Optimal health care can add years to the life of your dog, as well as substantially decrease your cost of treating medical problems associated with aging. Here are some things you can do to keep your pet healthy.
Comprehensive Physical Examinations
Since pets age 5 – 7 times faster than humans, it can be estimated that one physical examination for a pet is equivalent to one exam every 5 – 7 years in humans. The exam should include a very detailed medical history along with a “nose to tail” physical examination.
In later years, a comprehensive physical examination should be performed every 6 – 12 months, depending on any specific medical problems discovered in your pet. This screening could include an ECG screening and glaucoma screening.
Laboratory Screening For Diseases
Many medical problems can be diagnosed through the use of laboratory diagnostic testing long before clinical signs of disease become evident. Specific recommendations for your pet may include:
- Disease screening for Lyme / Heartworm / Ehlichia / Anaplasma.
- Complete Blood Counts.
- Internal Parasite Examination.
- Blood Chemistry Screening.
- Thyroid Screening.
Feed the highest quality pet food you can afford and read the labels carefully. Ideal diets for senior pets would have less sodium and fat and more fiber than regular adult foods. Higher quality and premium foods are more digestible and result in less stool volume.
If a specific medical condition is diagnosed, a specific prescription diet may be best for your pet. Vitamin supplements help keep the skin healthy and may enhance the pet’s immune system.
Fatty acid supplements may be useful for skin problems, arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Do not feed table scraps or snacks unless formulated for the senior pet. New pet treats are now available from the clinic that is very palatable as well as healthy for your pet.
As the pet gets older, water consumption becomes much more important. Increased thirst and water consumption is a very important factor in several senior pet medical problems. Be sure to notify your vet if you see changes in water consumption.
Keep Your Pet Under Control
Letting pets run loose takes years off their life. Statistics show that pets spending the majority of their lives outdoors do not live as long.
Be sure your pet is microchipped. Older pets lose their sense of hearing and vision, thus increasing the chances they will become lost.
Depression of the immune system occurs in older pets, making them more susceptible to the common infectious diseases. Maintaining vaccinations is very important to their health, because of the potential for decreased resistance in these pets. Vaccination recommendations must be individualized for each pet based on breed, age, physical condition, diseases prevalent in the area, etc.
Heartworm and Internal Parasite Prevention
Heartworms are a serious and potentially deadly health problem. All pets should be on heartworm prevention all year long along with a broad spectrum preventive for internal parasites.
America’s obesity epidemic grows, with 1 in 3 Americans clinically obese, according to the CDC. This sad trend holds true, and the statistics are even worse, with our pets as well, with 53% of dogs in the U.S. reported obese by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.
Overweight dogs are at risk for health problems and do not generally live as long as dogs that are trim. In addition to being at a greater risk for heart disease, overweight dogs show greater incidence of arthritis, circulatory problems (high blood pressure), pancreatic disorders (pancreatitis), diabetes, liver disease and more.
Obesity is the fourth leading cause of death today for dogs and the cost of medical care for conditions related to obesity is constantly growing. Dogs that maintain an ideal weight have an extra lifespan of 2 years than their overweight counterparts.
As a rule, any weight 15% above the ideal one is overweight. Take a look at your dog and if you cannot see a waist or feel his ribs, it’s time to get serious. Consult your vet on your dog’s ideal weight.
In theory, weight loss is simple enough: fewer calories in plus more calories out should lead to weight loss. Unfortunately, it is not always that simple. Before you start restricting your dog’s intake or change their diet, you should visit your veterinarian for a check-up and look for underlying medical conditions, such as Hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease.
Ideally, you would stop giving your dog treats between meals, but realistically, your pet will keep getting treats, so here are some treat tips and suggestions:
- Portion is everything. The treat portion is dependent on the size of your dog. A treat with 20 calories isn’t much to a Great Dane who requires 1,400 kcal / day, but for a Chihuahua a 20-calorie treat is 10% of his or her total 21O kcal / day diet. If you feed more than one treat a day, it is going to add up fast.
