When you’ve spent several years with a special furry friend, it’s really tough to see them start to show signs of their age.
Senior dogs have unique needs that require us to pay closer attention. We can see new mobility issues, different metabolic needs, changes in mental acuity, and other signs that our older friends need some extra care.
In this article we’re going to discuss four topics concerning senior dogs and their health, as well as ways we can help them out. We’ll cover joints and mobility, dietary considerations, mental health changes we can see, and the importance of preventative health care.
What Constitutes a Senior Dog?
Well, generally speaking, we consider most pups to be seniors around the age of seven. Mostly, this is because there are so many dog breeds and especially mixes of breeds, that we need to have some common time for all dogs to start monitoring their health more closely.
But in reality, when a dog truly reaches senior citizen status depends on her breed and size, because life expectancy varies quite a lot. A Chihuahua, for example, will reach skeletal maturity by one year, or even a month or two sooner. A Labrador Retriever might be expected to reach maturity later, around 14 or 15 months. A Great Dane however, may not reach full growth and adult status until 2 years.
A Chihuahua can live a pretty long time, rivaling the lifespan of cats. It’s not uncommon to see a Chihuahua living until 17 years of age. A Labrador however, rarely lives past 15. Your Great Dane? Unfortunately, 10 years is considered pretty old for a Dane.
For a Chihuahua, we might consider her to be a true senior around 10. The Lab would be a senior around 7, but the Dane would actually be a senior at about 5 or 6 years.
So generally, the equivalent in human years is about 50. While humans often think of 65 as senior status, this is probably actually too old even for us to just start thinking about senior health. We really should be thinking seriously about our health much earlier, and the same goes for our pups.
Now, we’ll get into some of those specific considerations we hinted at early on.
Joint Health and Mobility
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, at least 20% of dogs over one year of age in the United States are affected by osteoarthritis. That’s only 1 in 5 pups.
Presumably this percentage increases with age. By the time a dog reaches his senior years, he is almost guaranteed to have some degree of arthritis present, whether it’s visually apparent or not.
Many dogs hide signs of discomfort, either out of instinct to not appear weakened to other dogs, or just out of a desire to please and be happy by continuing to chase the ball and going for long walks. This can be especially true for arthritis, which is often a slowly progressive condition.
Causes of Arthritis
In general, arthritis occurs due to chronic strain and pressure on joints. This leads to microscopic damage in cartilage, which leads to inflammation. Inflammation is healthy to a certain degree, as it triggers the body to try to heal the damage, but over time, chronic inflammation furthers damage and the cycle repeats itself over and over.
While that’s the general gist, there are three main causes, or perhaps catalysts, if you will, that increase a pup’s risk for more serious osteoarthritis down the line.
It can certainly be responsible. Many pup parents have heard of, or have experienced, the dreaded “ACL” tear where a pooch tears what is more properly termed the cranial cruciate ligament in his knee. This injury typically requires surgery for the best long-term outcome and stability, but we can still see an increased risk of arthritis in later years. Without addressing the injury and letting it “heal on its own”, we can see severe changes to the knee joint in only a couple months.
It plays a huge part. It can certainly play a part in cruciate ligament tears. Hip dysplasia, another dreaded condition many parents have heard of or encountered, involves a looseness, or laxity, of the ball and socket joint of the hip. The laxity contributes to excessive motion in the joint, progressive wearing on the head of the femur (the “ball”) and further damage to an already shallow acetabulum (the “socket”).
While younger dogs may appear unaffected for the most part, these pups develop severely arthritic joints much sooner and sometimes even before the senior years, will exhibit signs of limping and pain. Pups are typically born with this condition, but it cannot be truly diagnosed until after a pup finishes growing. Two years is the standard age at which we can diagnose this condition with x-rays.
There are other genetic conditions, like loose kneecaps (termed “luxating patellas”) and abnormal growth at the growth plates in puppies, that predisposes to joint pain and inflammation that is already well established by the time senior years roll around.
It affects more than half of dogs in America. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, nearly 60% of dogs were overweight as of their survey results last year (2018).
There are two reasons obesity, or even just being overweight, predisposes dogs to worse osteoarthritis. First, the extra weight places chronic stress and strain on the joints, wearing down cartilage and perpetuating that inflammatory cascade. Second, the extra fat generally puts the body into a pro-inflammatory state, which contributes and also perpetuates the inflammatory cycle.
How do you know if your dog is overweight? Generally speaking, your pup should have a slight “Coke bottle” shape when looking from the top down, meaning he should have a dip in the waist just behind the ribs. His belly should also tuck up in the same area when viewing from the side. Lastly, you should be able to feel your pup’s last two or three ribs. If you can’t, she probably has too much fat covering.
