Friday, July 13, 2012

Senior Dog Wellness

Yesterday while waiting for some work to be done on my car, I read an article that appeared in my local paper about a family and their senior dog who decided to go hiking one afternoon. Southern California is a desert and we have been having a mild heat wave for the past week so temperatures have been in the upper nineties or and hundreds. Unfortunately for the family and dog, what started out as a 45 minute hike turned into a 6 hour ordeal after the dog quickly became overheated and was unable to continue hiking. The owners had to carry the dog back to the car and call for help and by the time the forestry service came to their rescue, the poor dog's paws were bleeding and he had suffered a mild heat stroke (he is okay now though!). This made me realize that there needs to be more information out there about caring for senior dogs. This topic has a tendency to make some dog owners uncomfortable because it reminds them that their dog's time on this Earth is never long enough, but living with a senior dog does not have to be so scary if you are prepared. I would also like to remind all of my new (and hopefully returning!) readers that a dog is a forever commitment, not just an "I'll keep you while you're cute/healthy/small/young/etc then give you up when you start to decline" kind of commitment. To illustrate my point I'd like to tell you about my last dog, Tucker.

Tucker was a thirteen and a half year old Australian Shepherd without a home. He had found his way to a no-kill beagle rescue when he was just a puppy and they had kept him his entire life because no was interested in adopting him. After we lost our last dog Gus, we were not yet ready for another 10+ year commitment so when we came across Tucker, we knew we had to take him. He had started loosing his vision and his arthritis was starting to act up, but otherwise he was in good shape and he had a lot of love to give. We had him for only two years, but he was one of the best dogs we could have asked for. His enthusiasm and love for everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, was just what we needed to mend the pieces of our broken hearts. Every day was full of excitement for Tucker. Since he had spend his entire life in a kennel, his first time feeling grass, carpet, sand, etc was exciting for him. If we dropped something on the floor, he got excited about it. If someone sneezed, he got excited. This dog loved life and everything in it! We knew that when we decided to take Tucker under our roof, he was there to stay, for better or worse. In his short time with us, Tucker taught us  to be happy and tackle every day with zest and passion. 

This leads me to today's topic.... Senior Dogs!! I am very passionate about senior dogs and even though they require a little extra care, they still have a ton of love to give. So today's post will focus on how to keep your older pets happy and healthy into their golden years. Even if you just got a puppy or your dog isn't quite there yet, I hope you will take what I have to say to heart so that as your dogs age they will do it with all the grace and dignity they deserve.

There are many aging signs to watch for that will indicate when your dog can be classified as a senior.
1.) Age: Tufts University has published the following guidelines for defining a senior dog: "Veterinarians generally consider small dogs to be senior citizens at about 12 years of age, while large dogs reach the senior stage at 6 to 8 years of age. This roughly corresponds to the 55-plus category in people."

2.) Slowing Down: taking longer to get up, longer to climb stairs (one at a time rather than two), etc. It is important to note that just because your pet appears to be slowing down, it may not always be due to old age and should not be ignored as such. Your dog may have a medical problem that is easily treatable which can make your dog mobile again. So before brushing off something like difficulty getting around as old age, have your vet do a complete work up on your dog to rule out any other causes.

1.) Factors influencing the rate of aging:
a.) Genetic Background- some breeds have health problems that are specific to that breed. Larger breeds are more prone to arthritis in their back and hips, german shepherds are prone to hip displaysia, floppy eared breeds are prone to ear problems and deafness, etc.
b.) Nutrition- feeding your dog the right food will help slow the aging process. However, be sure not to overfeed your dog. Obesity will cause more health problems as your dog ages.
c.) Environmental factors- keeping your dog’s living environment clean and parasite free. Controlling fleas and ticks by using flea medicines will help prevent disease and illness, which will also speed up the aging process. Having clean beds, food and water bowls can help prevent your dog from getting sick as well, which benefits their immune system which may not respond as well to infections.
d.) Regular vet visits: Once your dog reaches the “senior age", visits to the vet should be made every six months to a year. Remember that a year to us is equal to five years to a dog. Complete geriatric workups should be done every year to six months. The earlier problems are detected, the more likely they can be fixed.
Up to 15 pounds
Begin geriatric screening at age 9 to 11
16 to 50 pounds
Begin geriatric screening at age 7 to 9
51 to 80 pounds
Begin geriatric screening at age 6 to 8
Over 80 pounds
Begin geriatric screening at age 4 to 6

What is a geriatric screening?
It is an exam which includes a thorough hands-on physical exam, complete
blood tests, urinalysis, possibly an electrocardiogram, and other test 
depending on your dog’s health history. It is recommended to stay alert to 
changes in your dog’s behavior in between vet visits.

