How to care for an older dog: As your dog gets older, there's lots you can do to keep him happy and healthy.
When we first buy a puppy, few of us look too far into the future. The years rush by; we share our lives with our dogs - holidays, long walks in the country, memorable moments. Then the day comes when we notice our dog isn't quite as quick on his feet, and he just wants to stay by our side and enjoy his last years by the fireside.
For some breeds this happens sooner than for others and life expectancy doesn't even reach double figures. For other breeds, 16, 17, or even 18 are common ages if health allows. By preparing for old age in our dogs we can ensure their last years are an enjoyable time for us all.
Having an elderly dog in the home can be a pleasure - the mad rush of youth has passed by and we are left with a devoted chum who is easy to live with. Be aware of your dog's little eccentricities, as changes in his daily routine might be signals that all is not well. Refusing to eat, and becoming distant and vague, might indicate the start of an illness. If in doubt speak to your vet.
Shorter and slower should be your aim when taking your older dog out for a walk, even though in the past he could run off-lead for hours investigating interesting smells and meeting other dogs. You can still turn your daily walk into an interesting stroll where your dog can investigate and enjoy himself, but at a different pace. Stop and sit for a while so he doesn't get tired and be aware that he might not be that interested in strange dogs who come up to say hello. Dissuade your oldie from jumping into ponds or rivers, as old bones will feel the cold more easily. If he's likely to roll in wet grass, dive into pools, and get damp, carry a towel with you, and perhaps invest in a warm dog coat so he doesn't get cold and stiff.
Stick to routines
Keep to a daily routine for meals and bedtimes. Your older dog's digestive system will expect food at certain times and his bowels will want to empty at the same time each day, so work with him and try to keep his routine as straightforward as possible.
Eyesight fades as our dogs get older, so try not to move furniture to places where he will bump into it and become confused. Leave a small night light on if you're aware your dog's sight isn't so good so he can move around at night with no fear of falling or becoming confused.
Review his diet
An older dog's nutritional needs change as he grows older. No longer able to eat one large meal each day, he might be happier tackling two or even three smaller meals, just as he did when he was a puppy. Raising food bowls off the ground means your dog doesn't need to reach down to the floor when feeding and this can ease stiff and aching joints. There are specific food products available that cater for older dogs, as they don't need such a high protein content as they did in their earlier, active lives.
If your dog eats less than he used to, he might start to lose weight. Provided his loss of appetite isn't down to a health issue (check this with your vet), you can tempt him to eat with some interesting food; fish usually goes down well.
Your dog's teeth might not be up to crunching on large lumps of hard mixer biscuit, so try the small bite variety and add a little stock to soften biscuits or complete food before presenting it to him. Never scold an older dog if he chooses not to eat, as this can create food issues. Simply lift the bowl from the floor, cover it with cling film, and present it again a little later.
A fat elderly dog isn't a happy dog either. Try to keep your dog's weight at an acceptable level so that extra strain isn't put on to ageing joints and bones. Replacing mixer biscuit with grated carrots and cabbage can help with the doggy diet.
Treats can still be given, but be aware that old teeth often can't crunch on solid chews. The shelves in pet shops are full of treats and among them you will find softer varieties to suit your dog.
Keep to the yearly check-ups with your vet, although you might want to ask him to do a blood test and/or assess your dog's vaccination record to ascertain whether yearly vaccinations are still necessary. Vaccinations aside, a yearly check-up for your older dog (or every six months if you prefer) will put your mind at rest with regards to your pet's health and you'll be able to discuss any concerns you have directly with your vet.
Keep to a grooming routine as much as possible, but if your dog is unhappy about being groomed consider having a longer coat cut shorter; it will be easier to manage and to see if there are problems underneath. Try to groom your dog at least once a week and use your fingers to feel all over him. Older dogs often have small lumps and bumps but watch them carefully. If they ooze fluid, grow quickly, or worry you in any way, speak to your vet. Not all lumps are cancerous and a small bump doesn't mean that your dog's life is drawing to an end.
Bitches don't have a ‘change of life' and come into season until the day they die. This means that they can still technically have puppies, so care should be taken at these times. If your bitch is unneutered, check her mammary glands for little lumps, which could be a sign of mammary cancer. Uncastrated male dogs should also have their testicles checked for any lumps or enlargements.
Your dog might have stayed in boarding kennels quite happily in the past but now you might have to reconsider whether this is a good idea. If he knows the kennels and the staff well, he might enjoy his holiday, but if going into kennels is a relatively new experience then it might distress him too much. There are other options if you can't take your dog with you on your trip, such as hiring a dog and home-sitter so that your dog stays in the comfort of his own home while you're away. Another option is to have him stay with family he knows well, but prepare them for any idiosyncratic behaviour now he is ageing.
Active in mind and body
We all get stiff joints as we age and your dog is no exception. Sleeping for hours or simply sitting in the same spot doesn't help as joints tend to seize up. Keeping your dog warm and dry and providing gentle exercise will be beneficial. Serious joint problems can be treated with painkillers by your vet, who might also recommend a joint supplement such as glucosamine and chondroitin. There are many products available in pet shops and online which are formulated to help keep an ageing dog supple.
It's also important to keep your dog's mind alert. Playing games with him and providing toys such as Kongs, which are stuffed with interesting foodstuffs, will keep your pet happy. Above all, your dog shouldn't be treated like an invalid but should still play a vital role as part of the family unit; a bored dog will quickly decline and fade away.
There are many products on the market designed to aid an ageing dog. Raincoats to keep him dry and warm when out in wintery weather are a bonus, as are boots to protect and keep his paws dry.
Warm bedding and plenty of it ensures that the dog never sleeps on a cold floor. Washable fleece blankets are a boon to any dog owner and can be scattered like rugs throughout the home.Climbing in and out of the car can be a problem, and if your dog is large it might be hard for you to lift him. A ramp can be bought (or made) so that he can walk into the car with ease. A car safety harness will also keep him secure if he's wobbly on his legs and can't balance when the car is in motion.
Accidents may happen
Older dogs might have problems going to toilet. Being slower or not so on the ball can result in small accidents in the home. Be prepared for this with wet wipes, washable rugs, and flooring that can be cleaned with ease. A quick wipe around the rear end and a dusting of talc will ensure that the accident is soon resolved and your dog is still sweet smelling.
Keep a close eye for any changes
If you suddenly see the following changes in your dog, they might be signals that illness is present, so it's best to take him for a check-up at the vet's.
- Cloudy eyes might signal cataracts or perhaps another illness and should be pointed out to your vet.
- Sudden limping might be arthritis but can also mean something more serious. Don't ignore it.
- Excessive drinking or strong-smelling urine needs to be checked out.
- Bad breath or drooling could signal a tooth problem. When grooming your dog each week remember to check his teeth and gums for anything unusual. Gums should look pink and healthy; pale gums can indicate a problem with your dog's health.
- Smelly drool could also mean your dog has an infection. Is his breathing laboured, does he have a cough? These are all reasons to make an appointment to see your vet.