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Old Dog, Good Dog

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Easing Their Way

Start by accommodating your dog’s physical changes: Put down carpet runners, plug in a night-light, buy a memory-foam dog bed or steps or a ramp up to your bed. Luckily, dogs are so firmly entrenched as family members that manufacturers have responded with a variety of products that improve seniors’ quality of life: There are thermoregulating cooling pads for dogs who don’t handle heat well and heated beds for dogs with arthritis (there’s a reason old dogs are always sleeping by the fire in those chilly English country houses).

“Older dogs need softer toys,” notes Catherine Frost, brand and product champion for Planet Dog. Her whitemuzzled black Lab, Ollie, is the model for Planet Dog’s line of Old Soul toys, which are made from a compound that’s gentle on dogs with older jaws, sensitive teeth, reduced “snout strength” and weakened muscles and joints. Similarly, Senior Kongs are constructed with softer rubber.

“Their olfactory sense has probably diminished, so stronger scents are good,” Frost adds, “and high-contrast colors are important so they can see the toy clearly. But the notion that they don’t want to play anymore? That’s not true at all! To be able to lie down and just chew helps them relax and keeps them from being bored. You can’t ever assume that your dog doesn’t want to play.”

Even for dogs at their healthiest, transportation can be tough, and older dogs often don’t hop into a back seat the way they used to. Haug suggests creating a surface that provides stable footing but is not so firm that when the dog lies down, he’s uncomfortable. For big cars and vans, there are ramps and steps; take breed and body shape into account when making your selection, however. If you have a Dachshund, you don’t want the short, steep steps, which are popular because they take up less space. Make sure the steps treads are deep enough for sure footing and wide enough to forgive a misstep.

It’s also a kindness to soften distractions such as sudden loud noises, and to avoid abrupt changes in routine. Older dogs can be more easily startled; as they’re less able to maneuver or defend themselves, they feel more fragile and grow more fearful, reluctant to play with new dogs or children, distressed by chaos and commotion. (Dr. Debra Horowitz, a veterinary behaviorist, notes that dogs’ neurotransmitter functions change with age – oxygen levels go down and brain chemistry is altered.)

Sometimes, the startle or anxiety is just because the dog can’t see or hear as well as he once did. Cataracts can start to form as early as age seven, for example. But overall, sensory declines are rarely as traumatic for dogs as they are for us egoridden humans; often the changes are so gradual that the dog adapts, and you might not even realize he’s blind or deaf, especially if you have other dogs and he’s following their lead. Susan McCullough, author of Senior Dogs for Dummies, says, “If you sense your dog’s hearing is going bad and he or she doesn’t already know hand signals, teach them now. If your dog is blind, now is not the time to change the furniture. Dogs are amazing, though, in their ability to compensate. I had a dog who still responded to vibrations, so I’d clap my hands and she’d come to me. Creativity goes a long way.”

Food for senior dogs isn’t as complicated as the marketers make it, according to Dr. Donna Raditic, a vet certified in alternative therapies and currently a post-grad resident in nutrition at the University of Tennessee. “Older dogs can eat the adult diets. The development of geriatric diets is a bit of marketing, plus some old beliefs that lowering protein levels spares the kidneys. Actually, we now know that older dogs and humans need more protein. The main concern for geriatrics is to watch calories, because they tend to be less active, especially in winter.”

Older dogs should be monitored for dental problems, like bleeding gums or tooth loss. Even bad breath can signal something as simple as tartar buildup or as serious as oral cancer, kidney disease or diabetes mellitus. And when dogs do fall ill, nausea can decrease their appetite. “Often owners think their dogs are being picky – they are not – they don’t feel well!” Raditic exclaims. “It can be very difficult to keep weight and condition on an old dog with a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract.”

Glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to be beneficial for arthritis, and anti-inflammatory pain meds can help, too. How do you know when your dog’s in pain? According to Haug, the signs are pretty obvious. Look for restlessness, crankiness, irritability when handled, difficulty getting up or lying down, looking stiff, being unstable, moving very slowly. Sometimes, if they move suddenly, their joints scrape together.” She sighs. “The thing that’s underappreciated, even sometimes by veterinarians, is how much these dogs can benefit from pain medication. Some are restless at night, only because they can’t get comfortable.”

