Joan Merriam: The older dog |

Joan Merriam: The older dog

Many of us who’ve passed the half-century mark aren’t crazy about getting older…yet it’s a fact of life we can’t dismiss with a wave of a magic wand. We feel the same way about our dogs: we recognize that sweet “sugar face,” the slightly grizzled, gray muzzle that signals our beloved dog is no longer a puppy…but we’d rather not admit that reality.

Yet barring some catastrophe or health crisis in their early years, our canine companions will in fact get older. Just like us, eventually they’ll become senior citizens, and begin to suffer some of the effects associated with aging.

At this point you may be asking, “How do I know when my dog is a senior?” Generally, dogs enter their senior years around the age of seven, depending upon the dog’s breed and size. Very large breeds like Great Danes and Wolfhounds age more rapidly and reach senior status by six, whereas a teacup poodle may not attain that milestone until she’s eight or nine.

If you’re living with a senior pup, you need to be aware of and watch for senior dog health conditions so that you can help improve their quality of life.

Physical Health Issues
One of the first things you may notice as your dog ages is that he’s not quite as spry as he used to be. He takes the stairs more slowly, may exhibit a slight limp during or after walks, and has problems jumping onto a bed, couch, or into the car. Just like humans, dogs develop arthritis, the most common type of canine joint and bone disease. Studies have shown that supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM can be helpful in promoting healthy joints and cartilage. If your dog is exhibiting more acute pain, contact your veterinarian; she may suggest treatments such as acupuncture, massage, hydrotherapy, prescription steroids, or an anti-inflammatory like Rimadyl.

Another obvious sign of aging involves impaired hearing and eyesight. You may notice clouding in your dog’s eyes, a sign of cataracts. At the same time, your pup may not be as responsive to your calls of “Come!” as he used to be, signaling some hearing loss. Both of these conditions aren’t especially life-altering: many blind or deaf dogs adapt quickly and do quite well navigating their universe despite their disability.

A far more serious problem is cancer, which affects many older dogs. (In fact, almost a third of dogs older than seven will develop cancer at some point in their lives.) There are countless types of canine cancers—lymphoma, melanoma, and hemangiosarcoma are just three—and not only can they occur anywhere in the body, their symptoms can vary depending upon the type of cancer. In particular, watch for any lumps, bumps, or unusual swellings that persist or get larger.

Heart and kidney problems can also arise in older dogs. Coughing, difficulty breathing, and exercise intolerance can be a sign of congestive heart failure. In the case of kidney disease, the primary sign is increased drinking and urination, often accompanied by vomiting, lethargy, and reduced appetite.
Obesity is a serious problem in senior dogs, and can have severe repercussions far beyond their waistline. In fact, obesity can be a contributing factor in all of the diseases I’ve mentioned, which means you need to watch you pet’s food (and treat!) intake carefully as he ages.

The best preventative for all these disorders is to take your senior dog to the vet for regular wellness checkups every six months.

Behavioral and Cognitive Issues
Yes, dogs can suffer from dementia. Similar to Alzheimer’s in many ways, canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) can cause a myriad of behavioral problems such as becoming lost in familiar surroundings, confusion and disorientation (such as standing in a corner and not knowing how to get out), whining or barking for no apparent reason, increased anxiety and/or aggression, negative changes in social interaction, and eliminating in the house.
Remember, however, that any of these symptoms could also point to a serious medical condition, so always consult your veterinarian if something seems amiss.

As with the human form of dementia, there is no cure for CCD—however, there are things that can help. Providing physical and mental stimulation through games and activities can often ease behavioral problems. Feeding specially-formulated prescription senior dog food, or adding antioxidant nutritional supplements and products such coconut oil that contain medium-chain triglycerides can be effective in moderating CCD symptoms.
Your veterinarian may also suggest prescription drugs such as selegeline (Anipryl) to improve your dog’s brain function.

In the end, however, the most important thing you can do for your senior dog is to make sure he remains a treasured member of your family. As author Eileen Anderson says, “All that matters is to love the dog in front of you.”

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County 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 And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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