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Your Aging Dog: What to Expect

It happens to the best of us: gray hair, a touch of arthritis, reading glasses, maybe a little forgetfulness and a few extra pounds. We know what to expect from ourselves and our loved ones as we age, but what should we expect from Buster? How does the aging process impact dogs and what changes are normal and natural versus those that could be mitigated with medical care or supplements? What changes in exercise or other routines would be best for an aging dog?

First of all, how old is older? The old “seven dog years to one human year” is ok as a general rule of thumb, with some adjusting for size and breed. The size of a dog’s heart doesn’t change that much compared to the size of the rest of the body so that means a toy breed, such as a toy poodle or papillon, might have a heart that is large for its body, compared to a Great Dane or Newfoundland, whose heart would be comparatively small for its body. This means the same size pump pumping blood around a small network of blood vessels versus a large network of blood vessels is working harder in the larger dog’s body and thus might wear out more quickly. That is why larger dogs often have a shorter life expectancy than smaller dogs.

Physical Changes
Might it surprise you to know that the physical changes most immediately noticeable with a healthy dog is the same as with humans? Yes, the unwanted, yet unavoidable gray hair that you are plucking right now is the same one that indicates a dog’s increase in age. Dogs do go gray, just like humans, and the first place you might see some graying is around the eyes and on the muzzle. Just as is the same case with humans, genetics will determine how young or old a dog is when graying starts and how much of the face and body turns gray. Sometimes a dog as young as two or three will develop some gray, but seven or eight years old is a more common age for gray to develop.

Let’s Start With the Head
Cataracts are another early aging sign in dogs. Cataracts are a very common eye ailment in which a filmy covering grows on the outside of the eye. This does impact sight and once the “sheath” is fully covering the eye, it can be addressed surgically with great success. Similarly, many dogs experience diminished hearing and eventually go deaf as they age. It is not uncommon for dogs to lose their sense of smell or have it decrease with age. Teeth and gums need additional attention and may need additional care in older dogs. Plaque may build up and teeth can rot or break.

Oh, My Aching Bones
Arthritis is another extremely common physical symptom of aging in dogs. Arthritis can affect any joint, but knees, shoulders and hips are very common sites for this condition to manifest. The main symptom an owner might notice is pain and stiffness upon getting up and hesitancy to be as active as in the past.

Did You Think You’re the Only One Capable of Weight Gain and Incontinence?
Metabolic changes mean that weight gain is common in older dogs. Obesity can result from the combination of a slowing of the metabolism plus trouble moving around due to arthritis, which then places more strain on the already painful joints.

Spayed female dogs are at increased risk for developing incontinence and changes in toileting habits are common as dogs age. Constipation can become a problem, as everything slows down a bit.

I’m Feeling a Bit Verklempt Lately!
Imagine how you’d feel if everything started to hurt a little more than usual, and you had trouble seeing, hearing or smelling and you peed on yourself sometimes. You might get a little touchy! Often temperament and behavior changes as dogs age. Willie may become less tolerant of young dogs or children and “cranky” even with those he loves.

Dogs can also develop dementia and senility and show signs of disorientation and forgetfulness. In severe cases, incontinence can result, as the dog has actually forgotten where he or she is and “thinks” s/he is outside.

What to Do with Your Best Friend?
Common sense “ain’t too common” but here, common sense prevails. Responsible dog owners should manage older dogs with the same sensitivity to your dog’s special needs as you did when the dog was a puppy and a young adult. Exercise is still important but should be scaled back a little. Shorter more frequent walks are probably best, and hard exercise sessions should be shortened. Consider providing more opportunities to swim if your dog will swim, as this is excellent exercise for elder dogs.

Also consider trying supplements. Discuss this with your vet: some vets do recommend glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis symptoms and fatty acid supplements for skin and coat. Some vets recommend anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers for arthritis and other conditions, but having a definite diagnosis and veterinary advice before spending any money on supplements is a wise move.

Older dogs can be a challenge, but they have much to give back. Enjoy your senior dog and remember: every phase of life has pros and cons and special joys.

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