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10:23PM PDT on Oct 19, 2012

WE have a rescue dog that seems to be around 9 or 10 years old, he is partially toothless and seems to be partially blind too, in some angles he can't focus; seems like he had a bad hit on his face that made him blind and knocked the teeth off, he was scared of all even to be cared, so needed long time to adjust and now he loves to get belly rubs and jumps happily to greet us, no more fear of noises or strange things, he seems to be so happy that has a nice smile in is face, we love him bunches and his furry buddies does too.

10:50PM PDT on Aug 26, 2011

i walked my dog every day and kept teaching her new tricks, even when she got old and gray. she was really happy and never lost her excitement to go have fun. she got a walk in her favorite park the day she died, even though i had to carry her most of the way.

3:42PM PDT on May 29, 2011

Our little man just turned 13 years old. The vet said he has the heart of a puppy. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

7:03AM PDT on May 2, 2011

THANK YOU!

12:01PM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

My Cavaliers are 12 and 15 respectively. The younger, a female, is under the care of a canine cardiologist for the heart disease often found in the breed and is on four daily medications.. The older suffers only from deafness and poor eyesight. They both have soreness and weakness in their legs. Now here's the thing - I'm the one who needs therapy. i find myself loathe to leave them as "something" may happen in my absence. I watch them like a hawk as they sleep (which they do alot) to be sure they are still breathing. I can't imagine life without them and I know they can't last much longer, It's feels like premature mourning. Does anyone else suffer from this phenomonen? Appreciate any good advice. Thanks.

8:00PM PST on Feb 20, 2011

Good article. My senior dachshund developed Cushing's Disease at age 10. He's now almost 12 1/2. He's on oral chemo drugs which compromise his immune system so I stopped his boosters and only gave him the rabies vaccine. Because he got no shots, I can't take him to many public places anymore. He recently lost his hearing. I had the vet check to see if he had impacted wax in his ears, but they are fine. He looks so depressed and sleeps most of the day & night. I decided to teach him hand signals and he seems much happier now. He also has a few good games of catch in him. I will see what new tricks I can teach him as suggested. Keep your fingers crossed it works!

6:23PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

It is a great article.
I have had many older dogs.
It's so hard when the end is near.
I took my dogs with me on car trips and errands.
I love spending time and spoiling my animals.
They deserve our time and love.
They give us so unconditional love.

7:50AM PDT on Sep 14, 2010

Really good, pertinent article. And so so true. We had/have ramps all over the house and outside for the deck. When my Max developed doggie Alzheimer's and partial blindness, we put rectangular planters all along the deck to "guide" him to the ramp and even put side-barriers on the ramp top so he wouldn't fall. And a zillion rugs all over the hardwood floors, especially in front of the water and food bowls. Luckily, he had his buddy Rocky to follow around and he'd listen for Rocky to bark to join in and "protect" his home. When Rocky died much too quickly of liver cancer, poor 17-yr old Max didn’t last a month, howling and crying, wandering all around the yard looking for Rocky and wanting to be held. I was grieving along with him and thought of rescuing another dog to keep him company but then he was diagnosed with another painful hernia, this time too unstable to survive the operation - and we lost him just 30 days after Rocky.

But this article really focuses on what needs to be done for them, and that they are bored alone and sleep (or chew, etc) to adjust to that loneliness. We are their family and family needs to comfort, spend time not money on them and "play" together......They are pack animals, after all.

Now we have four rescues, our home is complete again and they interact so well. The oldest, at 12 or 13, is like a puppy again!

1:50AM PDT on Jun 27, 2010

good article!

10:17AM PDT on Jun 5, 2010

what a great article. its so important to keep your older dog engaged and happy, just as you would want to still be involved with family and friends and enjoyable activities... just with more naps and resting and a slower pace.

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