As our dogs’ muzzles start to gray and we begin to see signs of them slowing down, it’s tough not to worry about how you are both going to cope with their older years.
It’s important not to bury your head in the sand, though, and remember that senior dogs can still have a wonderful quality of life for many years to come. There are also lots of ways owners can promote movement, health, cognitive function, and comfort.
The Difference Between a Senior and a Geriatric Dog
The senior label varies depending on the size of the dog. So a tiny Chihuahua, for example, won’t hit their senior years until considerably later than, say, a Great Dane. On average, though, a dog is usually considered a senior between the ages of seven and nine.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean they suddenly won’t enjoy the same adventures and activities they used to.
Dr. Mary Gardner is a veterinarian and co-founder of Lap of Love, which focuses on providing veterinary hospice, in-home euthanasia, and consultations for terminally ill or elderly pets. She loves a gray muzzle and is a passionate advocate for raising awareness of the importance of appropriate end-of-life care in pets.
She is keen to emphasize the differences between active senior dogs and those classified as fragile geriatrics.
Dr. Gardner uses the example of a nine-year-old Labrador technically classed as a senior. “They could be running around, eating well, maybe have some mild arthritis, but nothing severe where it stresses the caregiver or we are concerned about their end of life coming up,” she says.
“However, at 12 that same Lab comes back in, and it could be a totally different picture. The mobility issue is much bigger, they might have some cognitive dysfunction, they can’t jump into the car anymore, they’ve maybe got some kidney problems, they are urinating in the house, maybe their vision or hearing is going, and they’re in pain,” Dr. Gardner continues.
What some senior dogs need to maintain a good quality of life may not vary hugely from their younger years. Geriatrics, on the other hand, may need various adjustments to help them stay relaxed, comfortable, and pain-free.
Nutrition for Aging Dogs
There are diets specially formulated for seniors, but many aging dogs do well on their existing adult foods. The primary considerations when it comes to nutrition for senior dogs are obesity and inappetence.
A 2018 study carried out by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimated that 56% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese.
Excess weight can lead to a host of related health problems, especially for elderly dogs. “The number one way to help a dog manage arthritis-related mobility issues is to keep them on the skinny side. But that is really shocking for a lot of people because it is so common to see, especially here in America, overweight dogs,“ says Dr. Gardner.
Conversely, some geriatric dogs may begin to have less interest in food. “When a pet is nearing the end of its life, their caloric requirements will decrease, and they are not expending as much energy. That startles some people, but it is a normal process,” explains Dr. Gardner.
Sometimes, age-related diseases, like cancers or organ failure, can also cause inappetence. Introducing extra palatable foods, appetite increasing medication, or prescription diets when a dog has certain diseases are all options. However, as Dr. Gardner explains, “there comes a time, where, no matter what we try, I always say the body is not going to eat or drink for a future it knows it doesn’t have, and it can be really hard for families.” She points out that serious inappetence is one of the main reason owners consider euthanasia in geriatric dogs.
Recognizing and Managing Age-Related Illnesses and Chronic Pain
With age-related conditions like arthritis, managing pain levels can vastly improve a dog’s quality of life.
Dogs are very stoic creatures that don’t complain much. While acute pain, from, say, a broken leg, is obvious and may result in extreme yelping and limping, creeping, insidious chronic pain symptoms are less easy to spot.
Looking out for subtle changes in normal behavior is the key. Some dogs may go off their food or become withdrawn.
A shocking statistic highlighted by Dr. Gardner is that nearly 50% of dogs in the U.S. don’t see their veterinarian at all the year before euthanasia. Despite it being “the most important life phase when the dog and the family can benefit from veterinary support, particularly in terms of pain management.”
The Importance of Fitness for Aging Dogs
While geriatrics are not always capable of long hikes or high-impact dog sports anymore, making sure they still get gentle, regular, and appropriate exercise is incredibly beneficial.
Lori Stevens is the owner of Seattle TTouch, a professional dog trainer, certified animal behavior consultant, small animal massage practitioner, and certified canine fitness trainer.
“When a dog can no longer function, e.g. go up and down stairs, go out to relieve themselves, get up to get water or food, their interest in life declines, and they lose their confidence. They are naturally ignored, and they sleep more than anything else,” says Stevens.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see these dogs re-engage with life and their families and to gain confidence. It’s also empowering for the families.”
Doing daily strengthening exercises, where the difficulty level gradually increases and luring the dog with tasty treats rather than forcing them into positions, is a great option. Simple examples include learning to walk over poles on the ground or encouraging the dog to put their front two paws up on a slightly elevated surface, as Stevens outlines in greater detail on her website.
Stevens recommends getting the all-clear from your veterinarian and consulting with a professional initially to make sure you are not taking things too quickly or encouraging improper body positions.
The Value of Enrichment
Stevens points out that movement is medicine and it provides mental as well as physical stimulation.
Dogs, just like humans, can suffer from age-related cognitive decline. Studies have shown that keeping dogs mentally active could help slow this decline.
Things like puzzle feeders, scent games, slow and sniffy walks, and snuffle mats are all simple and accessible enrichment options.
“Low energy ball play is great,“ Stevens also suggests. “You sit in front of your dog and roll the ball between their legs and they push it back to you with their nose.”
Adjustments Around the Home
Making adjustments around the home is often beneficial for geriatric dogs. These will vary depending on the dog’s needs, but include:
- Ramps or steps to help them get up and down from beds, sofas or cars
- Dog flaps, pee pads, or diapers for incontinence issues
- Orthopedic dog beds for extra support and comfort when sleeping
- Rug markers for dogs with failing eyesight
Stevens’s top tip is to invest in some non-slip yoga mats. “They are cheap, and they help our aging dogs with the ability to get up and down from the floor and walk into areas where there is tile or wood. Also, put them in front of the food and water bowl,” she recommends.
It isn’t unusual for geriatric dogs to have less tolerance of noise, changes in routine, excitable children, and high-energy young dogs. Respecting your dog’s changing needs and ensuring they have a safe, quiet, stress-free space they can retreat to is important. This, along with appropriate veterinary care and keeping them moving and engaged with life, can have a huge impact on an aging dog’s quality of life.