Changes You Can Expect as Your Dog Ages
Here's how your mature dog's age translates into human years:
|Appropriate Age in Years||Equivalent Age in Humans|
Change is a normal part of the aging process. Not every dog will experience every possible age-related change, of course. As I write this, I have two 10-year-old male Australian Shepherds lying beside my desk They are aging differently. The way your individual dog ages will be affected by his general health and environment, and his family heritage. His breed or combination of breeds will also play a role in the changes you should expect. Some breeds tend to be more prone to heart problems, for instance, while others are susceptible to cancer.
You and your veterinarian can help your aging dog as changes occur. Regular checkups to diagnose problems early, and changes in your dog's care and environment, may help him live longer and healthier. Even if he seems to be in terrific health, when your dog reaches about five and six years old, talk to your vet about early screening in addition to regular examinations.
Schedule a visit to the vet if your dog has any of the following:
- Sudden loss of weight or appetite
- Increased food intake without weight gain
- Increased drinking
- Diarrhea or vomiting lasting more than a day
- Coughing after exercise, or lasting more than a few minutes
- Excessive panting
Screening tests can detect subtle changes, and help prevent some age-related problems. Recommended tests will depend on your dog's breed, current health, and health history. Your vet may suggest blood tests, x-rays, or even an electrocardiogram. Sudden weight gain or loss, increased appetite without weight gain, increased drinking, diarrhea or vomiting, coughing, or excessive panting all call for a trip to the vet. Remember, too, that arthritis, thyroid imbalance, excess weight, and other conditions can cause symptoms similar to aging, and treatment may give your dog several more good years.
Changes in Nutritional Needs
An older dog generally requires fewer calories than he did when he was younger. If you continue to feed him as much as you used to, he'll get fat. Don't let that happen! Obesity is a serious health threat and can contribute to many problems, including heart disease, arthritis, and other debilitating conditions.
Some older dogs require nutritional supplements. Speak to your veterinarian and read about canine nutrition to determine which, if any, supplements may help your dog age more comfortably.
Changes in Skin, Coat, and Nails
Many dogs get gray hair as they age, particularly on the muzzle and around the eyes. Their coats may also become thinner, although that can be a sign of problems other than advancing age. If your dog's coat changes suddenly or substantially, tell your veterinarian. Regular grooming will let you check for lumps, bumps, and other signs of potential trouble. Benign tumors and fatty deposits are common in older dogs, but cancerous tumors can also occur. Have any new bumps or suspicious areas on the skin checked by your veterinarian.
Your dog's nails may become more brittle as he gets older. If that happens, speak to your vet about nutritional supplements that may help. You may need to trim your dog's nails more frequently as he becomes less active. If your dog's nails are very brittle, be careful when clipping or consider learning to use a grinder. You don't want a nail to split into the quick. Ouch!
Arthritis and Muscular Problems
Arthritis is common in older dogs. Its effect on your dog's life can vary from mild stiffness after sleeping to debilitating pain that keeps him from doing many things he used to do with ease.
Many people find that glucosamine and other supplements seem to make their arthritic dogs more comfortable. Anti-inflammatory pain relievers are often recommended as well. Consult your veterinarian before treating your dog, though, as some medications may interfere with one another or be harmful if your dog has other medical conditions. Special “egg-crate” orthopedic beds designed to distribute weight evenly may make your dog more comfortable.
Dental disease is common in older dogs. Routine dental care is more important than ever for dogs as they age. Don't assume that your dog should have bad breath—he shouldn't. Bad breath often indicates gum disease, which can affect the heart, lungs, kidney, and other organs and contribute to life-threatening complications.
Proper oral hygiene will protect your aging dog from gum disease and also give your veterinarian a chance to examine your dog's mouth for telltale signs of disease. Professional tooth cleaning should be scheduled at least once a year or more frequently if necessary. Regular brushing at home will also help maintain your dog's oral health, as will chew toys designed to help keep teeth and gums clean and healthy.
Heart, Kidney, and Liver Problems
As your dog ages, his internal organs may lose some of their ability to function properly. His heart will probably become less efficient, and the heart valves—particularly the mitral valve—will lose elasticity. Some changes are a normal part of aging, but if your dog had indications of heart problems when younger, or if his breed is prone to heart problems, talk to your vet about screening and care as he ages. Radiographs (x-rays), electrocardiograms (EKGs), and echocardiograms are used to diagnose heart disease.
The risk of kidney and liver disease also increases as your dog ages. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms of a kidney or liver problem become noticeable, the disease may be well advanced. Speak to your vet about including screening tests for kidney and liver functions as part of your aging dog's regular exams. If your dog needs to be anesthetized for any reason, pre-anesthesia screening is also advisable.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Dog © 2003 by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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