Ask any dog owner and they will tell you that the worst part of owning a canine companion is the fact that they don't live as long as we do. It is inevitable that you will have to deal with a senior dog at some point, and it won't be easy. Learning how to keep senior dogs healthy takes a lot of research.
Regardless of how well you take care of your pooch, he's going to get older and health issues caused by aging will likely be part of both of your futures. For some dogs, aging happens gracefully with very little issues. For others, serious health complications related to aging can make their golden years depressing and painful.
Understanding their needs and ensuring a better quality of life for senior dogs is imperative for any pet owner that wishes to keep their companion as happy and healthy as possible. There are several ways to keep senior dogs in good condition, and there are also many products on the market to help pet owners manage that task.
What makes a dog a senior?
It is impossible to say how long your pup will live, as every dog ages differently. The life span of a dog is contingent on many things including his size, breed, weight, diet and activity level. Any genetic conditions or diseases that he may have will also factor into his lifespan, as will any illnesses that he contracts throughout his life.
Typically, small breeds live longer than large dogs. A five-year-old Jack Russell Terrier may still be very active and energetic. However, a five-year-old Newfoundland may be beginning to show signs of old age such as stiffness of the joints and a slowed metabolism.
It is important for all dog owners to understand these signs of aging and learn how to help their pet manage them in the best way possible. We'll discuss some of the most common signs and how you can help your senior dog to have a better quality life.
4 Tips On How to Keep Senior Dogs Healthy
according to science
1 Notice Changes in Behavior
It’s very important as your dog ages that you don’t dismiss changes in behavior as mere aging. While it’s true that old dogs will eventually slow down, it’s equally true that owners frequently miss signs of serious age-related problems.
One researcher followed 45 older dogs during a thorough screening at the veterinarian’s office. Fully 80% of the dogs were found to have one or more health problems that hadn’t been previously recognized. Often, the owners had noticed issues such as slowing down, sleeping more, not hearing or seeing as well as before, or being a bit stiff, but several of the dogs had serious or life-threatening medical problems that required treatment.
Your senior dog will need to get check-ups more frequently than in his younger days so potential problems are treated before they become more serious. Many of the ailments that pets develop as they age are the same ones that plague older humans.
These ailments include:
- Hearing problems
- Reduced liver function
- Reduced kidney function
- Reduced cognitive functioning
- Hip problems, especially in larger dogs
- Eye problems such as cataracts and glaucoma
Rather than trying to memorize a long list of symptoms for every possible illness and attempting to diagnose your dog yourself, take him to the vet for professional evaluation if something seems amiss. If needed, your vet can run tests to find out what the problem is and develop an action plan on preventing further senior dog health complications.
If your old dog is misbehaving but he gets a clean bill of health, he might be acting out for the same reasons younger dogs do. You may have to train him out of the undesired behavior, but remember he is likely be less flexible than he was in his youth (or even downright cantankerous!), so adjust your methods to take his age into account.
2 Could Your Dog Be Getting Senile?
If your dog’s changes in behavior can’t be trained away or diagnosed by a visit to the vet, maybe he’s getting senile. Older dogs can get a canine version of Alzheimer’s disease, called canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). While there are things you can do to slow the progress of CDS, the disease progresses gradually and will result in behavior changes for your dog.
Symptoms include wandering, staring into space, avoiding contact, and anxiety. Your dog may sleep more during the day but be very restless at night, and may become disoriented or lost even when he’s at home.
If you have noticed these symptoms, be sure to mention them to your vet. There are medications and supplements that can help, and the sooner you get started, the better for your dog’s cognitive functioning.
Inside the brain of a human with Alzheimer’s or a dog with CDS there are protein clumps and tangles called beta amyloid plaques. It’s exactly the same protein fragments in dogs and people. For this reason, scientists are studying CDS in dogs to help find treatments for Alzheimer’s in humans.
They’ve tried vaccinating dogs so that their bodies react to and attack the beta amyloid proteins. This resulted in clearing up some of the plaques but unfortunately this treatment alone didn’t improve the dogs’ brain functions. The disease also involves oxidative damage to the brain cells, so it’s not too surprising that giving antioxidant supplements to dogs with CDS can help to protect their cognitive functioning.
