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Caring for your senior dog

Even though your dog may be slowing down a little, there's no reason why the later years in life shouldn't be some of the most rewarding. After all, he's wiser as well as older. With regular veterinary attention, daily care and proper nutrition, your senior dog can still experience a very happy, healthy life.

Certain changes will occur in your dog’s body as he gets older. Important bodily functions, normally taken for granted, may start to slow down or malfunction. Just like humans, the senses eventually start to deteriorate, leading to impaired vision, hearing, taste and smell. Older dogs are also prone to a number of medical conditions, the signs of which can be subtle and that we, as owners, should be on the lookout for as many are treatable.

Dogs are often older than we think they are, especially when we've had them as puppies as time flies by and we have always been used to their energetic behaviour. There is a wide breed variation in what constitutes older age as generally speaking, small dogs live the longest, while large and giant breeds have relatively short lifespans (a Great Dane is considered 'old' at six). In addition to a dog's breed, specific lifestyle factors affect how long a particular dog will live, such as diet, exercise and medical history. As the owner of an older dog it is important to recognise tell-tale signs of illness so you can seek prompt veterinary attention. Many diseases have slowly progressive signs that are easy to put down to ‘old age’ but in fact may be very treatable.

Diseases that are frequently diagnosed in this age group of dogs include:

  • Osteoarthritis is common in older dogs causing reduced energy levels, lameness, stiffness or difficulty getting up, or lameness/stiffness after a walk and reluctance to exercise.
  • Dental diseases - tooth and gum conditions are common in older dogs; look out for food being dropped, excessive salivation, pawing at the mouth, smelly breath or difficulty chewing food. Swellings below the eye may be signs of tooth root abscesses and need veterinary attention. .
  • Kidney problems can cause excessive thirst and frequent or uncontrolled urination. Drinking and urinating more can also indicate other problems such as diabetes and various other hormonal conditions.
  • Heart and respiratory conditions can cause reluctance to exercise, coughing, trouble breathing and lethargy.
  • Cancers, the type of which will dictate the signs but any unexplained weight loss, or growths, warts or skin lumps should be investigated.
  • Cognitive behavioural dysfunction, a syndrome which can cause signs consistent with senility including disorientation, pacing and inappropriate vocalisation.
  • Cataracts can be a problem in older dogs, but a hazy, bluish appearance to the eyes can be normal (a condition called nuclear sclerosis). Your vet will be able to distinguish between the two.

If you notice any of the above signs, or any other signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, weight loss or weight gain or reluctance to exercise contact your vet.

Caring for the Senior Dog - Top Tips

Regular veterinary care
- regular checkups are a must for older dogs. It is tempting to miss the check ups but remember that vaccinations, worming and flea treatments remain important during your dog’s senior years. In fact, as the immune system may not be what it used to be, these preventative measures are vital to keep your older dog in good health. Older dogs should be weighed regularly, and if indicated have blood and urine analysed for certain diseases. Some veterinary clinics run special nurses clinics for older pets to have a regular check up.

Healthy teeth and gums
- routine dental care from your vet is very important, since older dogs are more prone to gum disease and plaque build up. In addition to regular visits to your veterinary practice, it's always a good idea for you to check your dog's teeth and gums regularly.

Senior nutrition

Aside from ensuring regular veterinary care, understanding the changing nutritional needs of your senior dog is one of the most important things you can do. In general, dogs of seven years and older (depending on breed) start taking life a bit easier and, as a result, their nutritional needs start to change once more. Senior dogs are less active and have a slower metabolism, so fewer calories are required. However, high quality, easy to digest protein becomes more important than ever, to help maintain overall body condition.

A good senior diet provides concentrated, high quality protein, low fat, and easy to digest carbohydrates for energy. Key minerals support ageing joints, and vitamins, along with protein, help support the aging immune system.

Manufactured complete and balanced senior dog foods are formulated to reflect these changes in nutritional requirement and feeding habits. So your dog can continue to enjoy mealtimes to the full without compromising on the essentials.

If your older dog appears reluctant to eat, you should always check with your vet that there is not an underlying medical reason for what you may think is just fussiness. A few changes to feeding regimes may also encourage food intake in older dogs including feeding little and often as smaller meals can be easier to digest, varying textures and flavours, and warming the food to release tasty smells.

Healthy skin, coat and nails
- as part of your regular routine, you may want to schedule a special grooming session at least once a week. Bathing your older dog regularly is also very important, but ask your vet about a good quality dog shampoo. This is another great opportunity to give your dog that loving attention he needs. If your dog has a long coat you may need to consult a dog groomer to for a trim to make your dog more comfortable. Nails that previously were worn down by activity may overgrow; become uncomfortable or at worst grow back around into the paw-pad. Ask you vet/nurse to trim your dog’s claws regularly.

Home comforts
- a soft bed goes a long way when you are older with sore joints. Make sure the bed is in a quiet, draft free location, maybe next to a radiator in winter. Arthritic joints are not as good at jumping so you may need to lift a small dog in and out of the car, or for larger dogs provide a ramp. Also make sure food and water are within easy reach and don’t require trips up and down stairs for example

Staying active
- avoiding obesity is very important for your older dog as it has serious medical implications. Diet is important but so is regular exercise. Speak to your vet about an appropriate diet and exercise plan for your dog that takes into account any underlying conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Daily routine
- a consistent daily routine is important to your older dog's physical, mental and emotional health, providing comfort and a reassuring framework.

Acknowledge failing senses
- loss of sight and hearing may mean your dog sleeps very deeply and doesn’t hear you coming if approached from behind. Make sure all family members are aware of this and particularly children know to be quiet and slow around the dog.

Emotional support
- try to be sensitive to what your older dog is going through and understand that a lot of psychological changes are taking place. Daily care of your older dog requires a little more patience on your part. Your loving care and commitment really helps create true quality life during these senior years.

In conclusion caring for an older dog can be very rewarding. Excellent veterinary care and small home management changes can improve your older dog’s quality of life for many years to come.

Purina brands for senior dogs

Several leading Purina brands offer formulas specifically developed to meet the needs of older dogs, each the result of the very latest scientific advances in quality, taste and nutrition. Click any brand to learn more

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