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Teach Senior Dogs New Tricks to Stay Healthy

“Their olfactory sense has probably diminished, so stronger scents are good,” Frost adds, “and high-contrast colors are important so they can see the toy clearly. But the notion that they don’t want to play anymore? That’s not true at all! To be able to lie down and just chew helps them relax and keeps them from being bored. You can’t ever assume that your dog doesn’t want to play.”

Even for dogs at their healthiest, transportation can be tough, and older dogs often don’t hop into a back seat the way they used to. Haug suggests creating a surface that “provides stable footing but is not so firm that when the dog lies down, he’s uncomfortable.” For big cars and vans, there are ramps and steps; take breed and body shape into account when making your selection, however. If you have a Dachshund, you don’t want the short, steep steps, which are popular because they take up less space. Make sure the steps’ treads are deep enough for sure footing and wide enough to forgive a misstep.

It’s also a kindness to soften distractions such as sudden loud noises, and to avoid abrupt changes in routine. Older dogs can be more easily startled; as they’re less able to maneuver or defend themselves, they feel more fragile and grow more fearful, reluctant to play with new dogs or children, distressed by chaos and commotion. (Dr. Debra Horowitz, a veterinary behaviorist, notes that dogs’ neurotransmitter functions change with age—oxygen levels go down and brain chemistry is altered.)

Sometimes, the startle or anxiety is just because the dog can’t see or hear as well as he once did. Cataracts can start to form as early as age seven, for example. But overall, sensory declines are rarely as traumatic for dogs as they are for us egoridden humans; often the changes are so gradual that the dog adapts, and you might not even realize he’s blind or deaf, especially if you have other dogs and he’s following their lead. Susan McCullough, author of Senior Dogs for Dummies, says, “If you sense your dog’s hearing is going bad and he or she doesn’t already know hand signals, teach them now. If your dog is blind, now is not the time to change the furniture. Dogs are amazing, though, in their ability to compensate. I had a dog who still responded to vibrations, so I’d clap my hands and she’d come to me. Creativity goes a long way.”

Food for senior dogs isn’t as complicated as the marketers make it, according to Dr. Donna Raditic, a vet certified in alternative therapies and currently a post-grad resident in nutrition at the University of Tennessee. “Older dogs can eat the adult diets. The development of geriatric diets is a bit of marketing, plus some old beliefs that lowering protein levels spares the kidneys. Actually, we now know that older dogs and humans need more protein. The main concern for geriatrics is to watch calories, because they tend to be less active, especially in winter.”

Older dogs should be monitored for dental problems, like bleeding gums or tooth loss. Even bad breath can signal something as simple as tartar buildup or as serious as oral cancer, kidney disease or diabetes mellitus. And when dogs do fall ill, nausea can decrease their appetite. “Often owners think their dogs are being picky—they are not—they don’t feel well!” Raditic exclaims. “It can be very difficult to keep weight and condition on an old dog with a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract.”

Glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to be beneficial for arthritis, and anti-inflammatory pain meds can help, too. How do you know when your dog’s in pain? According to Haug, the signs are pretty obvious. Look for “restlessness, crankiness, irritability when handled, difficulty getting up or lying down, looking stiff, being unstable, moving very slowly. Sometimes, if they move suddenly, their joints scrape together.” She sighs. “The thing that’s underappreciated, even sometimes by veterinarians, is how much these dogs can benefit from pain medication. Some are restless at night, only because they can’t get comfortable.”

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Submitted by Dave | December 7 2009 |

My 10+ year old German Shepherd, Bodee, recently has left my life and I must say I miss him a lot. I adopted him a little over 2 yrs ago from the MSPCA and it was one of the best decisions of my life. I remember the day I met him and adopted him like it was yesterday. I can say in the 2 years I had him he went from being able to go for walks of about .5 miles to barely making it around my little yard but he loved getting out there sniffing around enjoying the outdoors to his last day. Over the 2 years I had to adjust to his aging from adding rugs around the home, to getting dog beds in multiple rooms, to giving medications and glucosomine for his last 8 months but all well worth making him more comfortable. Bodee absolutely loved kids and I was happy that one of his last days he got to meet my new neighbor's kids as while I know he wanted to run and play like he was a kid with them I know just having them come up to him made him so happy. So I would concur with the article that letting your older dog still experience the things that make them happy as they age will make them extremely happy. While I miss him a lot I will never forget my Bodee and urge everyone to consider adopting an older dog as the time may be short you have with them it can be very, very rewarding and memorable.

