As my father got on in years, he had two favorite expressions. The first was “Gettin’ old ain’t for sissies!” Unfortunately this dictum also applies for our shaggy companions. Whether you are an active fancier with numerous dogs or a pet owner with just one or two dogs, it’s a given that at some point you will need to care for an aging canine. If you are already dealing with a geriatric dog, the information below may provide some helpful hints. On the other hand, if your dog is still young and boisterous, the following discussion should help that youngster remain in prime condition for years to come.
A Baseline Health Profile and “Body Map”
Like people, as the years go by, your dog can begin to suffer from one or more age-related conditions. These include a loss of hearing, a decline in vision, reduced mobility, and cognitive impairment. Problems with specific organs can also arise, such as kidney disease or a heart condition.
A good way to catch such problems early is to establish a baseline health profile while the dog is in mid-life and still in good health. This would involve an annual exam including screening lab work. Then results of routine annual health-checks can be compared to the baseline in order to identify any changes that may require treatment or a more detailed assessment.
If you own an Old English Sheepdog or other very hairy breed and show in the conformation ring, you know that profuse coat can be arranged to hide a multitude of sins, from straight shoulders to a level topline. If you’ve kept your dog in coat because you like that shaggy look, the coat can also hide developing tumors, cysts, and skin conditions. Sometimes you might not even be aware of a growth until your dog starts chewing or scratching at it, necessitating immediate medical attention.
Short of keeping your dog clipped, a simple solution is to work with your vet and prepare what might be termed a “body map.” This can be a simple outline sketch showing both sides of the dog, marked with the location of any known bumps or lumps. There should also be a description of each giving the size, color, and results of fine-needle aspiration, the baseline assessment for any lump. Again, routine checks will indicate if any of the lumps are changing significantly so that some sort of action can be initiated.
Nutrition and Mobility
Once you’ve got your baselines established, the two key considerations for most dogs will be nutrition and mobility. As your dog ages and becomes less active, his caloric requirement drops. If you aren’t careful, you may find that under all that hair, the old bean sleeping peacefully on the couch really looks like a sausage on toothpicks. Your dog should have a score of 4 or 5 using the Purina Body Condition System. If the score is higher, then you need to begin practicing portion control or consider a well-balanced food with a lower caloric content.
Turning to mobility, a large-breed dog especially may be prone to arthritis or other mobility problems, even if the dog is clear of hip dysplasia. Keeping the excess weight off is one way to help maintain mobility. Not letting your dog get too sedentary by adopting some form of regular exercise will also help. In addition, you have no doubt seen numerous advertisements for joint supplements, so you may be wondering if they really help. Unfortunately many of the claims are either anecdotal or based on studies funded by the manufacturers themselves. The latter are akin to asking the coyote to guard the lambs. However, there are a few unbiased clinical studies that suggest glucosamine plus chondroitin can improve joint function. Ongoing research is also showing that increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids helps improve mobility.
Hearing and Vision Losses
There are also other issues to consider when caring for your older dog. While weight and mobility can be proactively managed and the development of tumors screened for early intervention, hearing and vision losses are more problematic. Like their owners, aging dogs can experience hearing loss. If you notice a change in hearing, it’s advisable to have your veterinary screen for ear-canal inflammation or discharge that is treatable. To test your dog’s hearing you can also rattle the package on his favorite treats, as the apparent hearing loss might just be “selective.” However, if hearing loss is senescent or age-related, it cannot be improved. This loss occurs when the tiny hairs within the inner ear die or are damaged.
There are two processes that create “gray” eyes in canines. One is a normal aging change of the lens that does not affect vision. The other is cataracts, the same process that affects people. Your veterinarian can differentiate between the two, but if significant vision loss is a concern you should also consider talking to a veterinary ophthalmologist, who can screen for the presence of progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). This is a genetic disorder that is known in a number of breeds (including OES), as well as mixed-breeds, and may not appear until later in life. Cataracts can be surgically addressed, but there is no available intervention for PRA.
As a reminder, as dogs start to lose their hearing and/or vision, they are more easily startled. When startled, a natural reflex is to snap. Thus, some extra caution is in order if you have boisterous puppies or a toddler around your older dog.
Behavioral and Cognitive Changes
In addition to issues with hearing or vision, you may notice changes in your dog’s behavior. Perhaps you find him barking at some invisible boggle, standing in a corner or forgetting where he normally eats. You may start to wonder if your old companion is suffering from “doggy Alzheimer’s.” The answer, unfortunately, could be yes; it is a condition properly referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD).
There are similarities between human Alzheimer’s and CCD. Researchers have observed accumulations of amyloid plaques in some of the same areas of cognition in both humans and canines. Also like Alzheimer’s, CCD can be difficult to diagnose with certainty. Other diseases or conditions such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, and brain tumors can cause some of the same symptoms, exacerbated by hearing or vision losses. These must be ruled out as causes of the confusion and disorientation you observe. Since there is no definitive test for CCD, owner observations of the dog’s behavior and medical checks to eliminate other possibilities are commonly combined to help with the diagnosis. Recording the observations is easy if you use one of the available CCD behavioral checklists (simply search online for “canine cognitive dysfunction checklist”). Once you have completed one of these lists, the information will help your vet diagnose for possible CCD.
Like Alzheimer’s, there is currently no cure for CCD, although research is continuing. Ongoing studies have shown that a diet rich in antioxidants that includes vitamins E and C, and importantly, fruits and vegetables, can lead to benefits in learning and memory ability. Regular moderate exercise and some sort of mental stimulation will also slow your dog’s cognitive decline. The drug L-deprenyl (brand name Anipryl) is reportedly effective in helping many dogs think more clearly and remember more. However, before prescribing this your veterinarian will want to discuss possible side effects and interactions with any other medications your OES is taking.
Given all the problems a geriatric Sheepdog may face, my father’s second expression about aging probably applies as well: “The ‘golden years’ can kiss —” You know the rest.
If you have an interest in any of the medical references mentioned above, please contact me for more information.
The assistance of Julie M. Meadows, DVM, in preparing this column is gratefully acknowledged. Dr. Meadows kindly reviewed the text for medical accuracy. Her position is in Small Animal Community Practice, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, University of California, Davis.