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Meriam: Old dog, good dog

Nothing can guarantee that your dog won’t develop a life-threatening illness that will shorten his life, but if you want to up his odds of making it into old age, you need to offer the best care you can — and continue that care into his senior years
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My sweet Casey is showing his age.

Problem is, I don’t exactly know what age that is, though my vet and I agree that he’s at least 13.

Sometimes — especially with rescues — you just can’t be sure of a dog’s age. Or you can’t tell until later on, when age really begins to take its toll.



Thirteen is old for a big dog like Casey; in human terms he’s somewhere between 80 and 90. And there are days when he shows every year.

You can’t do much about your dog’s genes, but you have total control over things like the quality of his food, his exercise, his medical attention, and his living situation.

But he still loves his dog cookies, car rides, socializing with everyone he meets, snoozing away on one of his two cushy dog beds, and remains happy and pain-free.




In other words, he has a good quality of life. For me, that’s the key.

Before we talk about what it means to have a senior dog, let’s talk about what constitutes “old” for a dog.

Much depends upon size. Giant breeds like Great Danes age much faster than smaller dogs. A wolfhound or St. Bernard is already into the realm of geriatric by 5 or 6 years old, whereas a Chihuahua or terrier won’t even become a senior until she’s 10 or 11.

Large breeds like golden retrievers or German shepherds are nudging senior citizen status by the time they’re 7 or 8.

Keep in mind that genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle are fundamental factors in how fast your dog ages. You can’t do much about your dog’s genes, but you have total control over things like the quality of his food, his exercise, his medical attention, and his living situation.

Nothing can guarantee that your dog won’t develop cancer or some other life-threatening illness that will shorten his life, but if you want to up his odds of making it into old age, you need to offer the best care you can and continue that care into his senior years.

Caring for an older dog is in many ways not unlike caring for a puppy.

Regular vet checkups are a must, including carefully monitoring weight gain.

Help ensure her continued health by investing in a high-quality food geared for her age.

Paying special attention to her teeth and any signs of dental problems is equally important.

And as with puppies, be prepared to face the possibility of unfortunate “accidents” in the house.

Of course, having an older dog means dealing with some issues specific to advancing age.

Overweight can be especially problematic, because senior dogs typically become less active. If you continue feeding the same amount as when your dog was a crazy, I’ll-run-and-play-until-I-drop-in-my-tracks youngster, he’ll start piling on the pounds, which puts an extra strain on already-weak or arthritic joints.

That’s one advantage to feeding a diet formulated for the senior dog, because it contains fewer calories. Also, because older dogs can develop digestive issues, most senior dog food formulations are more easily digestible.

Another common issue is periodontal disease, which can lead to inflamed and bleeding gums or abscessed teeth. Regular veterinary dental exams can short-circuit these problems before they become chronic.

As with humans, some diseases and conditions become more prevalent with age. Diabetes is one, as are heart and kidney diseases, cancer, and hypothyroidism.

If you notice any symptoms such as increased thirst and urination, sudden weight loss or gain, decreased appetite, coughing or difficulty breathing, or unusual lumps or growths, you need to see your vet.

As she ages, your dog may also develop hearing loss or problems with her eyesight, or exhibit signs of cognitive dysfunction or senility.

None of these conditions are curable, but all can be managed with the help of a knowledgeable and compassionate veterinarian.

Arthritis is another condition we share with our canine companions as we age. Watch for symptoms like difficulty getting up, limping, pain, or swelling.

Over-the-counter supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM can be very helpful, or your veterinarian can prescribe anti-inflammatories such as Rimadyl and Metacam in more serious cases.

Never give your dog ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and avoid aspirin without a veterinarian’s advice.

Other therapies like acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, and aqua therapy can also be very effective for pain relief and enhancing joint mobility. We’re fortunate in Nevada County to have some excellent professionals working in these fields, so talk to fellow pet owners or ask your vet for a recommendation.

Becoming a pet parent means accepting an unspoken pledge to protect and care for it in every way.

When we talk about aging pets, we can’t avoid talking about their end of life, and our responsibility to do what is best for them despite our own pain. That’s a subject I’ll be tackling in a future column.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that living with an older dog is all disease, decline and disability.

With their teething years far behind them, dogs in their golden years are far less destructive, and don’t require the kind of 24/7 monitoring their younger versions do.

They’re usually more attuned to your schedule, which results in fewer nighttime disturbances.

Their lower energy levels means a calmer household and less intense exercise program; they’re simply not interested in running marathons!

Plus, the senior dog bestows something special that you’ll never have with a puppy or even mid-adult dog. The best part is their level of devotion.

There’s nothing like looking into the eyes of a gray-muzzled dog with his head resting on your lap, and seeing the love and contentment in his gaze.

These wonderful creatures teach us how to take each day as it comes instead of constantly focusing on the future, shifting us from “doing” into “being” and learning to find the joy and wonder within each moment.

We literally learn to treasure every day, every hour, we have with them.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her golden retriever Casey. You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com. If you’re looking for a golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.


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