dry dog food) as part of his diet throughout his life. Brush his teeth regularly using a special dog toothbrush and dog toothpaste, or a soft cloth or cotton swab dipped in baking soda.

Nearing the end

Although the decision to bring another dog into the household must be carefully considered, many owners find that a new puppy will sometimes give their aging dog a new lease on life. Although you may feel that he can never be replaced, having a younger dog around will certainly make parting with your old friend much easier to bear when the time comes.

Undoubtedly the hardest decision you will have to make as a dog owner is whether or not you will have to put your old dog to sleep. Hopefully, the end will come peacefully in his sleep in the comfort of his own bed, but for many dogs, the reality is quite different. For those who have a poor quality of life, who are suffering from a distressing terminal illness or who are in constant pain, it is only fair to offer them a quick and painless end. You must discuss this very carefully with your veterinarian and you should both agree that euthanasia is best for your dog. Let your veterinarian know how you feel so that there are no misunderstandings. In the dog, euthanasia is carried out by means of a painless injection, which acts within seconds to send him to sleep.

The loss of a companion is never easy to endure and it is difficult to accept that your dog will not carry on forever. You can do your best - with patience and care - to make his last years as comfortable and enjoyable as you can.