Old dogs and new tricks: Blaine vets offer advice on caring for your senior

By Sarah Sharp

My 16-year-old miniature dachshund, Duke, is a walking miracle.

I’ll admit, the miracle’s a little slow going these days, and often prefers the arms of someone willing to carry him on afternoon walks. But those 3-inch legs have traveled more life in dog years than I’ll ever know.

While Duke’s age slightly exceeds the average life span for his breed (10–15 years), consider this: he’s survived an attack by a German shepherd and a Labrador retriever, dental surgery that pulled all but three of his rotting teeth, a back injury that left his hind legs immobile for several weeks, a broken jaw, blindness and partial deafness.

He’s sported more than his share of stitches, cones and gummy smiles, yet he still attracts the eyes and grabby hands of adoring toddlers at the park crying, “Puppy!” Just don’t tell them – or Duke – his puppy days expired about 15 years ago.

Most of Duke’s health problems resulted from old age and all the treats of being considered “geriatric.” Then, of course, there’s genetics – dachshund’s short legs are notoriously rough on their long backs. But after every emergency veterinarian visit, Duke somehow recovered with few long-term negative effects to his health and happiness.

His droopy ears still perk at the smell of cheese or tuna, and despite his hearing problems, he manages to catch the word “W-A-L-K” from an impressive distance. Sometimes, it seems to be a creative ruse to escape less exciting activities like bathing or having his nails trimmed. In that case, well played, old man. Well played.

Caring for Duke, as with any other geriatric dog, requires careful consideration when it comes to diet, exercise and socialization. Two Blaine veterinarian consultants – with 70 years’ in combined experience – offer advice on how to enrich the lives of senior dogs.

As a house-call provider, Paul Dean, DVM, of Dean’s Veterinary Services examines many senior pets in north Whatcom County. Likewise, geriatric dog and cat owners make up about 50 percent of the clients that Jack Schuman, DVM, sees at his business, Veterinarian Consultation Services, he said.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) defines the average age of geriatric dogs and cats as 7 to 8 years old, though this depends largely on the breed and size of the animal.

Dean and Schuman have both seen the most common problems in geriatric dogs, including arthritis, poor dental health, loss of bladder control, hearing and vision loss, cardiac problems, kidney failure, cancer and immobility. “People are keeping pets longer, and the longer they live, the more medical problems they have,” Schuman said.

However, you should not pass off any health problem as “normal” without visiting your local veterinarian, Dean said. He recommends looking out for the warning signs your dog might be in pain: weight loss or gain, behavioral problems, limping, aggression, grunting, growling or sleeping all day and night.

Owners can also provide comfort to ease problems that occur with normal aging, such as declining eyesight. Dean said his father’s dog was perfectly happy while deaf and blind because his family cleared the furniture from her preferred pathways.

If it’s an option financially, treatment at the hands of skilled veterinary ophthalmologists can remedy most vision impairments, Schuman said. “Any veterinarian will tell you the specialists we have [in the Bellingham and Seattle area] are some of the best,” he said.

Like humans, many dogs require a modified diet as they age. For example, Dean said kidney problems call for cutting down on protein, while overweight dogs need to limit their fat
consumption.

However, he cautions against adding over-the-counter supplements without consulting a veterinarian; an excess of calcium or vitamin D often does more harm than good, Dean said.

Similarly, Schuman recommends a high-quality, omnivorous diet even if it comes at a greater cost, he said.

Geriatric dogs should visit a veterinarian at least once a year for regular check-ups, Schuman said. It’s most helpful if the owner comes prepared with a recollection of all the changes in their dog’s routine and behavior in the past year.

Schuman begins many consultation appointments with these four questions: “Is your pet having any problems? Is it drinking more water or urinating more? Is it defecating in the house? Does it have trouble moving around?” A “yes” to any of these questions might might be a clue to a greater problem, he said.

“As they get older, we have to decide, ‘Is it a physical problem that’s going to be life-defined or it is something that can be treated on a minimal basis?’” Schuman said.

Sometimes, those problems are easily treated. Other times, the owner must consider a more difficult decision: saying goodbye. When it comes time, Schuman wants to minimize the pain for both the pet and the owner.

“That’s the hard part about having a geriatric patient. Are we treating the pet to keep it alive for our own good, or are we keeping the pet alive to keep it healthy and feeling well?”

In Schuman’s experience, the owner usually makes the right decision.

  1. My dog is 18 years old. She is deaf, but she doesn’t seem to be in pain. She is a little wobbly and has had about 3 different accidents ( urine) Otherwise she has lost some weight, but is doing fine.

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