2.)   Things to watch for in between vet visits:
a.)   Sudden weight loss: this can be extremely serious and your dog should see a vet as soon as possible.
b.)   Loss of appetite: eating very little to nothing at all.
c.)   Increase in appetite without weight gain: this could be a symptom of diabetes.
d.)   Diarrhea or vomiting: if it lasts more than a day it could be a sign of many problems.
e.)   Increased thirst without a change in activity level, and increased urination: this could be a sign of diabetes.
f.)    Tiring more quickly: is normal as a dog ages, but it may also be a sign of heart or lung problems. Observe if your dog becomes excessively out of breath after minimal exercise. If your vet determines that all is normal, continue an exercise routine but modify it as not to over exert your dog.
g.)   Coughing and excessive panting: may indicate heart disease. See your vet if this continues even after you have modified your dog’s exercise program.
h.)   Difficulty in getting up from a lying position or moving: may indicate arthritis.

3.)   Changes in Behavior:
a.)   Separation Anxiety- when left alone your dog may become destructive, barks, whines, or looses control of elimination. This can be controlled with training. You can give your dogs treats as you leave or toys/kongs so that they associate you leaving as a good thing. You ca also try crate training.
b.)   Sensitivity to Noise: loud noises that never bothered your dog before may now scare your dog.
c.)   Vocalizing: may be due to hearing loss or separation anxiety.
d.)   Uncharacteristic aggression: may be due to painful joints, a drug reaction, intolerance for new people or circumstances (older dogs like things to be the same), or hearing/vision loss. (TALK ABOUT GUS AND TUCKER SNAPPING).
e.)   Confusion, lack of attentiveness, disorientation.
f.)    Roaming in circles, barking at nothing, being withdrawn.
g.)   Elimination accidents: may be treated with medication, diapers, feeding two small meals a day instead of one big one. Shaving hair helps clean up.
If your dog starts to exhibit any of these behavioral issues, consult your vet.

So you have noticed that something is not quite right and you have taken your dog to the vet and he has given you his diagnosis. Aside from following your veterinarian’s advice and giving your dog any prescribed medications, here are some common geriatric problems and things you can do to help your dog.

1.) Caring for common geriatric problems:
a.)   Arthritis or joint stiffness: medications include Rimadyl (possible side effect= liver damage) and Glucosamine w/ Chondritin (common in supplements, treats, food, etc), especially supplements that include Green Lipped Mussel which has been proven to stop the progression of arthritis. Orthopedic and heated beds as well as hot water bottles can also help alleviate any pain your dog may be feeling.
b.)   Blindness: avoid changing the location of furniture so your dog does not bump into things as often. Try spraying corners and furniture with cologne or perfume so that your dog can build a scent map of their surroundings in their mind (we did this with Tucker and it worked out great!). You can also put baby bumpers or foam padding over sharp edges to reduce your dog’s chance of injury should they bump into something. There is a chance that as your dog looses its sight it may become easily startled, so before touching your dog, make your presence known by talking to it, clapping your hands, stomping on the ground or gently blowing its ear. If you have a second dog, I have begun seeing a trend online where some owners have leashed both dogs together so that the seeing dog can help the dog with vision loss get around better (Read the story here!)
c.)   Deafness: Same as above. Instead of using vocal commands, train your dog using hand signals. When you want to bring your dog inside at night, try flicking the lights a few times as a cue to go to the doog.  
d.)   Obesity: Do not change food, just feed less of it.
e.)   Weight loss: Do not change your dog's food, just feed more of it until they are at a healthy weight. Sometimes changing to a puppy food might help dogs with significant weight loss, but always consult your vet first before making any dietary changes.
f.)    Diabetes: Insulin is an essential hormone that not only opens the pathways for glucose to get from the blood to the cells, it helps prevent the liver from producing an excess amount of glucose and aids the body in storing the sugar for future energy use. Onset of diabetes typically occurs between age 7- 9 and is fairly common among dogs. Dogs at a higher risk are unsprayed females, Keeshonds, Pulis, Mini Pinchers, Cairn terriers, poodles,  dachshunds, schnauzers, & beagles. Insulin injections are the most common treatment for diabetes. Food Tip: Look for foods that contain whole grains which helps keep glucose from spiking too high after a meal, increased fiber (7-18%) if your dog could stand to loose a few pounds, increased protein (15-35%), and decreased fat. Vitamin E antioxidants (>400IU/kg) can also be added to prevent free radical damage resulting from high glucose levels in the blood.
g.)   Difficulty getting around: Leashes, towels or special rear-end harnesses can be placed under the abdomen to aid in lifting your pet. Car ramps, pet stairs, foot traction pads, strollers/wagons and wheel chairs can also be used to help your pet get around easier. I also highly recommend searching for a pet rehabilitation and physical therapy center near you to begin alternative treatments such as hydrotherapy, stretching exercises, ultrasound and acupuncture to help your dog maintain or re-build muscle mass and maintain mobility.
Mobility: Keep the fur on your dog's pads trimmed close. This will give your dog more traction on slick floors. Put down skid-free carpeting in places where your dog normally lies down to make getting up and getting started easier.
You may wish to put coverings on your dog's paws -- such as those "slipper" socks that have non-skid material on the bottoms. "Paw Tectors," sold by K-V Vet Supply (1-800-423-8211) are described as being non-skid. They come in five sizes from XS to XL.

