Do you have an older dog? – It’s time to review your routine

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Define ‘older’ dog, I hear you say. And ‘it depends’, is what I would rather unhelpfully reply! As we all know, larger breeds tend to age more rapidly, so an eight year old Great Dane is very senior whereas the same age of Jack Russell is just getting into its stride. Also working dogs such as gun dogs, search and rescue, or police dogs have a very active life and hence tend to ‘wear out’ at a younger age. Likewise, dogs that have had a hard life such as some rescues, who have not had a good diet  or lived rough can be physically older than their years would suggest. So maybe by older I actually mean aged.

Ok, so having established (hopefully) that older can be a physical state rather than a large number of years, what does it mean for dogs?  Well, just like us, their bodies wear out and what this blog aims to talk about is what we can do to reduce the impact of aging and give our dogs a longer active life, by which I mean an improved quality of life, not necessarily more years, though often the two go hand in hand (paw in paw?).

A good diet is an obvious starting point. There are loads of places to read about what you should feed your dog and it is not a debate I am qualified, or perhaps brave enough to enter. However, for an older dog you should review the amount of exercise they are taking and also the amount you are treating them. It is almost without exception the case that as dogs get older we get softer about the number of treats, and little extras they get – after all you’ve done the training and they know the rules, so it is Ok to break them now and then, and again. But, the adage ‘cruel to be kind’ has to be recognised here. Being overweight puts strain on a dog’s heart and joints and excessively rich food or those high in salt – cheese, crisps, bacon – which sometimes get put in the food bowl or passed from the couch, are a challenge to a dog’s digestive system, whatever their age. So, keep the weight off them, even if ‘eating is their only pleasure’, and you will help slow the onset of arthritis and heart disease.

Many conditions develop slowly and may only become obvious once they are quite well advanced. Hence, getting a blood test annually to check on kidney and liver function is a good investment as if these are caught early, remedial action can be taken which will limit visits to the vet in the long term.

Don’t accept the signs of aging as inevitable. Cataracts may be an indication of diabetes so get it checked out. Now I am not an advocate of running to the vet at the first sign of anything unusual, but conditions do more readily develop in older dogs, so we have to be more alert.

And so to arthritis and joint issues. Stiffness after a walk, difficulty standing after being asleep, hesitation before getting into the back of the car or when jumping out, and when tackling steps and stairs are all indications that there is pain associated with these actions. Limping is an extreme version of this, not the first sign. You can avoid exacerbating these conditions and slow their onset through a few easy actions.
In colder weather, use a coat, especially on fine furred dogs. It’s not ‘sissy’, it is sensible to keep your dog warm and dry. If they don’t like walking in them, dry them as much as you can and put a jacket on them in the car for the journey home, to avoid them cooling rapidly after lots of activity. Help them into the back of the car – a hand under the bum to aid the jump, lift them in, use a towel as a sling, or use a ramp. As you get older you are not so much of an athlete, so don’t expect your middle aged dog to be.

Talking about being in the car – review what your dog is lying on, both from a comfort point of view and because being rocked about in the back of a car is tiring as the dog tries to brace himself against the motion. Dogs can’t hang on and a flat car boot gives no support. Options include reducing the size of space they are in by using a dog crate or blocking off part of the boot. Alternatively, use a soft bed that they can sink into or a bed with surrounding sides that cradles them. There is no point in arriving for a walk with a dog that is already exhausted from the journey getting there.

Reduce the length of walks, but increase the frequency to maintain fitness levels and muscle tone. This helps keep joints mobile and reduces the chance of inflammation and the associated pain, developing during the walk. If your dog does not want to walk, don’t make it. It is meant to be their time after all. If they would rather sit next to you on a park bench and watch the world go by or just potter about sniffing whose been around, then that is fine. However, some exercise must be maintained to promote good bowel and bladder function. Work out what exercise they do enjoy and stick with that.

Panting can be a sign of heart condition, and not a lack of fitness, as insufficient oxygen is getting round their system, as can restlessness and coughing, and a longer recovery time after walks. It is not only older dogs that can have heart disease so have them checked out get to the bottom of things and see what options there are for alleviating the discomfort.

Swimming is excellent cardiovascular exercise and avoids the percussive loading of joints that occurs during walking and running. But avoid promoting activity that results in a bouncing action through shallows as this is a loaded exercise that puts more strain on joints. The water must be deep enough to take most or all of their weight. In the winter, keep them swimming  by using a hydrotherapy pool which is warm to get into and to come out of. If available, arrange for a massage and try to learn massage techniques yourself. After all, you feel great after a spa day – it is just the same for your dog. Massage eases out tension that builds up through being in awkward positions or through compensating for discomfort. It relaxes muscles that have been held continuously in tension when trying to avoid pain or behave ‘as normal’, as your dog will try to do. If you have concerns about the skeletal health of your dog, ask your vet for a referral to a veterinary physiotherapist. They are specialists and many are also human physios who you would be quite happy to visit for your own needs, so why not consult one for your dog.

And inevitably we come to sleeping – we are the Big Dog Bed Company after all. Don’t expect your old dog to climb the stairs to sleep next to your bed. This is one reason for not letting your dog sleep in your room from the outset as he/she will certainly not understand if you ban them from the bedroom in later life. Both climbing and descending stairs is a challenging action for dogs and puts immense strain on joints.

Beds should be big enough for your dog to lie in any position they choose. A dog who is a bit wobbly on their legs can be nervous of a soft or deep bed as they don’t feel secure and fear falling, so consider something firmer like a foam cushion that incorporates memory foam or another type comfort layer. Don’t expect an older dog to step up onto a bed or over a bolster edge. Place the bed in a quiet, draft free location away from the bustle of the house. Put your face at floor level to detect draughts which may be present low down. Avoid competition for bed space by making all beds big enough for all dogs, so that your terrier does not hog the biggest bed.

Slippery floors such as wood, lino, tiles or laminate are challenging for dogs that are unsteady on their feet. We like them because they are easy to keep clean, especially when you have dogs, but consider putting runners down on key routes your dog takes so they can move about with confidence. Slippery floors create anxiety which leads to tension and muscle spasms and pain. An elevated food and water bowl can help even small dogs and are a must for tall dogs from the outset.
Probably most important of all, take time to be with your older dog. If you have multiple dogs, don’t just expect them to keep up with the youngsters, or be left behind. Give them time alone with you. Your oldest dog probably had you to themselves at one time. Give them that opportunity on a regular basis away from the pressure and hassle of the younger members of the family – human and four legged. You owe them patience and understanding for all that they have brought to you during their younger years and will continue to do in their wonderful smelly, slobbery, wobbly way, just a bit more slowly than they used to.

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