Submitted by Stephanie | February 28 2010 |

What a beautiful owner! I have always adopted and fostered dogs over puppies. I even adopted an older greyhound in 1992. We had him for 8 years and he was truly an "old sole". I now have 2 older pitbull mixes and one 3 year old pitbull. My older boys are really feeling their age. My Rudy is losing his hearing and having problems with his spine. I have him on medication and I spend alot of time just petting and keeping him comfortable. It is truly a sad thing to lose these great creatures and I do not look forward to that day. However, I would not have traded in one moment and yes, I believe giving an older dog the gift of love and happiness for a few years is sooooo worth it. They give so much in return!

Submitted by Leslie | July 5 2014 |

I'm sorry for your lost. Actually, the dog that me and my husband will adopt is a 10 years old german shepherd. We are now walking him out every weekend to get to know and bringing him home sometimes to be familiar with our place. We wanted to build a connection before getting him- coz having a dog is not just a hobby but a responsibility and a chance to care for a life.

I'm so thankful for sharing your story.

may I know if you have adopted a new dog?

Submitted by dianne elko | April 16 2010 |

very good article,very useful,very interesting.i just had to put my 'Lucky' down last fall :( and i have another that is coming up on 12 years,i agree we need to tune in to what they need,sometimes i think people don't for the old saying 'IF YOU DON'T THINK ABOUT IT,THEN MAYBE IT'S NOT HAPPENING'.any one who has loved a dog doesn't like to think about losing them.

Submitted by Dan | April 16 2010 |

What a great article. One other thing that seems to help our older dog is massage therpy. My wife is a massage therpist and she regularly massages our 10 year old sheltie, along with our other two dogs who love the attention just as much.

Submitted by diane | April 16 2010 |

You're right. This is a wonderful article. Four years ago I lost my 17-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Oprah. I didn't know if I would survive the loss. Three years ago came Zechariah, a black CS. A year after that brought Jeremiah, a 1-year-old silver buff CS, who was finally captured after running for 10 days in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Animal Control called me because they knew of my love for Cockers. Then, just before Christmas of last year, my vet called to say an elderly couple had surrendered for euthanasia a 10-year-old red Cocker. Would I take her? Yes, and she's become an unbelievable blessing. Daily walks have done much in reducing her obesity. A series of Adequan shots, plus the weight loss, has greatly relieved her arthritis. Her hearing is a little off, so we make compensations. She has gone from being unable to walk up - or down - the stairs to bounding along with the two boys. She finds it difficult to get on the people bed at night so, instead, she snuggles in her special orthopedic "couch." She lost the only life she'd known at 10 and she's bravely tackled and embraced her new one. I intend to make her remaining years as productive and as joyful as possible. The article on aging provided a wealth of good information.

Submitted by Ann | April 16 2010 |

Interesting story. I too have shared and loss my best friend in 2008. I know he wouldn't have left if he didn't need too. He was the most faithful dog who never stopped loving me. His love brought me through some pretty hard times. I still ache with his absence in my life. I know he will be forever in my heart waiting for me to join him someday.

Submitted by Leslie | April 18 2010 |

Rescuing older dogs is filled with a deep joy. I've had my new boy for only a year and he's 14. He was in shock for about the first 6 months I had him. He didn't know what had happened to his old life. He needed a lot of TLC and now I get sad just thinking how much I love him and will miss him. He's losing his sight and sleeps more and more. He loves the sun and comfort!! He's got a great retirement now. This is my first rescue and I know I'll stick with rescuing older dogs. One thing I think that would have made his transition easier for him would have been to have had information about his habits (where he slept, what he liked, what words he knew). I got a lot of medical information but nothing about his personality and stuff like that.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 22 2010 |

Get to the point.

Submitted by JAE | June 27 2011 |

Thank you for your article. I have a 14yr.old black lab/dalmation mix (with serious medical condition). She has a playmate (small 5 yr.old) who lives upstairs. When I see them chasing each other, it melts Fly's age and condition away. Thanks for reminding me of games I used to play with her.

Submitted by suzy allman | October 23 2012 |

One of our shepherds really likes the bed -- but as he aged, it was just too much for him to make the jump, and I was worried he'd slip back on his hips. We found the best little staircase for him -- wooden and pretty, to match the bed! We still have to hoist him into the car, but what the hay. He's worth every bit of effort and in some ways his "dotage" is adorable.

Both my shepherds are 11+ but still hike every day. They're terrific buddies. I agree with this article -- it's really important to provide non-slip surfaces, esp. on the stairs, so they don't come a-flyin' down one day! Just like old human folk. :0)

Thanks for the advice, and reminding everyone how special senior adoptions can be!

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