This article is to educate pet owners on the care of senior dogs. Advice to give about quality of life.
With appropriate care most dogs live complete and happy lives. Unfortunately, an adored pet never seems to live long enough. Each breed has different life spans. While taking care of your aging dog you need to adapt his environment for his comfort. As dogs get older, they develop aches, joint pain, generalized weakness and an almost definite increase in medical problems.
What are some of the things to expect as your dog ages? Your dog may develop arthritis or other degenerative diseases that cause him to slow down. He may not be able to walk as far or play as long. He may tire more easily. He may have difficulty getting up or finding a comfortable position to sleep in. He may become reluctant to go up and down stairs or have difficulty getting into and out of the car.
Without proper care, dental disease can pose a problem, particularly for older pets. You may be surprised to learn that veterinarians find evidence of dental disease in many pets as early as 2-3 years of age. If nothing is done to care for your dog’s mouth, by the time your dog is a senior, he may even have lost some teeth. Dental disease can be painful, causing your dog to avoid or have difficulty eating his meals. This may result in weight loss and an unkempt hair coat.
Here are some specific symptoms/behaviors to watch out for:
Breathing – Labored breathing, exercise intolerance, noisy breathing, coughing (Note that coughing in cats can be mistaken for an attempt to expel a hairball. If you are unsure, ask your veterinarian).
Appetite/thirst – Disinterest in food, increased thirst, vomiting.
Urination – Straining to urinate, excessive urination, frequent but unproductive attempts to urinate, no urination, discolored urine, smelly urine, urination in the house or outside the litter box.
Defecation – Straining, blood in the stools, diarrhea, house soiling.
Urination and defecation issues can be frustrating, and you might be tempted to chastise your pet for “forgetting” his training. But because these issues can point to a medical condition, get your veterinarian involved! It’s always best to rule out health concerns before looking for other causes.
Older pets can experience degraded sight and hearing, just like older humans. Accommodating your pet in this situation involves increased awareness on your part.
Furniture – Changing the arrangement of furniture in your home can be stressful for your pet. If they know their bed is 10 steps from your bed or that the doggie door is in a straight line from the living room couch – and then suddenly it’s not, you can imagine how disquieting that might be!
Leashes – Trusting your pet outside unattended or off-leash might be risky because your pet does not necessarily know that his senses are impaired and won’t compensate. So, you need to compensate for him.
Sounds – Pets who are losing their hearing might seem extra sensitive to the sounds they can hear. Once you identify what your pet reacts badly to, try to limit their exposure to those things.
Body Language – Use hand signals and other kinds of body language to communicate with a pet with hearing loss. Try stomping on the ground to get their attention – they can often feel the vibration.
Although hearing aids for pets are not unheard of, they are not a mainstream treatment yet due to their expense and the difficulty pets have in accepting them. But if you are interested in exploring hearing aids, talk to your veterinarian.
Adjust his surroundings to minimize discomfort. Protect him from excessive heat and cold. Older dogs are unable to regulate body temperature as a younger dog.
Try to give your dog regular exercise. Make sure your dogs health matches his exercise routine. If your dog exhibits signs of heavy panting or opposes exercise you need to change his routine.
Adapt his diet and feeding schedule to his needs. As dogs age they are less active and need fewer calories. Prescription diets are available. Discuss special diets with your veterinarian.
You might notice behavior changes in your older pet that your veterinarian cannot attribute to an underlying medical condition such as cancer or diabetes.
If your pet seems confused or anxious or seems to forget things he knew very well, he might be experiencing cognitive dysfunction. Canine or feline cognitive dysfunction is a state of mental confusion caused by changes in the brain – something akin to dementia or Alzheimer’s in humans.
The acronym DISHA is widely used to characterize the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction:
D = Disorientation – The pet might become confused in familiar surroundings and seem lost.
I = Interactions – There might be changes in the way the pet interacts with her human family or with other pets in the household.
S = Sleep – Sometimes pets are restless when they would normally have been sleeping or are asleep when they would normally have been awake.
H = House soiling – Cats might forget what a litter box is for. Dogs might soil in the house without letting someone know they need to go outside.
A = Activity – Changes in activity can be symptoms. Some pets lose interest in play. Some wander aimlessly and can’t seem to relax. Others develop repetitive behaviors that can result in self-injury.
Be sure to report your observations to your veterinarian so he or she can rule out other possible causes of the behaviors you are seeing, and so they can advise you as to treatment options.
For example, your veterinarian might suggest selegiline, a drug used to support brain function in dogs experiencing cognitive dysfunction. There are also special diets and dietary supplements available that can help. This is another area where early detection is important. These treatments are most effective when started early in the mental decline.
Older dogs can experience hearing loss and declining eyesight. Accommodate for his safety.
Senior dogs require special dental care. They are more likely to develop gum problems and disease. Complete dental cleaning should be performed by your vet every six months which does require anesthesia. Make sure complete bloodwork is performed.
Older dogs need extra bathing and grooming. Dry skin can be a normal part of aging or it can be a sign of an underlying medical condition. They also require more frequent nail trimming.
Take into consideration his age in human years. If he is 13 in dog years, he may suffer the same aging ailments as a 75 year old human.
Continue with bi-annual vet exams. Senior dogs need extra care with their aging problems.
Terminal Conditions and Quality of Life
Watching a loved dog or cat become a geriatric with a terminal condition often raises the question of how much the pet is suffering. It’s difficult for pet owners to be objective on this issue, but there are some tools, such as the HHHHHMM scale, available to help with the assessment.
The HHHHHMM Scale was developed by veterinary oncologist Alice Villalobos to aid caregivers and veterinary teams in determining whether their efforts on behalf of an ailing pet are resulting in an acceptable quality of life. The scale assesses the degree of comfort/suffering in these areas:
More good days than bad
Each item in the scale is assigned a number from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Scores of 5 or lower warrant reflection. Can anything else be done to support the pet in that area? If not, is it okay to prolong the pet’s life with that degree of suffering? You and your veterinarian can do this assessment together, on a regular schedule so you can see and consider changes.
Many people feel that the decision to euthanize a suffering pet is an act of love and responsible commitment. Your Vet’s Here doctors and staff are here to help you weigh and balance your options, provide in-home euthanasia if that is your wish, and to point you to resources for coping with grief.
Give his life quality! Keep those memories alive!