So often, when we think of adding a new dog to our household, we think of puppies, or perhaps a dog around 2 or 3 years old. But a senior dog can bring just as much joy into your life, and sometimes more!
But why should you adopt a senior dog? First of all, you’re saving a life, and bringing comfort and love to a dog who really deserves it. In return, you get an amazing companion who’s content to be at your side as he drifts into his last years.
An older dog has already become who they are, so you won’t have any surprises — like the unpleasant one of learning that your social, fun-loving puppy has somehow mutated into an aloof, unfriendly, or even aggressive adult. You also know how large they’re going to get, because they’re already there.
Senior dogs have often spent a lifetime with humans, so they know about living in a home — meaning you don’t have to face the drudgery of housebreaking or the frustration of having your remote control mangled by a puppy chewing machine. Many older dogs already know how to walk well on a leash, respond to commands, and understand that nights are for sleeping and days are for playing, unlike younger dogs who frequently think just the opposite.
A mature dog is also calmer, which means they’re better with children and the elderly, both of whom can suffer potentially perilous tumbles when jumped on or smacked into by an overly-zealous young pup.
If you decide to bring an older dog into your life, several things can help ensure that his or her “golden years” are in fact golden.
Before you adopt, make sure your home is suitable to a senior dog’s needs. While many older dogs have no problem with stairs or jumping into a car, if you have a three-story house and a full-sized pickup, a senior dog with a weak hind end or serious arthritis probably won’t be the best bet for either one of you.
Around the house, have at least one comfy dog bed, preferably one like an orthopedic bed, which adds extra support for dogs with arthritis or mobility issues. Consider adding throw rugs if you have slick floors, and if you have wooden stairs, install carpet runners or carpeted stair treads to prevent slipping. Speaking of steps, some older dogs benefit from a set of doggie-steps or a ramp to help them get up onto the couch, your bed, or into your car.
Unfortunately, part of adopting a senior dog means higher veterinary bills: most older dogs develop some level of health challenges that require more frequent trips to the vet. In fact, you should plan on two checkups a year rather than just one, so small problems don’t become big complications. And as difficult as it can be to contemplate, decide in advance whether you would undertake costly, heroic procedures for a life-threatening condition, or whether you’d instead want to focus on the quality of the dog’s remaining life.
Arthritis is just as common in older dogs as it is in humans, but medication and treatments like massage, acupuncture, and hydrotherapy can help ease the pain and stiffness of an older pup’s joints. Regular daily exercise like walking is another key to improving flexibility; just remember that senior dogs don’t have the stamina of younger ones, so keep things moderate. And monitor your dog’s weight, since extra pounds not only put strain on joints but can also lead to a host of other problems like diabetes.
It’s normal for senior dogs to lose some of their hearing and eyesight, but many people have taught their deaf dog sign language, and even totally blind dogs can navigate familiar surroundings and take on-leash walks. Periodontal disease is also common in older dogs, so be sure to have your pup’s teeth professionally cleaned on a regular basis.
Like humans, older dogs can have more acute health conditions like heart disease; watch for signs like persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, or if your dog tires more rapidly than normal. Sadly, cancer is more common in senior dogs than in younger ones, but remember than some cancers are benign, very slow-growing, or even treatable. Signs of more serious cancer includes persistent weight loss or loss of appetite, lumps that are growing in size, sores that don’t heal, or unexplained bleeding or discharge.
One of the most troubling conditions that many senior dogs develop is canine cognitive disorder (CCD), similar to human Alzheimer’s disease. This degenerative disorder can cause your dog to become anxious, confused, “stuck” in corners, wander aimlessly, or have urinary or fecal accidents inside. The prevalence of CCD in dogs is extremely high: 28 percent of 11- to 12-year-old dogs and 68 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds develop the disease. New medications can reduce some of the symptoms, and studies have shown some success with complementary therapies like Thundershirt, Anxiety Wrap, herbal supplements, acupuncture, massage, or physical therapy.
Above all, when you adopt a gray-muzzled dog, you’re enhancing whatever time he or she has, along with your own life. The best part is that you’re providing a loving forever home — no matter how long that forever is.
Finally, Happy Holidays to each and every one of you from Joan, Joey, and Indy!
Joan Merriam lives in northern California with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at firstname.lastname@example.org.