Dr. Katy Patterson-Miller
This week we welcome guest blogger Dr. Katy Patterson-Miller who has relevant information for all of us who live with old dogs.
Kathryn Patterson-Miller, DVM, CVFT is the Director of Dog and Cat Health and Nutrition for Mud Bay. Before joining Mud Bay in 2011 and focusing on small animal nutrition, Dr. Patterson-Miller enjoyed six years in emergency medicine and general practice. She is a graduate of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine with her clinical year spent at Louisiana State School of Veterinary Medicine
It’s easy to recognize the different needs between a puppy and adult dog because of visible changes in their bodies. But when dogs begin to age, it’s harder to remember that they’re entering a different life stage. Instead, some people still act like their dogs are young adults, rather than giving them the support they need to stay happy and healthy.
When I worked as a veterinarian in a private practice, I was always surprised that people thought there was nothing they could do to slow the aging process in their dogs. Because while some problems are very common in senior dogs, a lot of these problems could be mitigated with the right level of nutritional, behavioral, or medical support. And other problems are the result of treatable illnesses that are more common as a dog ages. Below are some of the most common problems senior dogs face, and how you can address them in your own dog.
Common Old Dog Complaint #1: Lower Activity Level
As dogs age, they often lose joint fluid. This results in stiffness and soreness after exercise, so you might find your dog spends more time on the sofa nowadays. Some dogs also develop arthritis which can make it difficult to exercise. Supplements may help both the pain of arthritis or the stiffness and soreness of aging joints; you just need to find the supplement that matches the symptoms.
If you notice that your dog stops exercising, make sure you’re addressing any possible pain with help from your veterinarian. But also, take the time to encourage your dog to get regular exercise through walks or play-time to keep his body and joints in good shape. Swimming is the gold standard if your dog has joint or weight problems, and you can fit him with a life jacket if your dog isn’t a strong swimmer.
Common Old Dog Complaint #2: Loss of Muscle Mass and Increase in Body Fat
Loss of muscle mass or an increase in body weight isn’t a necessary side effect of getting old. In fact, muscle loss often has to do with a lack of protein consumption, not a reduction in activity. Any change in your dog’s weight always merits visiting your veterinarian to rule out hypothyroidism, diabetes, Cushing’s, kidney or liver disease.
But once you’ve ruled those things out, look at what you’re feeding your dog. In the past, senior dog foods had lower protein levels in case your dog had undiagnosed lower kidney function. However, canine aging studies demonstrate that most senior dogs thrive on at least 24 percent dry matter protein. Also, high quality, unprocessed meat is the best deliverer of that protein. If your dog has gained any weight and there’s no underlying medical condition, I always recommend looking for a food with a lower carbohydrate content, which you’ll often find in canned, raw or dehydrated foods. Foods that contain a lot of water can also help your dog feel fuller longer if he had a weight issue. For more information about the ideal diet for your senior or geriatric dog, you can try this blog post.
Common Old Dog Complaint #3: Horrible Dog Breath
No matter how old your dog is, you don’t have to live with doggie breath. Bad breath is a common signifier of dental disease, so arranging for a full dental cleaning will often significantly improve bad breath. Older dogs may not be able to chew harder bones, which also helps remove plaque, so you might want to consider softer chews or specially made dental chews. Also, after your dog has her teeth cleaned, you can maintain the results through supplements that reduces plaque build-up, so you can continuously enjoy fresh breath.
Common Old Dog Complaint #4: Unexplained Behavior Due to Cognitive Decline
It’s true that senior dogs experience cognitive decline over time. A recent study determined that 100 percent of dogs over 16 years of age suffered from some level of canine cognitive dysfunction. However, only 32 percent of dogs over age 11 showed mental decline.
Cognitive decline often starts with strange behaviors like increased barking, breaking housetraining, disorientation, obsessive licking and separation anxiety. Some of these behaviors may improve if your dog is supplemented with antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and an amino acid derivative called L-carnitine. Many excellent supplements that target canine brain health, and some dogs show real improvement after at least three months of therapeutic level supplementation.
Common Old Dog Complaint #5: Changes in Bathroom Habits
Old dogs who start breaking their house training often have a treatable illness, like a UTI, so the first step is to discuss any problems with your veterinarian. If your veterinarian thinks your dog is okay, you might want to consider supplementing for cognitive decline to see if the problem improves. As dogs age, they also have more difficulty digesting food, so you may want to consider a digestive supplement to improve any problems with stool and gas.
Common Old Dog Complaint #6: Changes in Attitude
Many people think that grumpiness in old dogs is just a sign of overall decline, but it’s often a sign that your dog is in pain. Dogs are predators, so it’s natural for them to want to disguise pain, so they don’t look weak. Look for evidence of joint pain and inflammation and talk to your veterinarian about treatment options if your dog seems unhappy.
Significant changes, such as a new child or puppy, can also alter a dog’s personality because they become stressed due to rough play or a new creature in their house. Consider consulting an animal behaviorist and using calmatives. Both resources can help ease stressful interactions and help your dog feel happier about his place in the household.
Embracing A New Perspective
The golden years of a dog’s life can be some of the best years to spend with your dog. Your dog may be slightly less energetic, but now’s the time that she’ll also be able to offer great companionship to your family. Old dogs already have acquired the training and patience that young dogs may need years to develop. So, when you spot a change in your dog, do what you’d do if you saw a change in an older family member: Look for a medical cause with help from a professional and don’t assume that it’s just a consequence of getting old.