Tails a Waggin' Online...Caring for Your Aging Dog
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"Caring for Your Aging Dog"

The information on this page was written by Dr. Bruce Fogle D.V.M. and is from one of his many books, "Natural Dog Care". You can find more of Dr. Fogle's books listed on this website... go to Recommendations for Your Library.

Dogs are living longer than ever before, longer in fact than nature intended. Unlike people, who suffer from heart attacks and strokes, dogs have few causes of sudden death. Instead, mental and physical changes occur slowly as they age. Life expectancy is immutable. It is written in the genes. By providing an enriched environment for your dog, you can ensure that it enjoys its natural lifespan.

A New Phenomenon

In the wild, a dog's life expectancy depends upon finding food and avoiding injury or illness. In the benign circumstances of living with us, there are few threats to life. As a consequence, dogs are now living very long lives, some becoming true geriatrics. Evolution did not plan for this, which is why, for example, female dogs do not undergo menopause. Under natural circumstances, quite simply, they died young. Unneutered elderly females continue to cycle, although their heat periods become more erratic and the incidence of womb infection in late life is very high.

Natural Physical Changes

Professor Jacob Mosier at Kansas State University studied the natural physical changes of aging and found some of the most significant modifications in the brain. In its prime, a dog depends on the swiftness of its mental as well as physical reflexes. Messages travel along the nervous system at approximately 6,560 yds (6,000 m) per second. In the elderly dog these messages slow down to about 1,420 yds (1,300 m) per second. Other changes also affect brain function. Blood vessels in the brain lose their elasticity and the lungs become less efficient. The brain doesn't receive as much oxygen and this affects memory and learning. At the same time, tiny hemorrhages sometimes occur in brain tissue. Consequently, elderly dogs can become irritable when disturbed.

What Controls Aging?

With time dogs become, like us, both wiser and sillier. Aging is ultimately controlled by a genetic biological clock, located in the brain, that in turn controls the body's hormone system. Professor Ben Hart at the University of California has studied the behavior changes of aging. He found that the natural aging changes dogs experience are very similar to the changes we go through, including the changes that in humans are called senile dementia. Professor Hart found that loss of brain function was natural in most dogs by the time they were 16 years old. Typical signs of old age involve increasing disorientation, changes in social relationships with the family, alterations in housetraining, and modifications in sleep and wake times.

More specifically, by 16 years of age, about 20 percent of dogs passed urine or feces in the house, with little or no signaling, for no medical or acquired behavioral reason. Twenty-five percent of dogs this age change their sleep-wake cycles, sleeping more in the day but less at night, when they are more restless but not because they needed to eliminate. A majority of dogs this age, 60 percent, involved themselves less with their family. They greeted less, followed their owners less, and solicited less attention. (An earlier natural aging change involves following the owners more - not letting them out of sight.)

Finally, over 70 percent of 16 year old dogs become naturally more disoriented as they aged, going to the wrong side of the door when asking to go out, getting stuck in corners, staring into space, and barking for no reason. Another curious phenomenon of aging is that while neutered females become more aggressive, neutered males get less aggressive as they grow older.

Natural Aging

At a chemical level, elderly dogs have more trouble turning off their stress response. Even when relaxed, elderly dogs secrete more stress-related hormones. Technically, the ultimate cause of death is an excess of these hormones, called glucocorticoids. Training your dog to relax can control its stress response and, at least in theory, could prolong life. As aging progresses, the chemical factory in the brain and nervous system produces fewer chemicals called neuroendocrines. Specifically, production of the brain chemical called dopamine drops. This is the brain's master chemical. If dopamine production is maintained, a dog probably lives longer.

How You Can Influence Aging

You can actively slow down natural aging by providing your dog with routine mental and gentle physical stimulation. Massaging your dog does more than help loosen stiff joints. It improves the circulation of blood to all parts of the body. Extensive studies in the 1980s showed that with mental stimulation the brain grows in size. It does not produce more cells, but instead the cells already there grow more connections with other cells. With mental stimulation a single brain cell might develop lost connections with up to 2,000 other cells. You can slow the natural decay of memory by providing your dog with mental activities.

Feed your dog a well-balanced diet that contains the increased levels of vitamins and antioxidants that older dogs need. Until recently, veterinary nutritionists thought it was wise to reduce the protein level in diets for older dogs in order to take the strain off the kidneys. However, recent evidence suggests that, as long as the kidneys are healthy, protein helps the hemorrhage process rather than hinders it. Finally, accept the fact that your dog ages faster than you would like. Do not overexercise you companion: it does more harm than good. Let your dog set its own pace in later life but make sure that life remains stimulating.


paw tack bullet Provide frequent, short walks rather than one long one.
paw tack bullet Groom more often. It helps circulation.
paw tack bullet Feed smaller meals more frequently.
paw tack bullet Provide your dog with soft bedding if it has calluses.
paw tack bullet Take your dog out after every meal, just before bedtime, and first thing each morning.
paw tack bullet Watch your dog's weight. It will be more healthy if it is kept trim.
paw tack bullet Provide warmth and comfort for sleeping and resting.
paw tack bullet Change the diet according to your dog's medical needs.

Natural Aging versus Illness

With natural aging, dogs slow down. In the absence of good mental stimulation, the elderly dog becomes dull and lethargic. Its appetite may change. These changes also occur when a dog is not well, so it is important to differentiate between natural aging changes and illness. The lassitude or "depression" of illness is one of the most dramatic ways in which a sick dog's body naturally responds to the stress of disease or injury. Do not assume that changes in your dog's behavior are just the changes of growing older. Elderly dogs benefit from twice-yearly medical examinations.

paw bullet Comparing Dog Years to Human Years

Not long ago, one dog year was said to equal seven human years, however, this has proven to be not the case. Here is a more accurate illustration of dog years based on size...

Age Calculator

(This section is, in part, from the book "Dogs for Dummies")

paw tack bullet Decline of the senses. Deafness and blindness are quite common in an aging dog. As long as you do your part to keep them out of any danger they can do just fine with these disabilities. Blindness, in particular, is a problem dogs adjust to with an ease that stuns many owners. Sight is not their primary sense; they put much greater stock in their sense of smell. After they learn the layout of the land, they rarely bump into things (as long as you don't keep moving the furniture).
paw tack bullet Incontinence. The first rule of any sudden-onset behavior problem is to make sure there is not a health issue. Infection or hormone changes may be the culprit, so a visit to your veterinarian should be #1 on your list. At a certain age, a little dribbling of urine is inevitable, especially while your dog is sleeping. Place old rubber-backed bathmats in their favorite sleeping areas...they catch the dribble and are easily washable, keeping odor and dampness under control.
paw tack bullet Lumps and bumps. Benign fatty tumors are common in older dogs, and the vast majority are nothing to worry about. Benign tumors are round and soft, with well-defined edges. You can usually get your fingers nearly around them, and they don't seem well-anchored. Showing them to your veterinarian for a more complete evaluation is important, and any changes in size or shape should be reported, especially if it happens rapidly.
paw tack bullet Stiffness. Your veterinarian can help you determine if the stiffness is because of temporary muscle soreness or the onset of arthritis. Many dogs are worse in cold weather and first thing in the morning. Arthritis is common in older dogs, and while no cure exists, treatments are available that can make your dog's life more comfortable. Your vet may prescribe supplements, or anti-inflammatory medications, however, you may decide to go a more holistic route and try Animal Chiropractic, Acupressure and/or Acupuncture. For your part, you need to be sure that your pet is not overweight and is kept consistently, but not strenuously, active.


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