Ageing is a genetic process and your dog ages at a much faster rate than you do. Dogs are classed as mature at 18 months to 7 years old. The life expectancy of dogs ranges from 8 to 16 years and varies according to breed, type and state of health. Generally speaking, smaller breeds live longer than large breeds. Dogs live longer nowadays as a result of improved diets and better standards of veterinary care.
Signs of Ageing
Ageing changes occur gradually and may not be obvious to you as you see your dog every day. You might see changes in coat collar, greying of the muzzle, sleep pattern, appetite and thirst, body shape, reluctance to exercise and behaviour. Many of these changes also develop as symptoms of diseases so have your dog checked by your vet regularly.
Many veterinary practices run senior or geriatric clinics dedicated to offering advice on diet and care for the older dog. Routine healthcare such as annual vaccination boosters, worming and flea control should not be overlooked and should be continued throughout your dog's life into old age.
There are some notable differences in the nutritional requirements of the older dog. Senior life stage diets take into account altered life styles, levels of activity and declining organ function. Your vet will be able to give you advice when changing from an adult to a senior diet.
Some older dogs require up to 20% fewer calories as they become less active, so weigh your dog regularly (every 3 months). Many veterinary surgeries have scales as well as breed weight guidelines. Adjust the food intake to maintain optimum weight. Obesity is likely to put more strain on the heart, lungs, muscles and joints and may result in a shorter life expectancy. If your dog is overweight, speak to a vet about a calorie control diet.
As activity levels fall, old dogs may start to demonstrate muscle wastage. Normal healthy senior dogs should receive the same levels of protein as younger dogs but it must be of high quality. Feeding them little and often avoids overloading their digestive system. Their appetite may reduce as the sense of smell and taste diminishes. Old dogs require extra attention from you. Be kind and considerate and recognise this need for greater input into your dog's life.
Older dogs also tend to need to go to the toilet more often as a result of muscular weakness. Give them more opportunities to go out during the day, later at night and earlier in the morning.
Some signs of old age can be treated rather than endured. Check with your vet.
· Stiffness This may be caused by arthritis, spinal disease or musculo-skeletal disease. Although arthritis cannot be cured, inflammation and pain can be eased by medication or diet.
· Reluctance to exercise
· Breathlessness and slowing down
· Drinking more Fresh clean water should be available at tall times. Increased thirst can be a symptoms of disease but it is more common for older dogs to drink more. It may indicate kidney disease, liver or endocrine disease. Measure water intake by filling the bowl with a measuring jug or pint bottle and measure how much water has been drunk in 24 hours.
· Weight loss or gain may indicate illness. Weigh your dog regularly and report any changes to your vet.
· Impaired hearing and sight
· Inappropriate barking and howling. This can occur as a result of routine household events such as a washing machine causing vibration or jolts. Never punish - always investigate. Ensure that the route to food and water is easy and obstacle free.
Coming to terms with the end of your dog's life is very difficult. It is very important to know when to let go of your faithful friend. Give the same care, consideration and thought to this as you have done throughout your dog's life.
Remember that the ageing processes lead to an increased probability of death but not always to a quick and pain free death. Death by natural causes may be drawn out and involve much pain and suffering. Quality of life is an all-important consideration. After years together, no one wants to say goodbye but you must remember that to keep an ill dog alive just because you don't want to say goodbye is unfair.
Euthanasia is an important aspect of the services offered by your veterinary surgeon. You should not feel guilty about giving this some thought before the event or when you make the decision. A kind and considerate end is the ultimate act. Talk to your veterinary surgeon and the staff at your practice before and after the event. You may wish to arrange for your vet to come to your house so that your dog can slip away from you while being with you in their own home, rather than the distress of an unfamiliar or distressing clinic room at your vets. Many practices have staff specially trained who offer bereavement counselling.
While your pet may be physically gone, they will live as long as their wonderful memories.