In line with my last two “things you really don’t want to think about” posts, covering the necessity of making your last wishes for your pet known in case you get put out of commission temporarily or permanently, I figured I’d go for the depression trifecta and write about dog aging.
Just kidding — about the depression part anyway. I’m actually about to offer some good news. Not only are our dogs living longer because of better veterinary medicine, but we also know how to improve their quality of life as they age.
It’s not age that makes geriatric dogs — and people — irritable but, rather, untreated pain and undiagnosed ailments. Your pup might have arthritis, for example, or hearing problems that you’re not aware of. And dogs that live to an advanced age may develop a version of Alzheimer’s called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD, or sometimes CDS for cognitive dysfunction syndrome), which causes them to be disoriented.
So if your dog isn’t her usual cheerful self, get her to the vet to see what’s wrong. There may not be a cure but you can make her life easier if you know what you’re dealing with. If your dog has hearing loss, for example, you can move into her line of vision when you need to get her attention; if she has CCD, you can refrain from rearranging the furniture and thus further confusing her. And veterinary pain management has also advanced in recent years — including the recognition that alternative treatments like acupuncture may be better for older dogs on a long-term basis than harsh medicines.
Dogs age at vastly different rates. Whereas large breeds start being offered seats on public transportation at age 6 or so, smaller ones don’t begin reminiscing about the good old days until they’re around 10 or 11. And some dogs don’t conform to ageist stereotypes: they continue to eat and exercise with much the same gusto as they did when they were pups. With that caveat, here are some general guidelines:
When your dog’s metabolism begins to slow, he’ll need to cut calories or eat less to stay trim. Extra weight puts a strain on the joints–especially painful if arthritis is involved–and often interferes with proper organ function.
Older pooches need a good balance of protein and fat in their diet, but don’t require as much of either as they did when they were burning up the dog run. The key to fooling your dog into thinking she’s full is fiber–also a useful antidote for that common geriatric ailment, constipation. Many older dogs can continue to eat their regular food, just less of it, perhaps with pumpkin added for low fat/high fiber bulk.
Some canine seniors have the opposite problem: they lose interest in food. It’s not always easy to figure out why. Your dog may be avoiding his kibble because the pieces are too large for her to chew comfortably any more, or because, with her sense of smell diminished, she’s begun finding the cuisine incredibly bland. You’ll need to experiment. Try a smaller size kibble, for example, or soak the one you’ve been using in low-salt meat broth.
Or switch from kibble to an entirely different type of food, such as freeze-dried or home-cooked (making sure to maintain nutritional balance); this last may be especially beneficial if your dog is having gastrointestinal problems and needs easy-to-digest fare such as chicken and rice.
Let your dog set the pace when it comes to cutting back (or not) on workouts, although not to the point of allowing him to over- or under-do it. Dogs can sometimes push themselves too hard, especially in extreme weather, or take retirement a bit too seriously. Neither approach benefits their physical or mental health.
A change, rather than reduction, in exercise might be a good idea. You could try easier-on-the-joint activities such as swimming, for example (only an option if your dog doesn’t dislike full-body immersion as much as Frankie does). And if you need to cut back on a standard play routine, consider allowing your dog to think she’s as agile as ever by not throwing the ball as far as you used to.
Mental exercise is also essential to maintaining a puppyish demeanor. A much-cited Beagle study — well, much cited in neurobiology circles, and not to be confused with the studies Charles Darwin conducted while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle — demonstrated that aging dogs who received mental stimulation, along with antioxidant-enriched diets, appeared friskier and smarter than the nonstimulated, nonsupplemented control group after two years. So keep up the training, play dates, educational toys, New York Times crossword puzzles…whatever challenges your dog.