Perhaps, the only flaw that dogs have is that they age faster than we do. We are able to enjoy their company for very limited years. Lucky are those pet parents that have the privilege of being with them in their golden years. However, very often, we fail to recognise when our pet has finally become a senior.
Different dog breeds age differently. Small breed dogs are given the status of seniors when they cross 11-12 years of age. For medium breeds, such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers, the ageing process is seen to set in at 8-10years. Tyson, my friend’s 9-year-old Pitbull, who’s sharing apartment space with me at the moment as his parents are abroad, has already started greying around the muzzle. Gentle giants like Danes, unfortunately, enter their senior years as early as 6 years of age.
It is very important for a pet parent to understand when to expect ageing in their dog. A lot of illnesses begin during this period, and early symptoms often go unnoticed. The other day, I had an 8-year-old Labrador come in for a consult because he wasn’t eating. It was only when I touched the stethoscope to his heart did I realise that he had a cardiac ailment that the parents were completely oblivious to. This happens more often than I would like. Vigilance at this age can help avoid many a disaster.
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So, what can one expect when your pet becomes older and what can you do to make this period of their life as comfortable as their youth? A visit to the vet every 6 months for a general check will help diagnose a lot of disease processes at an earlier stage. It is best to put a 6-month reminder on your calendar. A wellness check can help evaluate the status of all their important organs.
Older pets often have an ageing heart, and cardiovascular diseases are very common. If caught early, medication can help slow down the speed of cardiovascular compromise and keep your beloved pet at ease.
Cataracts, which obscure vision, also occur once they cross over into their senior years. When we operated on a pet client, Minku’s cataract at the age of 15, his parent’s joy knew no bounds because he regained his lost vision. Surgery is now possible for older pets to help them navigate in their home and environment.
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Ageing also means weakening joints. Osteoarthritis is a painful condition and will hinder your pet’s everyday movements. If you find that your pet is reluctant to climb on to his favourite furniture or is throwing a tantrum to go for a walk or climb up the stairs, it is time to get an examination done by a vet.
Omega oil and joint supplements help keep the pain associated with arthritis and spondylosis at bay. Acupuncture is also an option for senior pets with joint pain. Dr Akshay Shah, a certified veterinary acupuncturist practicing in Mumbai says, “Acupuncture is a therapy which is safe for senior pets. Allopathic treatment for conditions such as arthritis involve long term painkillers which could be harmful for their liver and kidneys.” He states that acupuncture is a very good option to provide comfort in senior animals with joint problems without any side effects.
Once you find that your older pet is having trouble with their joints, you can consider making your home comfortable by introducing mats in places that they frequent to provide a good grip for their feet. Ramps may have to be constructed if using the stairs has become difficult. Body harnesses are also available that can help you help your pet get around.
Dental disease is often ignored in older pets because dogs have a far higher pain tolerance than we do and will not show symptoms associated with toothaches unless they are unbearable. It’s not fair to let it get to that stage. Focus on oral hygiene, brush their teeth with a pet friendly toothpaste every other day and have a veterinarian examine their teeth during their wellness check-ups. Report any signs of gum inflammation or bleeding.
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Even if your old buddy doesn’t feel up to it, exercise is very important for an elderly dog. It keeps weight gain at bay, thus making their joints supple. And it provides the bonding time with you that is so precious in this stage of their life. Along with exercise, diet and nutrition should also be looked into. Older dogs have lesser calorie requirements and hence the type of food that is being given and food quantities may have to be changed later in their life. An addition of fibre in their diet in the form of pumpkin allows for better passage of stools and should be considered for an older pet.
Senior dogs have the best temperament. They are far more mature and make for very good companions. It is a privilege to be able to be a small part of their lives. I am happy to be spending the few days that I am with Tyson. All that innocence and unconditional love that he bestows on me reminds me that it is our duty, as pet parents to ensure that when our pets enter their sunset years, we provide them all the comfort and dignity that they rightfully deserve.
Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.