5 ways to help keep your senior dog happy

  By: Dr. Faith Banks, DVM
        Owner, Midtown Mobile Veterinary Services
        In-home veterinary hospice and euthanasia service

November 17, 2016

Rarely when one decides to share their heart and home with a new four-legged friend do they think about what is to come down the road. When a furry, bear-like Newfoundland puppy enters a home at 8 weeks, weighing 15 lbs, it's hard to think about what life will be like with that same dog at 12 years old, weighing 165 lbs, accompanied by the challenges that come with an aging body.

At what age is a pet considered "senior"? As with most things, this will vary, depending on the individual, the species, and the breed of the pet. "Middle age" is usually considered to be around 7 to 8 years old for most dogs and cats (though NOT large breed dogs - they reach "middle age" a few years earlier). When a pet reaches "middle age", generally it's recommended that the pet is seen more often by the veterinarian, every 6 months or so, and it is recommended that the pet undergoes more extensive exams and testing. These routine exams and tests are important to establishing what is "normal" for your pet in terms of his or her body condition, blood test results, heart rate, etc. This preventive care will help to prevent disease and/or detect the early stages of disease.

As their body ages, the psychological and physical needs of pets change. As a pet owner, what can you do to help ensure your senior dog ages gracefully? Here are 5 ways to help keep your senior dog happy for his or her remaining years:

  1. Being with their people

    Dogs want to be with their people. They don't want to live out their remaining days, months, or years limited to the main floor while everyone else is upstairs watching TV and relaxing. Many older dogs are not able to walk up and down stairs by themselves so they become restricted to one area of the home. Owners can make appropriate changes in the home to allow dogs to continue to have access to them. Carrying dogs up and down stairs and using a harness to help support their body weight allows dogs increased access. Baby gates are useful to keep the pet to one floor and to prevent accidents. For example, if you bring your dog upstairs when you go up to bed, put the baby gate at the top of the stairs to prevent him/her from going down in the night.

  2. Being able to do their activities of daily living

    Dogs should be able to get up and get a drink of water from their water bowl, go to their food bowl, go outside to go to the bathroom, and continue with their regular routine. Walks may be shorter in length but it is still important for dogs to get out, keep their bodies moving, and brains stimulated while exploring their environment. Activities of daily living (ADL) help ensure a dog feels like a dog, and not just a piece of furniture.

  3. Being able to do their favourite things

    This is one of the most important topics I discuss with pet owners... "What does Fido LOVE to do?", "What makes him happy?" The answers to these questions tend to be unique to each individual pet! Some answers I've received are: going on a boat, lying on a bench in the bay window, eating, chasing balls, lying on pizza boxes, making snow angels, greeting people at the door, and the list goes on. You want your dog to have joy in their life. Eating, drinking, pooping, and sleeping are likely not enough. Providing opportunities for your pet to continue doing what they love will help keep your pet psychologically and/or physically healthy.

  4. Minimizing stress and anxiety

    Sadly, stress and anxiety may play increasingly larger roles in the lives of our geriatric pets. It often worsens in the early evening and peaks at night with panting, pacing, and restlessness. This is very worrisome for pet owners, not to mention the stress it has on them while trying to sleep. Medications are often required in order to minimize the anxiety and allow everyone in the house to get some shuteye.

  5. Feeling good

    Owners of geriatric pets are always concerned about whether or not their pets are in pain and/or are suffering. Pain may be caused by osteoarthritis, cancer, or organ disease/failure. My veterinary mobile practice is focused on geriatric and end-of-life patients. My motto is PPP: Presume, Pain, Present. Why must a pet prove they are in pain? I give them the benefit of the doubt and will often try pain medication to see if it has an effect. If a dog has not jumped on the bed in several weeks or months and is now jumping up again, we can assume pain was a factor that is now being managed. There are many ways to help manage pain including medications, modifying the pet's home environment, chiropractics, myofacial trigger point therapy, acupuncture, etc.

Geriatric pets can be tricky; discussing their issues and observing them in their home environment plays a large role in coming up with a plan to care for them as they continue to age. Animal hospice fills this role when curing turns to caring.

If you have concerns or want guidance in caring for your loved pet companion, please speak with your veterinarian to help guide you in caring for your senior dog.