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Care of the Old Dog

Old age – when does it start?
For purposes of showing dogs, they are classed as veterans at 7 yrs of age. Some dogs are still virtual puppies at this age while others may be starting to slow down. The smaller breeds, with lifespans up to 16 and maybe more years, tend to live longer than large and giant breeds, which may only survive 10 or 11 yrs, though some do much better than this.
Quality of life is as important as quantity and the dog which has been plagued by ill health or continual stress cannot expect to have a long or healthy old age.

Changes that occur with aging.
One of the most obvious signs of aging is a general slowing down, some joint stiffness, loss of muscle mass and tone. The aging dog prefers increasingly shorter, slower walks, may puff a little and likes to sleep more.
A darker coated dog’s muzzle may become grey, but there is no real color change of coat in the pyr, though there may be some subtle lightening of the pigment around eyes. The nose gradually becomes rough and dry. The coat may be thinner, perhaps dry, with slowing down of regrowth. The plume of the tail can thin quite a lot. The hair on the elbows may be rubbed away leaving bare patches of skin, prone to abrasion, dryness, cracking. The skin is thinner with some loss of elasticity and maybe some dryness or flakiness. Small lumps (simple fatty cysts or growths)and skin tags may appear in the skin.

Glandular and organ activity will slow down and this may be responsible for some of the changes that you notice, including perhaps, a dislike of cold weather. A slowing of metabolism may also cause a decreased tolerance to some drugs, including vaccines. He may gain some weight as his activity levels decrease, or he may eventually lose some weight and condition if his appetite decreases, or if he develops specific health problems. Some conditions such as Hypothyroidism, may be overlooked because the symptoms are those which one expects to see in an old dog, so it is important to have a vet check when those ‘old dog’ signs appear, especially if the dog seems to be aging prematurely.
The nervous system changes may cause loss of sight, smell, hearing, perhaps some irritability or absentmindedness, eg. he may not want to bother with grooming, or not hear when you call him, and seem slow to recognise visitors. He may forget that he has eaten and come in looking for his dinner three or four times a day.

Talking of dinner, there may be some degree of gum inflammation, tartar or tooth decay, wearing or loss of teeth. Saliva production may decrease and the mouth looks dry. These changes, together with digestive system inefficiencies, not to mention decreasing activity levels, may cause some loss of appetite and constipation.

Prostate enlargement or loss of bladder control may occur, possibly some degree of kidney failure or Urinary Tract Infection. Accidents may occur in the house because the dog cannot move quickly enough to go outside before urinating.
Movement slows down and he no longer runs, then his walk slows down too. The hind feet can eventually start to move more slowly than the front feet as nerve and muscle degeneration occur. There is increasing stiffness on lying down and rising.

This all sounds grim and is probably not a complete list ! but these changes are part of the natural aging process and may occur over several years. However if aging seems to start earlier than you expect, or your dog displays any marked changes suddenly, have your vet check him out in case there is a health problem. With good care, food and love, your dog will enjoy his advancing years and should live to a ripe old age.

Senior dog sites on the WWW.
The last recommended site is courtesy of a Chesapeake breeder, but full of good ideas for activities for your old dog, to keep him active and enjoying life.

Sheba survived to just past her fourteenth birthday. An independent and aloof girl, affectionately called the ‘Old Bag Lady’, she was ‘chief bitch’ and kept the other dogs in line. As she aged, we expected a leadership challenge from a younger bitch, but leadership passed quietly from one to the other, as if by mutual agreement and at around eleven years Sheba began her retirement. This was obvious as she could no longer run as fast as the youngsters and had to settle for tailing slightly behind.

There were few changes for the next two years, apart from gradual wearing of her front teeth. With no sign of arthritis she continued to go out with the others for walks, covering the same distance as the younger dogs but at a slightly slower pace. She never appreciated grooming, even when young, and became more intolerant, so we resorted to trimming her very thick coat to keep her tidy.

Sometime after her thirteenth birthday we noticed that she seemed to be very almost imperceptibly dragging one hind leg. Hardly noticeable initially, soon both hind legs were affected which looked rather odd as her front legs moved slightly faster than her rear. The condition gradually became more obvious over the next few months but she was still determined to be included on walks. The hind leg weakness caused some difficulty rising, though she managed this without help.

Three months prior to her fourteenth birthday we had our vet check her out. He found a slight increase in heart rate and signs of cataracts but neither problem required treatment.
Sheba had unpleasant smelling urine, but a urinalysis showed no problems. She was quite deaf, but was barking several times for no obvious reason during the night and needed to be put back on her bed. Our vet suggested Clomicalm, which unfortunately did not help & he then suggested trying herbal remedies to help her relax and sleep. She was just fine, apart from the fact that she had ‘old dog disease’!

During the next three months Sheba needed the following care:
Food in bite sized pieces, as her front teeth were completely worn down, making it hard to pick up big pieces or manage mushy foods. She still crunched chicken necks with her back teeth ! She only ate small amounts, so she was fed three or four small meals each day and encouraged to drink by offering either milk, or milk diluted with water, to maintain a good fluid intake. Some food was still raw, but some was cooked as she seemed to prefer it.

Eyes were a bit sticky and needed a quick clean with saline each day. Liquifilm drops provided comfort, as the weather was hot, dry and very windy.
Nose was rough and dry and a thin film of vaseline or "Chapstick" was applied twice a day for comfort.
The coat under lower lips and chin became darkly stained, probably from saliva and food, and was a bit smelly at times, so were dried after meals and given an occasional wash as required. Chewing chicken necks kept the teeth clean.

Because she was deaf, we first had to make sure that she could see us if we wanted to attract her attention. In spite of the cataracts her sight remained adequate and she did not start walking into objects in her path, though she must have had a very hazy view of the world.

Walks were on private property so we did not need to use a leash, but we either walked just ahead of her leading the way, or beside her and touched her to guide her in the right direction. It became important to stay with her and resist the inclination to go on ahead, after she took a wrong turn on one occasion and failed to return to the house. She was quickly found, wandering back to the house through the apple trees.

Body and breath odour became a problem and we gave her charcoal capsules between meals, with good effect.
Bladder control was not so good and she had to be quickly escorted outside when she woke from a nap, to avoid leakage on the floor. Cranberry powder was added to her food to protect the bladder from infection.

The nocturnal barking became more persistent and she seemed confused and restless when escorted back to bed. Sedatives eventually provided by our vet were short acting at low doses and higher doses just made her more unsteady and confused. She was cognisant during the day and we realised her night time behavior was the nocturnal confusion of senile dementia. She slept all day and our attempts to keep her awake, in the hope that she would sleep better at night, were futile.

Though she needed extra care, she seemed to be happy and enjoyed her twice daily walks round the orchard, covering a considerable distance in spite of her age and slowness. The excercise certainly prevented constipation which can become a problem in old inactive dogs.

Finally came the day when she began to stumble over the slightest unevenness in the ground and she took a couple of tumbles. The weak hind limbs now meant that she needed help to get up. This indignity appeared to knock the wind from Sheba’s sails and take much of the enjoyment out of her walks, as if she realised that her independence was at an end.
She was no longer safe to be left alone and we could not be there for her 24 hours a day. Sadly we made the difficult decision and the inevitable one way trip to the vet. Rest in peace Sheba, dear Old Bag Lady !

Stella Hughes