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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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FDA Veterinarian Newsletter May/June 2001 Volume XVI, No III

by Karen A. Kandra

The following article provides information about caring for elderly dogs. Veterinarians may wish to duplicate this article and provide copies to their interested clients. As always, material that appears in the FDA Veterinarian is free of copyright and may be reproduced without permission.

With advancements in veterinary medicine and nutrition, pets are living longer than ever before. Geriatric medicine is gaining in popularity as the demand grows for more attention to our aging pet population.

Most dogs are considered "old" around eight or nine years. Large and giant breeds are considered middle-aged around 6 or 7. Smaller breeds tend to live much longer than large breeds, even into their mid-teens.

Canine senior citizens have more needs, and require more attention. Their sight and hearing may diminish, and they will require more sleep and move more slowly. Stairs may become a hardship, so sleeping arrangements may need adjusting. They need to go out more often, as bladder and bowel control may weaken with age. They still need appropriate exercise, frequent grooming, and proper nutrition. Since they may have fewer teeth, a soft diet may be necessary.

Most changes with the aging process occur gradually, but there are several things to watch for, and preventative steps to take to ensure that your favorite dog will keep active and healthy into his/her golden years. Regular veterinary examinations are critical to a dog’s health. It is important to keep a detailed medical history and continue regular veterinary visits to ensure a long, healthy life for your dog.

Obesity is a major problem with dogs in our society, since owners tend to feed table scraps in excess. Serious health problems may result from obesity. Extra weight puts a strain on the animal’s heart, lungs, skeleton, and muscles, and lowers resistance to disease. Regular moderate exercise and proper nutrition are essential to maintain optimal weight and health.

Arthritis often affects older dogs, and causes them to slow down and lessens their ability to climb steps or jump up on a favorite chair. If your dog shows signs of arthritis, your veterinarian can examine him and may suggest radiographs. Your veterinarian then may be able to prescribe an appropriate medication to lessen the pain, and give the dog more mobility.

Heart disease is more common in aging dogs. Initial signs are coughing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and even fainting spells. If diagnosed in the early stages, medications are available to treat the symptoms of heart disease that can help your dog live a more normal life.

Your dog will benefit from regular grooming to stimulate the coat and skin. During grooming sessions, check for skin disorders or dry, irritated skin, or oozing sores under the coat. This is a good time to notice any lump or growth that has appeared. Often these are benign growths, but may require surgery, especially if they are growing. Your veterinarian can help guide you with these decisions.

Bathing is only suggested on rare occasions, since frequent baths remove natural protective oils from the skin. If he is dirty, or shows evidence of fleas, he may be bathed in lukewarm water using mild shampoo. Be sure to rinse the soap thoroughly. Also look for parasites that may cause discomfort. Fleas are common, but can be controlled by oral medication or topical products, including powders, sprays, collars, or dips. Contact your veterinarian for recommended prevention or treatment.

Eyes should be cleaned of any discharge with a soft cloth moistened with water or saline solution. Ear discomfort is indicated by scratching or head shaking. Infections can settle deep in the ear canal and should be treated by your veterinarian immediately.

The dog’s mouth should be examined periodically for signs of gum disease, and tartar accumulation. This is an important part of the annual veterinary examination, and any problems should be addressed immediately. Many older dogs lose their teeth, or they may be extracted if disease or infection is detected.

Elderly dogs may exercise less frequently on hard surfaces to keep their nails filed down, so it is your job to clip their nails, to keep them comfortable. Neglected nails may cripple a dog.