In a few short months, my dog Micky will have been with me for 14 years. He became family when he was 11 pounds and 11 weeks old, and I’ve watched him grow into the amazing, beautiful, 50 pound dog that he is today.
It’s been just the last year that he’s shown any real signs of aging. And the pace has picked up in the past six months — now it seems to be happening fast. This is a new experience for me — it’s the first time I’m the caregiver for a senior dog. It started out as an upsetting and terrifying experience for me, but it has turned into something that is actually heartwarming, and rewarding.
In the past year, I’ve done a lot of research on senior dogs, and we've had multiple visits to, and consultations with, our vet. I’m confident at this point that I’m doing what I can to keep my boy happy and as comfortable as possible. Following in this article are some of the things I’ve learned. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but I thought that summarizing the wisdom of others might be helpful to pup parents who, like me, are new to this. Note, at the end of this article I’ve included links to several sources of information, much of which I relied on for some of the information that follows.
As Micky has aged, he has more trouble hopping up onto his favorite furniture. Realizing that his favorite sleeping spots might soon be completely out of reach, I got him a new bed. And Jim got him one for his place too.
Keep your dog comfortable: Depending on what issues your senior dog is dealing with, there are things you can do to ‘make life easier’ for him or her. Here are some things to consider.
If your dog has trouble going up or down stairs or getting in and out of the car, try a dog harness. I’ve tried a couple for Micky, and the second one has been fantastic. It’s got a handle on the back and I gently lift it as he’s climbing stairs — I’m not lifting him off the ground, but rather taking pressure off his joints. There are lots out there — some deal with front leg issues, some with back leg issues, some with both. Do a search and find one that seems to suit your dog. Here’s a link to the one that I’m using.
Try an orthopedic dog bed, or a heated dog bed.
If your dog seems uncomfortable while eating, raise the food and water bowls on an elevated feeder or bench.
If your dog is slipping around on wood or tile floors, put down some non-slip rugs or mats to minimize sliding.
If your dog is losing eyesight, don’t move water and food bowls around (your pup may have trouble finding them!), don’t rearrange furniture, and consider using nightlights.
Get some ramps or ‘indoor stairs’ to hep your pup get on the couch, the bed, or a favorite chair.
Give your pup massages! In addition to feeling great, it’s good for circulation and for keeping muscles in good shape. You can find a ‘how-to’ video on giving your pup a massage here.
Give your pup lots of time and affection: I mentioned earlier that seeing the vet was probably the most significant thing you can do. On second thought, I’d say this ranks right up there with it. YOU are your dog’s world. There is nothing he or she wants more than to be with you. Spend all the time you can with your pup. Give lots of scritches and hugs and encouragement. That WILL make the senior years ‘golden’, and it will strengthen your bond, which will be good for both of you.
Micky at 13 weeks and at 13 years
How old is ‘old’?
This varies, and is largely dependent on a dog’s breed and size. Generally, small dogs live longer, and typically aren’t considered ‘seniors’ until they are over ten. Medium sized dogs like Micky, are usually considered seniors at about 9 or 10. Large dogs, a bit younger, and giant dogs (like Great Danes) are considered seniors as early as 6.
What are the changes and the signs?
A lot of what our pups go through when they age isn’t much different than what people go through. The most common things to expect are:
Less mobility, often due to arthritis
Loss of hearing and eyesight
A higher rate of kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, and cancer
Confusion and dementia
Increased sensitivity to extreme heat and cold
New lumps and bumps
Changes in sleeping-waking cycle and restlessness and pacing at night
What should you do?
There are lots of ways you can help your senior pups age… help them to stay happy, healthy, comfortable, and to enjoy their ‘golden years’.
Take your pup to the vet!: The first — and probably most significant — thing you can do is visit the vet. Most vets recommend annual check-ups for dogs as they are growing up, and check-ups twice a year for seniors. There’s good reason for this. Dogs, like people, are susceptible to age-related afflictions. Your vet may be able to detect certain problems before your dog shows any symptoms. And early detection can, of course, make a huge difference. Vet visits are not, however, cheap. There are some low-cost spay/neuter clincs run by nonprofits in the area that also offer wellness visits at lower rates (for example, SNAP and the Humane Society). You might want to check those out.
In addition to detecting problems and treating your dog when sick, there are lots of things your vet can advise you on. For example:
Your vet can recommend treatments for joint related problems like arthritis.
Your vet can advise you on maintaining your dog’s oral health.
Your vet can advise you on the best diet for your senior dog — for example, a diet aimed at a dog with a liver or kidney problem; or a diet aimed at maintaining your dog’s weight. Even a few extra pounds of weight can tremendously impact your dog’s quality of life. Most senior dogs struggle with joint issues, and even a few extra pounds can have a big impact on that.
Your vet can quickly determine if the new lump on your dog’s chest is simply fatty tissue and nothing to worry about, or something more serious. And if it is more serious, your vet can recommend the best course of action.
Your vet can assess the extent of hearing and eyesight loss and take steps, in some cases, to reduce that or slow it down. In other cases, your vet can give advice on how to deal with it.
Your vet is the best judge of the level of exercise your dog needs, which varies tremendously from dog to dog. Regular exercise is important for senior dogs, but at the same time, over-doing it can cause problems. Your vet can tell you what’s right for your dog.
Your vet can advise you on supplements to your dog’s diet that could be beneficial. Micky gets canned pumpkin every day to help with digestion. He also gets joint chews and a little Omega-3 fish oil every day, which have made a noticeable difference in mobility.
Our vet, Dr. Kenneth Kirlin, has been wonderful and a huge source of help and comfort as we’re navigating Micky’s senior years.
Micky is having some trouble with his hind legs, and often loses his footing when climbing stairs. This harness has helped. We can give him just enough lift with the handle to help with the stairs and to let him regain his footing if he stumbles.
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to be more bonded to Micky. I was wrong, and I see it every day, in simple things. Here’s an example: Micky can still hop up on his favorite chair, most of the time — sometimes he slips. We’ve worked that out. When he wants to hop up, he approaches it and turns to look at me. I walk up behind him, but don’t touch him. Once I’m in position, he hops up. Usually he makes it. But when he doesn’t, I’m there to catch him and give him the extra boost he needs. He lets me know when he needs help, and he knows I have his back. This is just one of the ways we’re in tune with each other. It happens multiple times a day, and it melts my heart every time.
Yes, watching him age is hard. It has, however, also been a rewarding and heartwarming experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I appreciate every day I have with him, and when it is time to say goodbye, I’ll find comfort in knowing that his senior years were good ones.
Jane Gennarelli is co-editor of LNF Weekly. She also edits the Lavaca & Friends weekly arts and entertainment newsletter.