As your dog ages -- care for an elderly dog

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 2/26/12
By: Gail T. Fisher


A reader writes: 
Gail, I read your column religiously and appreciate all that you do for dogs and their owners. You actually wrote about my wire hair fox terrier about 10 years ago. I told you she was about 95% house trained and you said that was like being 95% pregnant. I did what you suggested and she was fine.
Now she is 14 and a half and I thought it might be helpful to others if you wrote about the very old dog. Ours is doing fine and the vet has assured me she is not in any pain. We’re not keeping her alive for our sake – she has a good quality of life. Her rear legs don’t work at all. They cannot support her so I got something from “dogs to go” which has given her back her life. It is a wheelchair which she scoots around in with no problem. She would not be alive without this wheelchair.
This may be a helpful column? Thank you again for what you do for the dog community.

I think this is a great idea for a column. As dogs age, their needs and requirements change. Being aware of the changes elderly dogs go through can help owners help their dogs adjust, reducing his or her stress and increasing your dog's comfort and well-being. Here are some ideas for geriatric dogs’ comfort.

  • Bedding and providing comfort. Elderly dogs lose muscle mass, becoming bonier, especially on their hips. Even long-haired dogs can develop pressure sores and pain from loss of muscle. A soft pad or bed to lie on helps keep them comfortable. If your dog has difficulty rising from his bed, a firmer one, rather than a soft, bean bag type, may give helpful support. 
  • Temperature regulation Older dogs with a slower metabolism may not be able to regulate their temperatures as easily as when they were younger, and may react to cold more than when they were younger. Some medications may also effect temperature regulation. As your dog ages, adapt to his needs, providing warmer bedding, a sweater or coat when he goes outside, move his bed closer to a heat source, or adjust your thermostat to maintain a comfortable temperature for your dog. 
  • Loss of senses Just as when people age, dogs senses deteriorate as they age—eyesight, hearing and even cognition. Your dog may not hear you when you call, or may lose the ability to locate where the sound is coming from and start running in the wrong direction. As you notice changes, focus on keeping your dog safe—keeping him on-leash if necessary. 
  • Incontinence Loss of bladder control is common with older dogs. If your dog should become incontinent, doggie diapers can help. Choose a brand without a lot of irritating Velcro that can be abrasive to an older dog's thinner skin.
  • Changes in mobility Weakened muscles and stiff joints lead to mobility changes. Rising may take longer, and getting moving may be slow. With these changes, some dogs may have trouble holding themselves up to eliminate, and may not evacuate completely, which can lead to urinary tract infections. Talk with your vet about symptoms to look for, what you can do to help your dog eliminate completely, and possible medications to ease his discomfort. 
  • Walking aids and devices As the reader wrote, these can be incredibly helpful, and dogs adjust amazingly well. There are a number of specialty harnesses, slings and wheeled devices that may help dogs that have difficulty walking, negotiating stairs, getting into the car, and the like, as well as slings for you to be able to help a dog with weakened muscles.
  • Water and food consumption Older dogs require less food than younger dogs. It is important to keep your dog’s weight under control to avoid stressing weakened muscles and joints. If your dog stops eating her regular diet, try a different food, and don’t be afraid to add enhancements such as leftover human food, or even “real food” prepared specifically for your dog. Monitor your dog’s water consumption to make sure he is drinking water, but not too much.
It’s OK to “spoil” your older dog. Don’t feel guilty—enjoy them while you have them!

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2012. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.