Dogs – The Geriatric Dog
What is considered geriatric for a dog?
The geriatric years for a dog are usually defined as 8 years of age or older. (For giant breeds it is 6 years of age or older.) The average life span of a dog has improved considerably in recent years. Today, it stands at 10 to 12 years. (For giant breeds it is 8 to 10 years.) This is due primarily to improved vaccinations, availability of improved technologies and new treatments, increased awareness of guardians to keep their dogs indoors, and increased guardian responsibility and care of their dogs.
What affects a dog's longevity?
Both genetic and environmental factors affect a dog's longevity. We have no control over the dog's genetic makeup. (Small or toy size dogs live longer than large-sized breeds.) But you, the guardian, have some control over the environmental factors which affect longevity. These environmental factors include nutrition, veterinary care, daily home care, neutering, and keeping dogs indoors. Dogs that have been neutered, preferably at a young age, live longer than unneutered dogs. Dogs that stay indoors live longer than dogs allowed to roam.
What changes can I expect as my dog gets older?
Aging is a natural process with progressive and irreversible changes in all the body systems and their functions and a gradual decline in the metabolic rate. Behavioral and physical changes are usually predictable and degenerative as the dog ages. These changes usually occur slowly and are only distinguishable over time. These changes may not be reversible.
The aging dog may demonstrate behavioral changes, including lapses in house training, lethargy, increased and changes in sleeping pattern, night time restlessness, increased anxiety, and inability to cope with environmental changes, lack of attention to grooming, decreased tolerance to cold, finicky eating habits, and becoming more sweet tempered (on the other hand some become more cranky or grumpy!). Some become more vocal, irritable, and anxious and can't tolerate children like they used to. If advanced senility occurs, bizarre behaviors are seen.
Teeth, gums, and mouth:
Dental calculus (tartar) gradually builds up at a different rate for each dog depending on genetics (some breeds of dogs are more prone to dental disease) and food fed. Hard dry dog food builds up less tartar than canned dog food. Tartar, unless periodically removed, will eventually cause periodontal disease or gingivitis that leads to loosening of teeth.
Older dogs may have anorexia (loss of appetite), vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea. Diarrhea is a common problem with older dogs. Poor digestion and absorption of foodstuffs is common. A diet change or medications may be necessary.
Kidney degeneration occurs in older dogs. Dogs can compensate by drinking more water and thus urinating more urine. Incontinence (lack of bladder or bowel control), and thus lapses in house training, may occur.
A general loss of muscle mass and tone occurs with age. Long bones become more brittle and arthritis sets in. These changes account for the decreased and slower activity of the older dog, inability to jump as high, less agility, and tendency to wobble.
All the senses of the dog are diminished by age, but dogs can compensate well, up to a certain degree. Loss of hearing and/or eyesight can appear to the guardian as acute (sudden) due to this covert compensation. Deterioration of the senses of smell and taste may lead to difficulties in the dog eating his regular food.
As a dog ages, her skin loses its elasticity (skin becomes flabby) and a general thinning of the skin and fur is common. Skin cysts and tumors occur more frequently as do chronic skin infections. Many older dogs have an unkempt coat. Nails grow thicker and longer. With aging, a decrease in metabolic rate occurs and dogs can become obese on high calorie food.
Other signs may include a cloudy appearance of the eyes, changes in hair coloration (for example, graying of the muzzle), more prominent spine and hips, and loss of weight.
What can I do to care for my elderly dog?
While the maximum life span probably cannot be increased beyond its present limits, there is much you can do to improve the quality of an older dog's life. This requires an increased desire, care, understanding, and higher maintenance on your part. But you will enjoy your dog more fully in his declining years and your dog will live a longer and happier life.
Feed your dog a balanced nutritious diet in restricted amounts to prevent obesity. If your dog is overweight, consult your veterinarian for a lower calorie diet. If your dog is underweight, consult your veterinarian for a higher calorie, more palatable diet. Warm the food to enhance the aroma.
Take your dog to see your veterinarian at least once or twice a year or more often as recommended for examinations, determination of weight, and blood testing. This will vary from dog to dog. Frequent diagnostic procedures may be needed to identify disorders and treatment plans.
Commonly encountered geriatric-related diseases include diabetes, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, Cushing's disease, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, and diseases of the teeth and mouth.
Chronic diseases require lifelong treatment, intermittent monitoring and modification of the management regimen. Follow the recommended diet (and any supplements), medications, vaccination schedule, and dental care (teeth cleaning). Adverse or unexpected drug reactions should be immediately reported to your veterinarian — some older dogs cannot tolerate some medicines that they use to.
Give fresh water constantly. Keep your dog indoors. Never leave your dog out in cold or rainy weather. Encourage playing and as much activity as possible. Give plenty of attention and affection to the older dog. Groom the dog every day. Clean eyes regularly. Cut your dog's nails regularly to keep them short. If the dog will allow, examine the teeth and gums periodically, brush the teeth daily, and chip tartar off the teeth with your fingernail. Eliminate stress as much as possible from your dog's life. If possible, have the dog cared for in his own home while you are on vacation.
It will take the older dog a longer time to recuperate from any illness. Also it will take less to push the older dog to be ill. Be observant of the dog's water intake and urine output, weight, food intake, activity level, and any problems of diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, coughing, or sneezing.
Never assume that changes you see in your older dog are simply due to old age, and therefore untreatable. Any change in your dog's behavior or physical condition should alert you to seek veterinary attention.
It may be necessary to relocate food dishes to make them more easily accessible. Your dog may need to be carried upstairs or it may be necessary for you to have a ramp for the dog at stairways.
When do I know it is time to say goodbye?
Pets offer companionship, emotional intimacy, and feelings of well being to their guardians. This makes the reality of advanced age, and ultimately death, difficult to accept. Guardians must ensure a happy, pleasurable, and dignified quality of life to their pet. When that quality of life cannot be maintained, alternatives need to be considered.
A decision about euthanasia is difficult to make. Euthanasia is a humane course of action in cases where the prognosis is hopeless or where the continued life of the dog would be painful or undignified. Please talk to your veterinarian about all options available to you, to help you make informed decisions.
In 2006, Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, issued a issued a ruling, a Psak Halacha, stating that on the basis of the Jewish mandate to prevent cruelty to animals, tsa'ar ba'alei hayim, a suffering animal should be allowed to end its life in a dignified manner. "Compassion is inherent in our people, a characteristic of the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; therefore, pity any suffering creature and relieve it of its suffering in a quick manner, by euthanizing it so that it will feel no further pain."