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Dog Geriatrics - Level 3

How Dogs Age

Learn about how the normal aging process affects your dog’s energy levels, nutritional needs, digestion, vision, hearing and other faculties.
By Diana Laverdure

Have you ever wondered how your senior dog feels? Does he experience the same aches and pains that we do as we age? Could he have a serious age-related condition brewing that hasn’t yet surfaced with noticeable symptoms?

By understanding how our dogs age we can better help them to grow old gracefully.

“The aging process in dogs is similar to people, it just happens faster,” says Mark Stickney, D.V.M., Clinical Assistant Professor of Small Animal General (Elective) Surgery at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. “As the body ages, old cells die and the ability to generate new cells decreases. At the same time, free radicals are generated through normal cell metabolism, but the enzyme systems that manage those free radicals and keep them from damaging the cells are not working as effectively. The result is fewer healthy cells that do not live as long or function as well, resulting in signs of aging.”

Larger dogs age faster
Aging in dogs varies significantly by size, with large-breed dogs aging at a faster rate than smaller breeds.

“In general, a dog age seven or older is considered a senior, but no two dogs are alike,” says Babette Gladstein, V.M.D., who specializes in both traditional and non-traditional approaches to animal care. “A small dog weighing less than 20 pounds might not show signs of aging until he’s 12 years old, whereas a 50-pound dog will show signs at about 10.”

“Giant-breed dogs, which weigh 90 pounds or more when full grown, are considered seniors at age five,” Stickney says.

As with humans, aging impacts just about every part of a dog’s physiology, from the physical to the emotional. Here are some of the most common age-related changes.

Energy and nutrition
As dogs age their metabolism slows, they become less active and so they need fewer calories. Owners who fail to take this into account could risk adding to a widespread obesity problem in dogs.

“Feeding an older dog the same daily caloric intake as a younger, more active dog will cause his body to store the excess calories as fat,’’ Stickney says. “This can lead to arthritis and other joint diseases, may play a role in respiratory disease, diabetes and kidney disease and can result in a shorter lifespan.”

Movement and exercise
Arthritis is a common disorder affecting the joints of older dogs. Larger breeds typically suffer from more severe arthritis than smaller dogs, because they carry more weight in proportion to the size of their joints. “Since arthritis causes pain, there is some debate as to whether senior dogs are less active because they’re more tired, or whether they fatigue more quickly because it hurts when they move,” Stickney says.

Gladstein, founder of Animal Acupuncture in New York City, suggests owners explore alternative natural treatments such as prolotherapy, a non-surgical way to heal pets with chronic joint pain. “Just like older people, senior dogs can have underlying health issues that make them more susceptible to complications from surgery and the effects of prescription medications,’’ says Gladstein.

The most common eye condition in older dogs is nuclear sclerosis, a normal age-related change in which the fibers in the lens of the eye lose some of their moisture, making them appear cloudy. Fortunately, this typically does not affect the dog’s vision.

Nuclear sclerosis is often confused with cataracts, a serious condition that occurs when the lens of the eye becomes opaque. If left untreated, cataracts will result in blindness. Cataracts can occur at any age, with smaller breeds such as Poodles, Shih Tzus and Bichon Frise most commonly affected. However, as dogs enter their senior years, incidences of cataracts become more likely in all breeds.

Dogs develop hearing loss as a normal part of the aging process. It may be difficult to tell if your dog has partial hearing loss because dogs hear a greater wavelength of sounds. “Dogs tend to lose the ability to hear higher-pitched noises first,” Stickney says. “They might still be able to hear adults, but they can no longer hear a young child. This can pose a problem, because the senior dog might not hear a child’s voice and could bite out of surprise or fear.”

Other medical issues
Instances of all medical issues, regardless of the dog’s size or breed, increase with age. “For example, all senior dogs are susceptible to chronic kidney disease as the kidney ages and tissues dies,” Stickney says. “Unfortunately, by the time the owner notices the symptoms, the dog is often in kidney failure, meaning that 75 percent of the kidney is no longer functioning. We can medically manage the condition for a few months to a couple of years, but eventually the dog will die from it.”

Since breaking down protein makes the kidneys work harder, Gladstein advises feeding senior dogs a lower-protein diet to avoid stressing the kidneys.

Heart problems and cancer are also typical age-related canine diseases, and can be more common in certain breeds.

Scottish Terriers are predisposed to transitional cell carcinoma, a tumor of the urinary bladder. Small-breed dogs are more prone to endocardiosis, a condition that results in fluid backing up into the lungs, causing coughing and exercise intolerance.

“Since there are about 150 breeds of dogs [recognized by the American Kennel Club], it is difficult to discuss every disease prevalent among every breed,” Stickney says. “Suffice it to say that as soon as you have a dog that meets a certain breed criteria, the same genes that have made that dog look the way he does also predispose him to certain problems. Your veterinarian can advise you as to your particular dog’s genetic predispositions.”

“Just as with people, senior dogs should receive more frequent veterinary check-ups – at least every six to nine months,” Gladstein says. “This will enable your veterinarian to identify age-related diseases in their earlier stages, increasing the treatment options and improving the likelihood of a positive prognosis.”

Diana Laverdure writes nationally on a variety of dog-care topics and is the creator of The Happy Dog Spot, a website devoted to helping dog lovers take better care of their canine companions. She is also the co-author, with W. Jean Dodds, D.V.M., of the upcoming book “The Canine Thyroid Epidemic” (2011, Dogwise Publishing). She lives with her rescued Belgian Shepherd mix, Chase.

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Cindy   Fallon, NV

10/26/2011 4:14:31 PM

Very good information to know. I have 2 senior dogs myself with one getting close to being a senior. So lots of good stuff for me to know.

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5/17/2011 8:11:04 PM


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Carol   Silver Spring, MD

4/10/2011 10:57:10 AM

excellent, informative, well-written article.

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Mozart/Care   Ballston Spa, NY

2/27/2011 6:20:13 PM

This answered a lot of questions, as my husband and I stared at the shelves of dog food this afternoon.

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