Typically a seven-year-old dog can be termed middle to senior age but a common misconception is that as any of us age it’s normal to get stiff, sore and start moving around less.
Both dogs and people should move well even if they are old, and should be as pain free as possible. You can be both elderly and healthy, and have a happy, comfortable old age.
To make the most of your pet’s twilight years, be aware of the signs of ageing and take action early to keep your dog younger for longer.
It’s vital to keep your older dog as active as you can – remember, ‘use it or lose it’! Rather than the long marathons you and your pup may have been used to, you will need to take shorter strolls, more often.
Monitor behaviour carefully, though. You can judge if you have overdone your dog’s exercise by how it feels the next day. If it’s particularly tired, lame or stiff, modify the regime.
Low-impact activities – for example, water-based exercise like swimming, hydrotherapy and wading – are particularly beneficial for older dogs, as there is less stress on joints. This kind of exercise will help strengthen muscles and aid movement.
One of the most troubling areas of canine ageing can be incontinence. Dogs will not willingly and without reason lose toileting habits; if there are problems in this area it is probably as distressing for your pooch as it is for you.
Look for an underlying cause and consult your vet. One reason for problems might be due to poor eyesight – your dog’s feeling of disorientation may lead to a fear of going outside or downstairs in the dark for a toilet break. Arthritis may also make it difficult to negotiate doggy doors or stairs. Spinal problems or hormonal imbalances could initiate incontinence too.
Nuclear sclerosis is often confused with cataracts. Your vet will be able to determine whether or not your pet has a cataract, which is caused by the disruption of cells in the eye lens and a loss of transparency. Cataracts can cause complete blindness, and the only current treatment is surgery which is often not viable for older dogs. If blindness occurs slowly, your dog should be able to manage fairly well by relying on its powerful sense of smell. You can help by sticking to routines, keeping furniture in the same place and even refraining from buying new furniture.
New smells may cause anxiety, so regularly take your dog on familiar walks along well-known routes.
You will notice the onset of deafness because your dog will not respond to calls and noise. Be careful if you tend to walk in off-leash areas, as without being able to hear your calls your dog could quickly get lost. Deaf dogs will be easily scared by sudden or unfamiliar stimuli. Dogs respond well to hand signals, so incorporate them in your basic commands from an early age so you can rely on them when hearing fails. An advantage of hearing problems is that dogs previously scared by fireworks or thunderstorms will often become more relaxed.
Appetite can sometimes dwindle with age so good quality food is essential for maintaining a healthy weight.
Your dog’s digestion will become more sensitive, so avoid any sudden changes to diet otherwise you risk inducing diarrhoea.
Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is caused by changes in the brain and its chemical balance. Studies have shown that some older dogs with CCD have brain lesions similar to those of human Alzheimer patients. If your dog begins to show signs of CCD, they will be similar to those of a human with senile dementia.
Although there are drugs which can be prescribed to delay the onset of CCD, regular, moderate physical activity, mental stimulation with interactive toys and a diet rich in antioxidants may help.
If you are bringing a new young pup home for the first time and are worried about how your elderly dog will respond, make sure the older dog always has its own space away from the pup. Feed them separately – not all dogs will share their food with a new arrival. Do not scold the old dog for baring teeth or warning the pup away. The puppy needs to know its boundaries, as any new addition to the family does.
The challenges that come with your dog’s ageing are inevitable, but remember the years of devotion your pet has shown to you and try to stay patient and compassionate. And if you keep an eye out for the signs and catch them early, there is still plenty of fun to be had together.
By physiotherapist Kristine Edwards and veterinarian Hendrika Tegelaar.