Aging is a natural process that we all experience. However, it brings with it some changes that are not particularly desirable. Forestalling and controlling certain aspects of the aging process are possible if appropriate intervention is undertaken in a timely manner. The purpose of this document is to inform you of some of these methods for slowing the aging process.
The Dog as a Senior Citizen
Dogs age at a different rate than humans. During the first year or so of life, a dog achieves adulthood. Therefore, that first year is equivalent to about 18 human years. After that, the dog ages in a fairly linear fashion. Each year then becomes the equivalent to about 7-8 human years for a medium to large breed dog. Giant breeds (Great Dane size) are seniors by 5 years of age, medium to large breeds reach that status by 7 years, small breeds are seniors at about 9 years and toy breeds by 10 years of age.
Common Changes in the Aging Dog
Senior dogs are less active, resulting in excessive nail growth. Without regular trimming the nails may grow around and back into the footpad, may break in the quick, or may turn to the side. This will be most uncomfortable and will result in lameness and bleeding. The key to preventing these problems is to cut your dog's nails at least every other month.
Dental disease is common in older dogs. The most common forms of dental disease are tartar buildup, with resulting periodontal disease. Tartar buildup is common in dogs of any age, but older dogs often have heavy tartar buildup due to years of dental neglect. The tartar irritates the gums, pushes the gums away from the roots of the teeth, and fosters growth of bacteria. Bacteria not only affect the mouth but they are also carried by the blood stream to other organs, most notably the kidneys and heart. Tartar buildup and periodontal disease are very treatable with proper cleaning and antibiotic therapy.
Geriatric dogs do not usually lose their eyesight, although it can become diminished, especially in dim lighting situations. In older dogs cataracts may form leading to blindness.
Hearing loss and outright deafness occur in many dogs over 12 years of age. It is permanent.
Arthritis occurs in the spine or legs of most geriatric dogs. It causes them become reluctant, or even unable, to jump into the car or on a bed; they may be hesitant to climb stairs. We have several effective drugs that can be used safely in arthritic dogs, so a close examination and discussion of options is important.
Obesity is common in senior dogs due to a reduction of activity. Out of habit we tend to maintain a feeding program from when our pets were more active and needing more calories. With the reduction of activity these calories go toward fat production. In addition, poor thyroid gland function can lower the dog's metabolism resulting in weight gain that is difficult to reverse with diet alone.vA nutritional management program tailored to your pet will reduce obesity, help with arthritis, and assist in managing other common diseases.
Senior dogs also develop certain diseases with increasing frequency. The most common of these are diabetes, chronic kidney failure, heart failure, Cushing's Disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Each will be described briefly.
Diabetes (more correctly called diabetes mellitus) is a disease caused by the failure of the pancreas to produce adequate insulin. Insulin is required to move blood sugar (glucose) from the blood into the cells. It results in excess urine production, increased thirst, weight loss, and a ravenous appetite. Although these signs should be present in all diabetic dogs, some of them may be missed. This is especially a problem when dogs are outside because they may eat, drink, and urinate outdoors. If you have several dogs increased thirst or urine production in one dog will easily be missed. Longhaired dogs can loose a substantial amount of weight without detection, so weight loss can also be overlooked. If you suspect that any of these signs are occurring, your dog needs a blood test to determine its blood glucose level. It is most accurate if your dog has not eaten for at least 6 hours. This is a treatable disease.
Chronic kidney failure is the result of many years of slow deterioration in kidney function. Kidney infections, certain toxins, and congenital diseases may be part of this deterioration process, but aging is the major factor. Something has to wear out first, and in many dogs it is the kidneys. Dogs in kidney failure are actually producing an excess amount of urine in an attempt to remove waste products that are accumulating in the blood. This results in increased thirst. Gradual weight loss is also common, and loss of appetite occurs as the disease progresses. It can be diagnosed with some simple blood and urine tests. It is manageable if treatment begins before the kidney failure is advanced. While the process can be slowed and the dog made to feel better, the kidneys are not restored to normal.
Heart failure. Many small dogs develop a mitral murmur as early as 6 years of age; most of them will have a murmur by 10 years of age. The murmur is audible through a stethoscope and may progress in intensity as the disease progresses. Another early sign of mitral valve disease is a chronic dry, hacking cough. This occurs because the enlarging left atrium puts pressure on the bronchus (a branch of the airway); this compression leads to a cough. The presence of a murmur does not mean that heart failure is imminent. But, as time goes on, the leak becomes more severe and more blood goes backwards. This results in reduced pumping efficiency and, eventually, congestive heart failure. From the time a murmur develops, it may be a few months to several years until heart failure occurs. Heart disease is treatable.
Cushing's Disease is a disorder in which the adrenal glands overproduce certain hormones. Another medical term disease for this disease is hyperadrenocorticism. Spontaneous Cushing's is common in dogs over 6 years of age. The average age of onset is approximately ten years of age. The most commonly reported clinical signs associated with Cushing's Disease are a tremendous increase in appetite, water consumption, and urination. Lethargy (lack of activity), panting, and muscular weakness are also seen in many cases. Problems related to the skin and hair coat include thin, easily bruised skin, loss of hair (alopecia), and excessive pigmentation. Many of these dogs appear to have a bloated abdomen. Cushing's disease is usually treatable.
High blood pressure, more accurately called hypertension, is fairly common in senior dogs. Most of the time it is secondary to chronic kidney failure, heart failure or diabetes. However, it appears that a few dogs may have "essential" or "primary" hypertension. This means that there is not an underlying disease; essential hypertension is common in humans. This disease is suspected in dogs with the underlying diseases and is diagnosed by measuring the dog's blood pressure. Because the dog's arteries are so small, a special instrument is required. The most common one used is based on the Doppler principle. Hypertension is very treatable.
Cancer is another common disease in senior dogs. There are so many forms of cancer that it is impossible to list specific clinical signs. The signs will be determined by the parts of the body that are affected. Therefore, weight loss, anemia, lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing and coughing are all possible. However, it is unlikely that all of those would occur in any one dog.
Poor thyroid gland function is common in older dogs. Typical signs include weight gain, lethargy, intolerance of cold weather and hair loss near the hips. Diagnosis is achieved via blood testing and treatment is supplementation of thyroid hormone by mouth.
Detection of Geriatric Diseases
Early detection is the key to successful treatment of all of these diseases. Most of them can be controlled or cured if diagnosed early enough. We recommend a panel of screening tests for our senior patients. First, a thorough physical examination is performed. Next, we perform a blood and urine panel that includes specific tests for diabetes, chronic kidney failure, and liver disease. Blood pressure is determined and an EKG is done. If any of these tests have questionable results, other tests are added including chest x-rays (radiographs), ultrasound studies, and possible biopsies of suspected abnormal organs. If you wish for your dog to have this Silver Whiskers Comprehensive Evaluation, please schedule it with one of our receptionists.