If we are lucky, our pets will be with us until they reach ‘old bones’ and this is such a wonderful time of their lives. An old dog is wise, loving and needs your attention and love just that little bit more now.
The sad fact is that our dogs age far too quickly than we would like. There’s an old rule of thumb that seven dog years is equivalent to one human year, but it’s much more dependent on your dog’s size.
This chart gives a rough idea of how old your dog would be in human years, so you have an idea of their needs and abilities.An older dog’s behaviour will give you clues as to how their needs are changing, but to help us understand their needs, let’s look at what a senior dog might tell you if they could talk…
“My joints ache so I can’t move as well as I used to.”
Many older dogs show obvious signs of joint stiffness especially first thing in the morning, and in colder, damper weather.
All joints deteriorate with use so age related degeneration, such as arthritis in one or more joints, is common. Joint pain can make it difficult for your dog to get into the car, on the sofa or down the stairs, or to walk longer distances. You can help your dog get about by creating a stair or halfway step for the bed or sofa; a simple wooden box with a carpet square glued to the top is a safe solution but it needs to be big enough for them to stand on.
A ramp for the car can be bought for around £30 if your dog is too big to be lifted in. Raising your dog’s food and water bowls so they don’t have to bend so far may also be helpful.
Try to maintain a constant level of daily exercise, rather than random strenuous activities as this is likely to lead to soreness the following day, as this supports both mental and physical fitness. Hydrotherapy is also a fabulous as swimming takes the load off your dog’s joints.
Weight control is even more important in older age so a suitable diet for a senior dog and carefully planned exercise may be helpful to ensure your dog isn’t carrying too much weight which puts more stress on their joints. You may need to cut their food down as they aren’t burning so many calories off in exercise, but if they are still hungry try adding some lightly steamed vegetables to their bowl to help fill them up.
If your dog shows lameness or discomfort they should be checked by your vet, as a range of treatments may be recommended. Modern drug treatments can be extremely effective in reducing the pain and inflammation which helps to improve quality of life and activity. Some treatments suit certain dogs better than others, so be prepared to explore a few different options in order to find the best treatments for your dog.
If you feed your dog raw bones, then they will be getting lots of chondroitin and glucosamine which helps to prevent joint issues, but if you feed a diet that doesn’t add these, then it’s a good idea to supplement your dog’s diet from around the age of 2 or 3 – prevention of joint problems from an early age is important.
“I can’t see or hear as well as I used to.”
If you think your dog is starting to ignore you, you may actually find that he simply doesn’t hear you calling, or he can’t see the ball you threw in what you thought was plain sight.
Teaching your dog hand signals to back up your verbal cues before they lose their hearing can be helpful. If you think they are losing their sight, they may become more clumsy, struggle to find food or water dishes, seem less keen to move around as much, or is easily startled, a loss of vision could be the culprit. Different flooring in each room and minimising changes to furniture lay out will help your dog stay oriented.
Often, owners don’t notice the signs that a dog is losing his sight or hearing until the loss is severe. One of the signs may initially look like aggression — if a person comes up and touches the dog without the dog noticing the approach, the dog may react out of defensive surprise, so it’s worth checking with your vet if your dog reacts out of character.
Be thoughtful when approaching it so that it doesn’t get scared and snap at you in fear. Above all, don’t touch the dog without being sure that it knows you are there. You can gently wake a deaf dog up by placing your hand in front of its nose so it smells your presence, and attract their attention by tapping your foot on a hard floor. Rewarding their attention with a treat in these cases will ensure they repeat the behaviour.
‘I am a little more anxious now.’
Senior dogs often have a harder time handling stress. Worries such as being alone, visitors, new dogs, strange noises or object may cause them to be more anxious that when they were younger.
If your dog seems to be much more anxious that before then it’s worth checking there are no underlying health concerns with your vet, but if it is just the effects of ageing, you can help reduce your dog’s anxiety by playing games or food puzzles to increase his mental stimulation, giving him extra space from strangers or stimulation when in public, keeping a consistent routine so he knows what to expect during the day, and continuing to work with separation training for when you’re away (or asleep!). Most importantly, you want to be as patient as possible, since your dog can still pick up on your mood and that can add to his anxiety.
‘I get confused sometimes and may forget some of our old rules.’
A loss of cognitive ability is common with ageing. Your dog may forget simple things like how to navigate around an obstacle or even get lost in areas they are familiar with or not recognise people they know.
They may find it harder to perform tasks or learn new behaviours, and they may forget even the basics like house-training. Bathroom accidents may become more common and you may notice that your dog starts having little ‘accidents’ when lying down, especially overnight, which may be a sign of bladder weakness. No matter what, if your dog starts to act strangely or their behaviour changes, have them checked out by a vet to be sure of the cause, which could be more than simply ageing.
A human study has found that essential oils, particularly lavender, bergamot and lemon balm, can help calm the patient and stimulate cognitive function however there are contra-indications (reasons why you shouldn’t’ use it), especially if your dog is on medication or has any other diagnosed health conditions so please speak to an experienced herbal self-medication practitioner before using them.
‘I get cold more easily now.’
As we age it becomes more difficult to regulate body temperature so your older dogs may find benefit from a warm cosy bed. They may also need a fleece or jacket when out and about on a colder day and may like their bed near a fire or radiator, or with a warm (not hot) headed pad in their bed when they get home.
Helping your dog keep his body temperature up will help minimise joint and muscle stiffness, and even help him stave off illnesses since his body won’t be focused entirely on staying warm. Closely monitor your pet’s environmental temperature and watch him for signs of being cold.
‘I need a little extra help with grooming.’
Older dogs often undergo changes in their skin, coat and nails. Their skin can become dry and thin, so more prone to injury. Their coat may become more coarse while their nails can become brittle, requiring more frequent nail trimmings as they are less likely to wear down their nails through their activities.
Because an older dog might not be as keen or flexible enough to do their own grooming, you may need to increase how often you brush their coat and help him to stay clean. It’s a great opportunity to bond with one another, as well as a chance for you to check for any new lumps, bumps or pains your dog may be having that might need to be checked out.
Ageing dogs suffering bad teeth and infected gums will be both uncomfortable and at risk from serious sources of blood-borne infection potentially damaging internal organs, like the heart and liver. Most owners find dogs with bad teeth are much happier and eat better after dentistry, so ask your vet for details as general anaesthetics are much safer for oldies nowadays too.
Though it may sound like a lot of work to care for your dog as they reach their senior years, such devotion has its own special rewards, including knowing that you’ve done everything you can for your special companion who has been dependent on you from day one.
Blessed are those who have earned the love of an old dog.