2.) Nutrition
            a.) Glucosamine w/ Chondritin and MSM- to support healthy joints.
b.) low-fat, low ash (the vitamins and minerals in pet food).
c.) Low protein- to keep kidneys healthy.
d.) Supplements: Echinacea and vitamin C to support immune system.
e.) Milk thistle- to support liver. Dennisile (nutritional supplement).
f.)    Vitamin B-12 -- for energy and metabolism
g.)   Vitamin E -- an antioxidant
h.)   Brewer's yeast -- a good source of the B-complex vitamins
i.)    Linoleic acid -- found i corn and sunflower oils
j.)    Bromelain -- aids digestion and is an anti-inflammatory
k.)   Glycerin -- for eye health
l.) WATER- should be filtered to ease kidneys and a raised bowl can make drinking easier. In large deep chested dogs raising is not a good idea because it can cause bloat.
Many dogs suffer from allergies or arthritis, diseases that are favorite targets of alternative remedies and methods. Anti-oxidant Vitamins C and E, preparations such as chondroitin sulfate and glucosamines, and Omega fatty acid supplements such as Missing Link are becoming more popular as non-drug remedies for degenerative joint diseases. The vitamins and Omega fatty acid supplements are also considered helpful in allergy cases that affect canine skin and coat.
Chondroitin sulfate and glucosamines are natural substances found in the body’s connective tissue; extracted from shark or bovine cartilage or from sea molluscs, they are used to stop cartilage deterioration, boost cartilage regeneration, and augment joint fluid production.

Choosing a dog food: The best strategy for choosing a commercial dog food is to find out what friends buy for their pets, see if the pets look good, and then try the food for your own dog. As long as the adult dog has plenty of energy and appears healthy, the food is adequate. If the dog is nervous, has a dull coat or skin problems, or lacks normal energy, and no other physical cause can be found, consider changing foods. In general, foods with a balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids help improve joint and skin health; foods with moderate protein content are best for non-working dogs; and foods with meat as the source of protein are best. Foods based on corn or containing soybeans may not be suitable for some dogs. You can also perform the water test. Drop a piece of your current kibble into some water. If the kibble floats then its primary ingredient is corn, rice, or things other than meat. These dog foods are not very good because they fill the dog up instead of providing the dog with usable nutrients such as protein. If the dog food sinks then its primary ingredient is protein, which is heavier and meets more of the dogs nutritional needs.
3.) Alternative /Holistic medicine.
Recognized by AVMA as an affective medical treatment. Used to restore the mind, body and spirit.
a.) Acupuncture: Acupuncture involves the use of fine needles to stimulate the body to good health. The dog’s energy stream can be restored by the insertion of thin needles at certain points along the meridian or energy path. “Veterinary acupuncture helps strengthen the animal’s immune system, relieve pain, and improve the function of organ systems.” “Acupuncture can help such fundamental problems as paralysis, arthritis, feline asthma, gastrointestinal problems, certain reproductive problems, and pain.” “Treatments stimulate nerves, increase blood circulation, relieve muscle spasms, and cause the release of such hormones as endorphins and cortisol.” (from
b.) Chiropractic: The nervous system is responsible for initiating and coordinating movement and for integrating all the physiologic activities of the body such as adapting to temperature changes, digesting a meal, responding to a stressful situation, running, and obeying a command. A number of commonly occurring conditions, including arthritis, lameness, loss of flexibility, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems and hip dysplasia, respond well to chiropractic care. Any time there is a loss of flexibility in any part of the skeleton, the remaining body components are subjected to compensatory stress as the animal shifts its balance to compensate. This is evident in the over-muscled fronts and stiff necks usually developed by dogs with longstanding clinical hip dysplasia, arthritis, and rear-end weaknesses. Chiropractic care for these animals improves their flexibility and reduces pain levels and the need for pain medication. Animals who have suffered any kind of trauma experience decreases in flexibility and mobility which may also be alleviated by a chiropractic adjustment.
c.) Hydrotherapy: Hydrotherapy acts by encouraging a full range of joint motion in reduced weight conditions, thus improving muscle tone and promoting tendon repair without imposing undue stress on damaged tissues and improving cardiovascular stamina. It is very good exercise for dogs that are loosing muscle or have a hard time getting around. The warm water loosens stiff muscles and the buoyancy of the water takes the pressure off of joints.

