Helping our dogs age gracefully is a subject that is very dear to my heart. My own Einstein lived to 19 years of age, and was very happy until the day that he wasn’t (which was the day that we lost him). Even with the best of care few dogs are going to have 19 years, and I am thankful of the luck that gave me all of those years, but I am extra thankful to him for the lessons those years taught me to help my patients. The first step to addressing old age is to define “ what is old?”
What constitutes old age is different for different breeds. I consider a small dog that should live 12-15 years to be middle aged at 7 and senior at 10. I consider a medium sized dog that should live 10 to 12 years to be senior at 7 and a giant breed that should live 9 to 10 years to be senior at 6.
The first step to aging gracefully is healthy living as a young dog. A high quality diet, good dental care, regular exercise, weight control, regular exams and blood work, appropriate vaccination, and heartworm prevention as a young dog will maintain a healthy body going into older age.
In many practices, the local lab includes a mini blood panel when a heartworm test is submitted to them. This means that all of the young patients have mini blood panels every year to watch trends and catch anything that happens early. At middle age, we should start to add on a yearly urinalysis to evaluate for sub-clinical infection or protein loss. At the senior year, we move to a full panel with urinalysis and blood pressure. The value of these tests is that disease caught early is much easier to treat and much less likely to result in permanent damage.
Dental disease has been linked in humans to health problems from heart and kidney disease to cancer. Even with the more limited research available on dogs, many of the same links have been proven in them as well. As a matter of fact, a recent study showed that dogs with severe dental disease live on average 2 years less than those with healthy teeth. I would also add that with pain, odor, and chronic infection, dogs with severe dental disease do not enjoy the years they have as much either.
Everyone loves to feed their loved ones, but as our dogs hit middle age, we can “love them to death”. Obesity is the other major health factor that has been shown to take as much as 2 years off of the life expectancy of an otherwise healthy dog. I see this every day- the 10 year old Chihuahua who should still be barking at the mail man, but can’t walk across the room without stopping to catch their breath because of weight related respiratory or heart disease, or won’t even get up because their joints won’t support their weight. Again- beyond shortening life, there is such a huge impact on the quality of the life they have.
Chronic joint disease is very common in the middle and senior years, and left to worsen is a common reason for euthanasia in dogs. Early signs of joint disease (beyond limping) are: increased difficulty getting up on stairs, couches or beds, inability to walk as far as usual, increased panting, increased grumpiness, or hiding. If caught as the signs first start, there are often many options for treatment, from surgery to diet or medications.
There are some things that tragically shorten life that we can’t prevent. Accidents or genetic conditions we have no real control over, but with good care, we can all be sure our canine companions are living the longest and best lives that they can for as many years as they can. No matter how long I live, when my life is over I want it said that I got the most out of it. I want the same thing for all of my companions and patients.