Many changes occur as the dog’s body ages. Most of these are similar to those experienced by geriatric people – arthritis, loss of vision, hearing loss, senility, etc. These changes happen gradually and you may not even notice them until, perhaps, you look at a picture taken of your pet a year ago and realize that his eyes weren’t cloudy then like they are now, or during a grooming session notice the lumps and bumps he now has. Before you know it, your dog may tire more easily and be less playful. You may notice that your pet no longer arouses easily or greets you at the door. The fact is that once your dog turns about seven (for most dogs, five for larger breeds), he is technically considered an “older” dog.
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common sources of chronic pain in senior dogs. Certain larger breeds are more prone to osteoarthritis, but all are candidates, and being overweight makes the condition even worse. Signs of osteoarthritis are reluctance to move, difficulty with stairs, painful crying, and trouble getting in position to defecate. The dog with arthritis may find the elimination posture so painful as to put the chore off until control is lost and he has an accident. It may also be too painful for the dog to make the trip outside. You can restructure the dog’s environment to eliminate the need to walk on slick floors or climb a substantial number of steps.
The early signs of this painful disease are subtle, but as your dog’s best friend, you’re in an ideal position to detect them. As osteoarthritis becomes more severe, your dog won’t act like himself. He’ll resist your touch, wimper and limp. Cold weather, sudden weather changes or heavy exercise can make the pain worse and any of these signs more noticeable. Depending on the dog’s age and other factors, medication will likely help relieve stiffness and lameness, allowing dogs to move freely again.
Diabetes mellitus is a chronic endocrine disorder characterized by high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), which results when the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin to meet the animal’s requirements. Insulin is a hormone which is needed to transport glucose (blood sugar) as well as certain amino acids and minerals through the blood to the cells. When a lack of insulin occurs, glucose cannot move into the cells and the glucose level in the blood rises to abnormally high levels. Chronic high glucose in the blood and urine can cause severe complications including infections, cataracts, nervous system disorders, pancreatitis, and kidney disease. If left untreated, diabetic animals will suffer from complications that could become fatal. The average age range for the development of diabetes mellitus is four to 14 years, with the majority of cases occurring at six to nine years of age. Common symptoms include excessive thirst, increased volumes of urine, and urinary accidents. Affected pets often have weight loss despite an increased appetite. Other symptoms may include loss of vision, tiredness, weakness, and poor coat condition. There is no cure for diabetes mellitus, but, as with diabetes in humans, it can be controlled with insulin injections and diet. Prognosis will depend upon the owner’s willingness to treat the disease, the animal’s ability to respond to the insulin, the age at the onset of disease, the presence of other disorders, and the development of complications of diabetes.
Changes in the kidneys, liver, and other organs as well as medications needed by the dog can shorten the length of time the dog can hold bowels and bladder. Never blame a senior dog for housetraining accidents, and never expect that because a dog could hold it a certain number of hours in past years, he can continue to do so for life.
Dogs can become senile as they age and they may become irritable when disturbed, slow to obey commands, and have problems with orientation and learned behavior, including loss of house training. Some of this can be attributed to lack of oxygen to the brain, which comes as a result of aging changes in the lungs. Decreased air exchange means less oxygen available for other body functions, and the dog becomes more susceptible to lung infections (for example, from dental disease). Periodontitis is a very serious problem in senior pets. Once bacteria becomes attached to the teeth below the gums, it spreads throughout the body. Many respiratory, kidney, liver, and heart infections result from this bacteria.
It is estimated that at least one fourth of all dogs over nine years of age have some type of heart disease. Cardiac output decreases 30% during those later years, and resistance to blood flow in the arteries increases. Red blood cell numbers diminish, as does the level of hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen to the body’s tissues.
The lens of the eye in older dogs commonly becomes opaque and is mistaken for a cataract. This opacity is called nuclear sclerosis and may interfere with vision somewhat, but doesn’t cause blindness. Ear problems and hearing loss can occur with age as a result changes in the normal environment inside the ear canal. A partial loss of taste and smell also occurs in older dogs.
Many of these aging changes are progressive and irreversible, but some can either be treated or slowed down with appropriate therapy. Don’t write off age-related symptoms in your pet, thinking that nothing can be done. Instead, ask your veterinarian for his help – you might be surprised at what can be done to bring your old friend back to his former vigor. Most things can be helped, at least to the extent of making the dog more comfortable and sometimes a great deal more than that. Most of all, cherish your dog’s senior years. They pass too quickly, and they are wonderful times. Senior dogs are the best. It’s the time in a dog’s life when the love ripens and you have the companionship of a wonderful friend. Make every day with your senior pet count.
Dr. Dan Meakin is the owner of All Creatures Animal Hospital, 1894 Ohio Pike in Amelia. Call 513-797-PETS (7387).