If you’re not sure if your pooch is up there in pounds, your veterinarian is the best resource to assess body condition and make recommendations based on how much weight your furry friend needs to lose to stay healthy.
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Arthritis?
Sometimes, knowing the underlying causes we’ve just reviewed can help you understand at what heightened risk your pup is for developing arthritis. But since these changes can be subtle, what should you look for?
Arthritis is one of those things that seems to set in most when we’re not moving, and we really feel it when we suddenly engage in activity. For our pups, we can see this when they’ve been sleeping for a couple hours and suddenly make the effort to get up when they hear the leash jingle or the word “walk” or “outside”.
It might be subtle at first, but if your dog looks kind of stiff, having a hard time standing from that resting position, but then seems to be fine once he gets going on that walk, you should be suspicious for arthritis.
Really obvious signs of arthritis in older dogs include weakness in the front or back legs, especially in the hips. Some older pups will walk with a very stiff, stilted gait in their hindlimbs. Limping is something else you might notice if your pooch lands on an arthritic joint in just the wrong way to cause a flare-up of pain.
If you have some slight concern or aren’t sure, your veterinarian is going to be your best way to know, as he or she can flex, extend, and palpate the joints during a physical exam and check for more subtle indications that arthritis is present. Evidence of arthritis can be confirmed with x-rays of the limbs and joints.
What Do I Do About Arthritis?
It’s always best to talk to your vet if you have concerns about arthritis, as there are some beneficial medications and therapies to be considered.
But generally, if your pup is approaching the senior years, and especially if you know your dog has had a previous injury or genetic condition predisposing him to arthritis, consider a joint health supplement, like Joint Health Advanced Formula.
Good ingredients to look for in a good joint health supplement include glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, green-lipped mussel, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Omega 3 Fatty Acids, namely DHA and EPA.
Glucosamine and chondroitin are both natural components of cartilage. Glucosamine helps to regulate synthesis of collagen, a protein that is a core component of cartilage and other connective tissues in the body. Chondroitin helps with water retention and elasticity in joints. MSM is a natural organic compound with proven anti-inflammatory properties that can block parts of inflammatory pathways, especially the COX-2 pathway implicated in osteoarthritis.
Green-lipped mussel originates in the Pacific waters near New Zealand. GLM, as it’s also known, has demonstrated to have a combination of glucosamine, chondroitin, and polyunsaturated fatty acids like Omega-3s that are unique to any other marine source and very sustainable. A 2009 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine demonstrated a significant improvement in about 50 dogs.
Vitamin C and Vitamin E both serve as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals and preventing cell damage throughout the body. The Omega-3s DHA and EPA have similar function in addition to having anti-inflammatory properties.
Combining all of these ingredients together can make a big difference over a product that has only a single one of these components. They may not be as beneficial as prescription medications, but they have made a proven difference and the risk of side effects is minimal.
Diet is one of the most important basics of health for any living thing. We know that diet requirements change with different life stages, but what does this mean for a senior dog? Is it as simple as changing to a senior dog food?
The short answer is, no. Dietary requirements can vary a lot from individual to individual, and there is no catch-all diet.
In general though, there are a few dietary considerations that can apply to most senior pups.
In general, senior dogs need more protein in their diets because we all tend to turn over more protein as we age. There’s one caveat to this. Dogs with kidney disease may require changes in their protein intake as appropriate to reduce strain on the kidneys. This has been a debate more recently, but we do know that ensuring a high quality protein intake is most beneficial.
If we’re losing weight but not muscle mass specifically, a diet higher in fat can be beneficial to help with weight gain. Caveats to this are where a high fat diet would not be the best idea. This includes dogs suffering from chronic pancreatitis, or older dogs that are already extremely overweight or obese.
We have to be careful with fiber, and keep in mind what a pup’s needs are. Soluble fiber produces a gel-like substance in the intestinal tract that can block fat absorption, stabilize blood glucose levels, feed healthy intestinal bacterial, and keep cholesterol down. Insoluble fiber decreases intestinal transit time and can help pets suffering from constipation.
Because soluble fiber blocks fat absorption and insoluble fiber pushes everything through faster thus decreasing absorption of other nutrients, these may not be best for an older pup struggling to keep weight on. If however, your pup has issues staying regular or suffers from constipation, fiber may be beneficial.
Lastly, since most senior dogs are less active than they once were, we have to be more careful following their daily calorie amounts. Your veterinarian can help you determine the appropriate daily caloric intake your pup needs, based on body condition and activity level. But generally, try to stick with a less calorie-dense food, below 350 kilocalories per cup. If your pup is having issues keeping weight on, aim for over 450 per cup.
