Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Caring for the Canine Senior Citizen


Pet Column for the week of October 27, 2008


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

It's pretty easy to spot senior dogs in a crowd by their distinguished graying muzzles, the slow, deliberate movements, and the distinct look in their eyes that says "That's right, I've seen it all. Advances in veterinary medicine have greatly improved upon the average lifespan for our canine friends and has increased the likelihood of seeing senior dogs out and about.

Unfortunately, as the average lifespan of our dogs increases so does the chance that owners will see age-related issues arise in their senior pets. As your dog begins to age your veterinarian will likely start to recommend doing some tests to make sure your dog's internal organs are functioning as they should.

"I recommend that owners have yearly blood work done on their pets if the animal is healthy, and increase that frequency if any clinical signs present themselves or if abnormalities are seen in the blood work," says Dr. Julie Byron, a small animal internist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

According to Dr. Byron, geriatric dog owners should also increase their awareness of how their dog is acting and feeling. It is important to be able to recognize what is normal for your dog so that when there is a change you can recognize it. She explains that a trip to the veterinarian is warranted if your dog is displaying any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • Increased or decreased water intake and urination;
  • Weight loss or decreased appetite;
  • Vomiting or diarrhea;
  • Acting confused, lost, or disoriented;
  • Appearance of a growth or mass; or
  • Any changes in activity level or normal daily habits.

Two of the most important tools that a veterinarian uses to start narrowing down the list of possible problems are an accurate history from the owner and a thorough physical exam. Bringing your pet in to the veterinarian is only the first step; it is important that you share with your veterinarian any changes and symptoms your dog is displaying.

There are certain conditions that are more common in our elderly dogs including arthritis, renal (kidney) disease, canine cognitive dysfunction, neoplasia, cardiac diseases, and changes in vision and hearing. With these conditions come certain signs and symptoms that, when seen by the owner or veterinarian, can lead to a quick diagnosis of the problem.

Arthritis is one of the most common problems encountered by aging pooches. Just like with humans some dogs have a higher tolerance for pain than others, which means they will be slow to show any symptoms of this degenerative disorder. Dr. Byron explains that some owners may notice that their dogs are slow to rise after resting or lying down for an extended period but are otherwise acting normally.

Other arthritis symptoms to watch out for include: a decrease in activity level, unwillingness to walk, run, or play, decrease in appetite, and changes in temperament. If your dog has been diagnosed with arthritis your veterinarian can recommend some safe, prescription, anti-inflammatory medications that can help to reduce your pet's pain level and increase its quality of life. Dr. Byron advises owners to stay away from using any human medication on your pet, unless recommended by a veterinarian, as many of these medications can be toxic to pets.

Another common senior health problem in dogs is renal disease, where the ability of the kidney to function as a filtering and elimination organ for the body slowly begins to fail. Subtle changes in your dog's kidney function can be picked up on the recommended yearly blood work before any outward symptoms have presented themselves. Since kidney problems often cause symptoms like increased water consumption and increased urination, if blood work is not done or if the problem develops rapidly before it can be caught on a routine blood panel, owners may notice they need to fill the water bowl more frequently or that Fido asks to be taken out on walks more than usual.

"Owners should understand that while kidney disease is usually a degenerative disease it is not necessarily a death sentence for the pet," advises Dr. Byron. "There are drugs and treatments on the market that can greatly increase the dog's quality of life and delay the progression of the disease."

The one disease that every owner dreads hearing about is neoplasia. Unfortunately, it is a common problem in geriatric dogs and is also one that can be incredibly difficult for your veterinarian to diagnose. According to Dr. Byron it is the ability of cancer to mimic other diseases and include multiple organ systems that makes it so difficult to pinpoint on a diagnostic work-up. In order to diagnose neoplasia your veterinarian may ask for extensive diagnostic testing, which is necessary in order to rule out and narrow down the list of possible differentials your pet's symptoms and signs may point to.

While the necessary diagnostic tests can be expensive, if you are interested in pursuing further treatment for your pet these tests are essential. Your animal's prognosis and treatment strategy will vary greatly based on the results of these tests and whether a final diagnosis can be made.

According to Dr. Byron the disorder known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) has increased in recognition as a problem for our senior dogs in recent years. CCD can be compared to Alzheimer's disease in humans due to the similar symptoms that are displayed and the changes that the brain undergoes. Dr. Byron explains that some common scenarios for dogs afflicted with CCD are appearing lost or disoriented in their own homes, changes in temperament, losing housebreaking skills, and changes in sleep-wake cycles. While CCD is a degenerative disease there are some medications on the market that may slow disease progression.

"Above all, owners need to understand that age itself is not a disease," explains Dr. Julie Byron "It just means that your pet has an increased likelihood of experiencing certain problems and illnesses. As veterinarians we work to combat these problems and ensure that your pet has the best quality of life possible."

For more information on issues that geriatric dogs may encounter contact your local veterinarian.