Health Concerns for the Aging Dog



Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs

It’s hard to believe, that your bouncy, active, and once playful puppy has now transformed into a much slower, less agile member of the family. Along with this overall “slowing down”, there could be any one of a number of more specific accompanying issues like inappropriate urination or pooping, confusion, and poor appetite.

Getting older is not much fun, even for man’s best friend. However, if we are on the lookout for any subtle changes, we can forestall many issues that would otherwise make aging more challenging and uncomfortable. Bearing in mind that some clinical signs that might occur more often in the older pet can and will occur in younger pets and should that occur, it would be prudent to seek help from your veterinarian.

A common sign in an older dog that becomes quite noticeable, is the inability or unwillingness to jump up into the car, favourite chair or even manage the stairs. This lack of mobility or agility is most likely due to Osteoarthritis. Although it may appear that arthritis came on quickly, it more than likely has been gradually worsening for years and your dog has finally reached the point of being unable to cope. If you were able to notice the signs earlier on, then there are a large number of joint targeted supplements that can enhance the joint function by slowing down the destruction of cartilage and maintaining good quality joint fluid. Both the fluid and the cartilage are necessary for a painless, easy moving joint surface. In advanced stages of arthritis, it will undoubtedly be necessary to add true pain reducing drugs like NSAIDS into the mix to help keep your dog happy and mobile. One thing to keep in mind is that although there are some very good joint supplements (and foods) designed to slow down and minimize the nasty effects of arthritis because they are supplements and not drugs, there are next to no regulations relating to their efficacy. The only regulation is that they do no harm. Hence, you are best to take direction from your veterinarian as to which supplements could be helpful for your dog.

You might think that as your dog enters his vintage years that his hearing has become more selective. Perhaps he is even acting out, or becoming more independent when he doesn’t respond to simple verbal commands. Much more likely is the gradual onset of Deafness and for many dogs, they can become completely deaf by the time they turn 12 or 13 years of age. Unfortunately, hearing aids are not an option and they are not likely any better at reading lips than when they were younger. This leaves you with using body gestures and hand signals to communicate and ensuring they don’t have access to dangerous locations like busy roads.

Along with decreasing hearing, dogs are also prone to develop Cataracts. An owner will often first notice this as a cloudiness or white reflection from their eyes when the light catches it just right. As the consistency of lens changes with age, these cataracts will likely worsen with advancing years, but unless there is an underlying cause other than aging (eg. diabetes mellitus), most dogs cope very well and don’t require surgery. Obviously, they will struggle more at night or in dim lighting conditions, but, if well supervised, cataracts do not normally impact their quality of life significantly.

Some breeds of dogs, usually the smaller ones, can struggle with teeth problems from an early age. However, even the larger breeds once they become geriatrics will develop significant Periodontal Disease. A normal consequence of not brushing the teeth every day is an accumulation of plaque on the teeth along the gum lines. This plaque will calcify becoming hard tarter. The tarter traps bacteria, food particles, and enzymes at the gum line leading to very significant infection and inflammation – so-called periodontal disease. The challenge is that not only can this lead to pain and infection within the mouth, but just as importantly, the infection is spread to other parts of the body by the bloodstream – leading to heart disease, kidney disease, and arthritis. If your veterinarian recommends a tooth cleaning, it is an excellent means to prevent other problems in your aging dog.

Kidney disease or failure is very common in older cats and it is also common in older dogs. Changes to look for would be an increase in water consumption, weight loss, poor appetite and urinating more frequently. The challenge is that these clinical signs are non-specific and could indicate a number of internal organ problems other than kidney. However, the majority of such problems can readily be diagnosed early with routine screening blood tests. The sooner and earlier the diagnosis, the better the long-term outcome. Although it is good preventive medicine to have every dog’s blood work checked annually, in the vintage years every 6 months makes more sense, as problems can arise more quickly.

One of the fears most people have when it comes to dealing with their own aging is the worry of developing dementia. Although perhaps not with the same frequency as people, dogs are also subject to the same type of illness which veterinarians refer to as Cognitive Dysfunction. Signs could be subtle at first, perhaps some mild confusion or even apparent early deafness might seem to be the issue. However, usually the problems progress and an owner might notice such things as inappropriate urination or defaecation, unusual vocalization, anxiety, standing in corners, as well as many other “odd” behaviours. Such behaviours can affect the quality of life for both dog and owner. However, there are drugs available that can be very helpful for some patients and, again, early initiation of treatment is the most successful. So, if you think your dog is “losing it”, then discuss possible solutions with your veterinarian.

Most dogs, as they age, will begin to sprout a variety of Lumps and Bumps. Although the majority of these are benign skin tags, warts, lipomas, cysts, etc., that is not always the case. Aside from them possibly being unsightly due to their location, the issue is whether or not they are potentially cancerous and a threat to your dog’s well-being. Although most such growths are of no concern, it is very important to have them examined by your veterinarian, who can then do a simple fine needle biopsy to determine what they are. Once that is known, you can then decide what to do about them – remove or leave them alone.

Cancer, however, more commonly will show up in more insidious ways than as a skin mass. Unfortunately, all too common examples like haemangiosarcoma and lymphoma will seem to show up out of nowhere. More likely these cancers have been coming on over weeks or even months ( depending upon the type of cancer ). There is nothing an owner can do to prevent them, but in many cases, speedy diagnosis and aggressive treatment can have a significant impact on survival rates and quality of life.

With all these problems affecting older dogs, it is very important to keep an open line of communication with your veterinarian as your pet ages. For almost all of them, early intervention will not only slow down or prevent matters from getting worse, but it will also vastly improve the quality of your dog’s life. They may not be very good at indicating to their owners when a problem exists, so if you think even a minor change has occurred, don’t hesitate to reach out your veterinarian and inquire as to its possible significance.

Keep your dog happy and healthy!

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