Combining antioxidant supplements with activities such as play and learning (to build new brain connections) also gets good results. Using a combination treatment is often more successful than trying one thing alone. Teaching your old dog new tricks might be just what the doctor ordered. In fact, many studies have shown how mental stimulation can prevent a list of cognitive dysfunctions in dogs (read the below article for more).
3 Clinical Trials – Let’s Get Real
A scientist trying to develop a new treatment for humans might use mice as a test animal. In order to find out if a disease treatment worked, the scientist would have to do something intentionally to give the mice the disease.
Some researchers are now questioning how realistic this approach is. The experimental mice are all genetically similar, yet humans come in all shapes and sizes. Humans get their diseases over the course of time through natural means, but it isn’t practical to just wait for enough laboratory mice to get the particular disease being studied on their own. Often treatments developed to cure mice don’t work in humans, and one reason may be that lab mice are a very artificial system.
Recently, scientists began to use pet dogs to develop human treatments. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Rather than going straight from the laboratory animals to human clinical trials, some scientists are treating dogs before they move on to humans.
Researchers realized that dogs share our environment and develop many of the same diseases as humans. There is already a well-developed medical system – veterinary practice – to treat pets, so a great deal is known about their illnesses. Vets and owners keep a close watch on participating dogs to report any side effects from new treatments.
There are millions of dogs, so that’s millions of chances to study medical conditions like naturally occurring cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s (Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in dogs), and even aging itself. Ailing dogs have even received cutting-edge stem cell treatments in several studies.
This approach has already given us exciting results: a new kind of vaccine called a DNA vaccine has been developed to fight certain cancers, and is being tested in dogs. DNA cancer vaccines aren’t used to prevent cancer, but to fight it once it occurs.
An experimental vaccine for canine malignant melanoma, a very aggressive skin cancer, helped dogs to survive much longer than usual, so that vaccine has already been placed on the market. Several other canine and human cancer vaccines are in development. Although it may be some time before many human cancer vaccines are widely available, we will have pet dogs to thank when they are.
4 Diet Is Key for Prolonging a Dog's Lifespan
It’s awfully hard to resist those soulful eyes begging for another treat, but if there’s any canine health tip clearly backed by research, it is the importance of a nutritious controlled diet appropriate for your dog’s life stage and health issues. Restricting how much your dog eats can extend his life substantially.
In one study, 48 Labrador retrievers were fed the same food, but half were given a restricted amount and the other half ate as much as they liked. The lean dogs lived an average of nearly two years longer than the fatter dogs. That’s a lot of dog years!
In another study, dogs were nearly three times less likely to get canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome when fed a controlled amount of food. Restricting food has also been found to reduce osteoarthritis. Keeping your dog’s weight down may prevent degenerative joint disease as well as a host of other health problems.
Be sure your dog’s food has enough antioxidants as he ages, as these may help protect not only his cognitive functioning but also his hearing. If your dog has chronic kidney disease, research shows that specially formulated foods designed to support kidney function can be very effective.
Many of the aches and pains of aging (as well as the chronic diseases) are part of a larger picture of ongoing inflammation that increases as we get older. This has been called “inflammaging.” Your dog experiences this as well.
Diets designed to decrease inflammation contain phytochemicals, plant compounds with potent health benefits. Some of these compounds may be able to switch genes off or on so that harmful genetic effects are silenced.
So, what can you do to help your senior dog eat well?
Don’t worry about things your vet is better equipped to handle than you are. When in doubt, see your vet or a canine nutritionist.
You may want to ask about health insurance plans for older pets, so you won’t think twice about getting your dog the extra care he needs. If a problem is found for which an effective treatment is not yet approved, you can search for a clinical trial to get your pet experimental treatment.
Sites that will help you find these clinical trials include:
- Veterinary Caner Society
- Animal Clinical Investigation
- American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation
- Morris Animal Foundation
You can slow or prevent many health problems by giving your dog a nutritious controlled diet that takes any health issues into account, and either contains or is supplemented with antioxidants. Light exercise will help, too, but remember that a long jog may not be his idea of fun anymore.
Keep his weight down to a healthy level and he’ll enjoy life more, and have more life to enjoy. With a little extra care and attention to your dog’s changing needs, he can be your happy and comfortable companion well into his golden years.
READ NEXT: Improving Quality of Life For Senior Dogs