In later stages of aging, we can see in dogs, as with people, show changes in mental acuity, alertness, memory, and orientation.
In dogs we call this cognitive dysfunction, which is a generalized term for those changes. In people, older age changes in mental health are categorized more specifically (Alzheimer’s is only one form of dementia recognized in people).
According to The Ohio State University, cognitive dysfunction affects nearly 30% of dogs between 11 and 12 years of age. By 15-16 years, almost 70% of older pups show at least one sign of cognitive dysfunction.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, but there are a couple of strategies that have shown to be of benefit.
If you see your older pup showing signs of cognitive dysfunction, start with increasing exercise, as reasonable for his ability. Add other enrichment in the form of new, more interactive toys, and create some new training goals or learning tasks. Focusing on learning and memory can be very helpful, as proven in prevention and therapy for Alzheimer’s in people.
According to The Ohio State University, there are several dietary components that have shown benefit in combination. Omega 3 Fatty Acids to promote cell membrane health, antioxidants like Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and Vitamin E (tocopherols), additional antioxidants like beta carotene, and L-carnitine to enhance mitochondrial function.
Hill’s b/d diet contains a combination of these ingredients and has been proven in clinical trials to show signs of improvement in affected dogs. Results were even better when combined with environmental enrichment strategies.
Purina has a similar diet but one that focuses more on enhanced botanical oils which have shown to be of benefit as a source of additional energy for the brain.
Supplements consisting of antioxidants and Omega 3 Fatty acids can be very beneficial for older dogs and may assist and slow down signs of cognitive dysfunction. A vitamin supplement for older pups like Daily Vitamins for Senior Dogs that contains antioxidants like Vitamins E and C can provide some of the recommended support.
You can also consider the allergy supplement Allergy Aid with Antioxidants. Although cognitive dysfunction is not related in any way to skin allergies, this supplement provides not only antioxidant support through grape seed extract and quercetin, but also higher levels of the Omega-3’s DHA and EPA which can help with cell membrane health, as mentioned earlier.
Selegiline (Anipryl) is the only drug approved for cognitive dysfunction in dogs, and its use is also supported in cats. I have seen some success in using this medication, though I have also seen it have limited effect as well.
Cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis of exclusion in dogs, meaning there is no specific test for it, so it is important to rule out other causes, especially a separate neurologic or behavioral disorder, as best as possible. This could be the cause of low efficacy for selegiline in some cases, but there is also just a lot of variability in response from dog to dog. Thus, it is important to not forget to incorporate our other components like supplements, diet, and environmental enrichment.
Your veterinarian is the best person to further discuss if starting selegiline could be of benefit for your pup.
And that is a perfect segway into our last section on senior pups, preventative healthcare with your veterinarian.
When dogs get into their senior years, we know that there is a higher likelihood that we’ll start to see changes in mobility, body function, etc. Thus, veterinarians do focus more on preventative health, because if we can catch a disease process early, like kidney failure for example, there is a much higher likelihood that we can institute some reasonable therapies into the daily regimen to help that pooch live a longer life of good quality.
All of this starts with exams with your veterinarian, who is going to be the best authority on what preventative strategies need to employed. Typically, this starts around the age of seven years for most pups, but sometimes earlier for larger breed dogs like Great Danes.
Coming in for exam every six months may seem like a lot, but 6 months actually is a lot of time for things to change. At a six month exam, we do reassess limb function and comfort, palpate the abdomen for enlarged organs or potential tumors, assess visual acuity, and check for new lumps or bumps on the skin. Many lumps or bumps on older dogs can be benign, but a few can be malignant and very concerning, and diagnosing them early is crucial.
Thus there are actually a lot of things we can pick up on just with an exam, and hopefully catch some of those changes early before they become a more significant problem affecting your older pup’s quality of life.
Annual or Biannual Bloodwork
Checking bloodwork every six months may seem like a challenge, but because we know we’re likely to see changes in kidney function, liver function or endocrine system changes in older pets, this frequency allows us to catch these disease processes early and intervene before they become serious health concerns.
Financially, biannual bloodwork can be a tough swallow for many folks, in which case, checking bloodwork annually at a minimum, especially if we’re seeing few concerns each year, could also be acceptable.
Because monitoring criteria differs vastly depending on each individual pet, it’s best to discuss with your veterinarian what frequency of lab testing he or she deems appropriate for your pup.
The Golden Olden Years
It is tough to see a once spry and fully active pup start to slow down or start to develop that first little skin “wart” that many dogs are prone to getting. But a dog’s senior years can still be great, especially if we take good preventative care steps to ensure his quality of life.
With good senior care with your veterinarian, your aging pooch can still stay more active, healthy, and happy, so that you can continue to share that special bond with her for more years to come.