d.) Acupressure/ Canine massage: Good for animals that have been injured or are experiencing stiffness. It increases blood flow, shortens healing time, increases range of motion, helps achey or stiff muscles and joints, relieves pain and discomfort, releases endorphins, prevents formation of scar tissue, reduces swelling. Basically it helps older animals with chronic or degenerative diseases live a more peaceful life. You can give your pet rubdowns at home but it is recommended also to have a professional massage therapist treat your pet from time to time. Their hands are experienced and can detect changes in your dogs’ body that you cannot, then treat it. (DEMONSTRATE)

e.) Reiki:  In addition to acupressure, there are also holistic veterinarians that can treat your dog using Reiki. Reiki uses targeted  positive healing energy to balance and replenish vital energy in the body, unblock stagnate energy to promote natural self-healing, relaxes tension and stress, strengthens the immune system, relieves pain, prevents dis-harmony and promotes healing.

4.)   Maintaining your dogs’ health:
a.) Dental Care: Rotting teeth and gum disease can cause gum and mouth infections, and these infections can migrate to the vital organs and cause serious damage. Your dog’s teeth should be brushed daily and be professionally cleaned by your vet at least once a year. You can also give your dog chew toys specifically for cleaning teeth or greenies. (SHOW DENTAL PRODUCTS). A gradually diminishing interest in chewing is normal as a dog ages; but if your dog stops chewing suddenly or looks like he is eating in a "gingerly" fashion, it may be a sign that his teeth and gums are hurting and need professional attention.

b.) Grooming: The coat and skin are the dog's first line of defense against environmental attack from fleas, wetness, and cold. When the coat and skin are in poor condition, your dog becomes susceptible to disease or illness. Another reason for a daily grooming session has to do with an aging dog's need for physical contact and attention. A grooming session can be an energizer as well as provide an interesting diversion for the dog. It is also an opportunity for you and your dog to experience the kind of closeness and physical contact that is reassuring and satisfying and that contributes to the dog's overall sense of well-being -- which, in turn, stimulates good health.
Always bathe your older dog with warm water in a warm room. Cold will dry the dog's skin and might cause chilling. Always use a very mild shampoo with an older dog, since older skin has a tendency toward allergy and dryness. Don't use a blow-dryer, which is too hard on the coat and skin.
Use grooming sessions as a means of checking for tumors, growths, or changes in skin condition. Run your hands over all parts of your dog's body -- from stem to stern, along the abdomen, legs, ears, and tail. Early detection of a malignancy can extend your dog's life by years. The skin, as the largest organ of the body, also can indicate internal health problems that may not be otherwise visible. Watch for dryness or roughness of the skin texture, and for any unusual symptoms.

Most dog's nails need to be trimmed once a month, but an older dog's nails should be trimmed every three weeks. You can also do it weekly, if your preferred method is to trim just a tiny sliver from the nails each time you do it. But an older dog tends to do less walking and running, so it's critical to keep to a regular nail trimming schedule. Nails that are too long can affect the dog's gait and cause imbalance and muscle strain.

Be diligent about clean, dry ears with your senior dog, and you'll minimize the risk of an ear infection. If you notice a bad odor or discharge from the ears, or if your dog starts shaking her head noticeably more frequently, see your vet immediately. A major infection could be brewing. Your older dog's immune system isn't working quite as efficiently as it did when she was younger, making it harder for her to rebound from an infection. (Excessive head-shaking may also injure the brain.)