- No table scraps. They are often high in fats and sugars and thus calories.
- Treats should never make up more than 10% of your pet’s daily intake.
- Use your dog’s kibble for treats.
- Try fresh veggies. Cooked green beans, broccoli and carrots are high in fiber (giving your dog a greater sense of fill) and are low in fat. No ranch dressing top dress!
- Rice cakes. A piece or two, not the whole cake.
- Air popped popcorn. Not salted and no butter.
- No OTC treats: pupperoni, beggin’ strips, etc. These are high-fat junk food: imagine eating half a bag of potato chips and a Snickers candy bar.
Other Feeding Ideas
Here are some more tips on managing your dog’s food intake:
- If your dog whines and begs for more food while you are eating, hold firm. Such behavior causes a lot of owners to give in. Your dog will beg if she knows that she will get him more treats and snacks.
Suggestion: While you are dining, put your dog outside, in its carrier or in another room. Give her a rawhide bone to gnaw on to keep her busy while you eat. This way help you remove the temptation to give in.
- Go for a walk when your dog begs. This distraction and interaction may just be enough to make it forget its desire for food. Many dogs substitute food for affection so flip the equation, play tag, laser point, ball, frisbee instead and you may find that playtime displaces mealtime.
- After feeding your dog, pick up the bowl. There is no need to tease your pet with an empty bowl. You also remove your temptation to fill it.
Write on the bag or container how much your dog needs a day and feed only that amount. You might want to measure the total daily food into a separate container, so that family members know how much the dog has been fed and how much is left for the day. You can use the kibble in this container for treats when the day container is empty, which means no more food for the day.
- Try feeding your pet out of food toys. Such toys include Omega Paw’s Omega Tricky Treat Ball, Premier’s PetSafe Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble Toy and The Company of Animals’ Dog Tornado Interactive Plastic Toy. These interactive food delivery toys can be filled with your dog’s meal and she gets to work for her dinner by figuring out how to get the food out of the toy. Exercise and food in one place!
Make sure that you monitor your dog’s progress. Keep a food log (it helps with people too) and weigh your dog weekly. Most veterinary offices will be more than happy to have you come in and use their scale.
Remember that your dog may hit a plateau, where your dog seems stuck at a certain weight (common in people too). Don’t despair or give up, but keep on the plan and you will get there. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to make adjustments in your dog’s program, if your dog is not progressing.
A good way to help you enjoy the process with your dog is to take a before-diet picture and several during the weight reduction process and then one at its conclusion. You will be amazed at the difference.
Make it fun for the whole family and include pictures of your dog having fun playing and walking with the family. Start a picture board and talk about how much fun you and your pet have shared together. As your dog loses weight, her level of energy will increase and you might be surprised how much more fun she can be and have with you.
Periodontal disease is a very serious problem in senior pets. Tartar buildup is a result of bacterial infection in the mouth. Once these bacteria become attached to the teeth below the gum line, it becomes a seed of infection that spreads all over the body.
Many respiratory, kidney, liver and heart infections are a result of bacteria spreading from the mouth. It is important to note that the real problem is what you don’t see (what is below the gum line), rather than what you do see (above the gum line). What you don’t see can certainly be slowly killing your pet.
Remember that, in humans, the first sign of a dental problem is pain. Dogs are notoriously good at hiding pain. Therefore, if you wait for dental disease to become noticeable, you can be sure that your dog has been in pain for a significant period of time leading up to this discovery.
Dental exams, routine use of dental hygiene products and dental scaling / polishing are important for a healthy mouth. Consider feeding specialized dental diets as treats to aid keeping teeth clean.
Grooming and Nail Trimming
Maintaining healthy skin and toe nails makes your pet more comfortable, prevents odor, and makes your pet shine. Notify your vet if you observe excessive scratching, flaking, fleas, ticks, sores or bald spots. Skin growths are also more common in senior pets. Early removal decreases pain, your costs and chances of spreading.
Tick control is not only important to prevent Lyme disease but also to prevent RMSF, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, bartonellosis and other infections. Tick control begins with avoidance of tick habitats, careful landscaping and daily checking for ticks.
Ixodes ticks are field ticks that quest for hosts, especially from leaf litter, lowlying vegetation, overhanging branches and wooded, brushy or overgrown lawns. State and other public health websites help owners analyze their property and create relatively safe “tick-free” zones.
Tick control products often recommended include fipronil, amitraz collar, permethrin / imidacloprid and other permethrin-containing products. In some situations, combinations of products might be beneficial (e.g. the amitraz collar is frequently combined with fipronil by ACVIM diplomates).
Any of these products can be effective in reducing transmission of Borrelia burgdorferi (Bb) — the tickborne organism associated with Lyme disease — to dogs. However, products that prevent tick attachment (e.g. amitraz collar) or repel ticks (e.g. those containing permethrin) are needed to decrease transmission of other tickborne infections.
For example, although Bb and B microti require 2 – 3 days of tick attachment for effective transmission, R rickettsii and A phagocytophilum potentially can be transmitted during the first day of attachment.
Theoretically, transmission times might be shorter if a tick is detached and refeeds on another host, but after a tick cements itself to begin feeding, it is unlikely to become detached with intact mouthparts.
The amitraz collar works very well to help prevent transmission of Bb. It needs to be applied tightly enough to have skin contact (not just hair), it is only active against ticks (not fleas), the chemical is washed away from the skin if swimming or bathing occurs and it should not be used on dogs receiving tricyclic antidepressant medications for behavioral disorders. It is very toxic if eaten and the veterinarian should have the antidote yohimbine in the office.
Fipronil has been shown to decrease transmission of Bb and E canis. It is not washed away by swimming or bathing, kills fleas as well as ticks (but not until the second day of attachment) and can be used safely on cats.
Permethrin / imidacloprid has been proven to help prevent transmission of A phagocytophilum and Bb. It is not washed away by swimming or bathing with mild shampoo, repels and kills ticks as well as fleas and mosquitoes, but is toxic to cats.
Medicating Your Pet
Never give human medications or medications prescribed for other pets to your senior pets. The liver and or kidneys once administered must break down most drugs. There can be very serious complications if a medication is given to a pet that has compromised internal organs.
Maintain A Constant Environment
Tolerance to heat and cold decreases with age. Warmth also lessens the signs of arthritis.
Present the Pet for Examination if You Observe any of the Following
- Sustained, significant increase in water consumption (more than 1.5 cups [12 oz.] per 10 lbs body weight per day).
- Sustained, significant increase in urination (volume and / or frequency).
- Weight loss.
- Significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for more than two consecutive days.
- Significant increase in appetite.
- Repeated vomiting.
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than two days.
- Difficulty in passing stool or urine.
- Inappropriate elimination accidents in the house or general changes in bowel habits.
- Lameness that lasts for more than three days or lameness in more than one leg.
- Noticeable decrease in vision, especially if sudden in onset or pupils that do not constrict in bright light. Eye discharges or reddening of the white parts of the eye.
- Masses, ulcerations (open sores) or multiple scabs on the skin that persist for more than a week.
- Foul mouth odor or drooling that lasts more than a day.
- Increased size of the abdomen.
- Increasing inactivity, especially time spent sleeping.
- Persistent coughing, gagging or panting.
- Hair loss, especially if accompanied by scratching or if in specific areas of the body.
- Episodes of sudden weakness, collapse or fainting spells.
- Seizures (convulsions).
- Reluctance or inability to chew dry food.
- Any changes in routine behavior or personality.
Contact your vet any time you observe a potential problem or need additional information and advice.
Image credit: Wikimedia.