c.)   Exercise: Exercise is as essential to dogs as it is to humans. It is profoundly tied to a dog's physical, mental, and emotional health. A sedentary dog is a bored dog, often an overweight dog, and, in general, a less-than-optimally-healthy dog. You really need to be very observant in assessing your particular dog's abilities, natural inclinations, and current state of health. Keep alert to your dog's being excessively out of breath, or to a drooping head and tail. If your dog coughs or does not get her breath back after five minutes of rest following exercise, have the vet check her heart.
It's best to exercise your dog before he eats and to wait about half an hour after the exercise session before giving a meal. Keep your dog out of the sun, and, on a hot day, it's probably best not to exercise outdoors at all. Very cold, wet days are also times when indoor exercise is more appropriate.
If your dog has been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, check with your vet for recommendations on an exercise program. Usually walking and swimming are the best activities. For walking, use a leash so that you can control the duration and strenuousness of the exercise.
Two shorter walks will be less stressful on aging joints than one long walk. The walks can be quite brisk, provided the vet has given approval. A brisk walk should have four components:
                                    - a warm-up of about 5 minutes, gradually increasing the pace
                                    - brisk walking of about 20 minutes
                                    - a cool-down of about 5 minutes, then gradually decrease the pace.
                                    - a drink of water.
If you play fetch with your older dog, throw the ball or toy a little closer than you did when your dog was younger, and repeat the toss fewer times. After a point, it is probably advisable to stop playing fetch and to concentrate on walking or swimming.
SWIMMING: Make sure your dog knows how to get out. Falling in is a big concern when your dog gets older because they tire out quickly. Putting a fence around your pool or supervising your dog when they are around your pool can prevent fall-ins. Installing a ramp is also a good idea. If your dog is nervous in the pool, try using a life vest which can give the dog more comfort, confidence, and make swimming more enjoyable. When swimming, remember that an older dog will tend to become chilled much more quickly than a young dog. Take big towels along, and use them to dry off your dog as soon as he gets out of the water -- and preferably before he begins shivering.

1.) Weather: Cold and dampness are hard on an old dog. As your dog ages, her coat will get thinner and her circulation will be less efficient, making her feel the cold more. Protect her with a sweater and/or rain gear when necessary. Don't keep her out too long in really cold weather. Older dogs are also more susceptible to becoming overheated in hot weather. Shade your older dog from the sun and keep him in an air-conditioned room in very hot weather. Take shorter rather than longer walks in the hot weather. Be sure he has plenty of cool water to drink. Never leave your dog -- of any age -- parked in a sunny place in a closed car (even with the windows slightly open). A car parked in the sun can become an oven in just a few minutes.

2.) Home Environment: To the extent possible, keep your dog's home environment and routines the same. For example, her water and food bowls should be in the same location and she should be fed and walked at the usual times and in the usual places. Of course, individual dogs will vary in their ability to deal with change in their surroundings. Dogs with decreased vision will be more stressed if the furniture is changed around than dogs whose vision is still good. Be alert to signs of stress in your dog that you may have inadvertently caused by a change in home environment. Try to help her adjust by giving attention and guidance and lots of positive reinforcement when she seems to become more relaxed about the change.
Slippery floors will become a problem as your dog ages. You'll notice that your dog will begin to have trouble getting up from the bare floor, or walking across the bare floor. Cover the problem areas of the floor with a rubber-backed/non-skid runner or area rug.
Your older dog's sleeping areas are particularly important environmental factors. Many older dogs -- particularly those with arthritis in hips and back -- seem to prefer sleeping on an "egg crate" type mattress. Not only does it seem to provide a more even surface and therefore give better skeletal alignment, it also tends to reduce pressure on the dog's bony areas. Egg-crate mattresses are sometimes called "orthopedic" mattresses, and are sold, with zippered covers, through catalogs and in pet stores. But you may also simply buy one from a local foam rubber store or a place like K-Mart, cut it to size, and top it with blankets, towels, or a synthetic "sheepskin." You can place several of these mattresses around the house, in the areas where your dog(s) nap during the day, as well as in the night-time sleeping spot. Concerning beds that have a built-in heating element, the comment we've heard most often is that the heating element is small and doesn't produce very much heat, and that dogs don't seem to find the mattresses all that appealing. It is important to remember that a dog’s normal body temperature is 102 degrees so even a small increase in heat is good. Meals are also a very important part of your older dog's life. Be sure your older dog has a consistently organized, quiet environment in which to consume meals.
Cleanliness and parasite control are critical in an older dog's environment. Keep your senior dog's water and food bowls scrupulously clean, to prevent them from getting sick.

3.) Companionship: An older dog tends to sleep more, but that doesn't mean he should be left alone more. His nose still tells him when he has human company, even as he sleeps. He will still hear your voice (or sense your presence through vibrations), even though he looks like he's dreaming. Give your older dog the benefit of as much human companionship as he's had throughout his life -- even increase it, if possible. Keep him near you and take him with you when you go places. It will increase his sense of security and his involvement with life, and it will make him last longer.

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