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Senior care for a family's best friend

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2011 - Advances in medical care, the changing of dog status from yard guard to sofa-hugging "companion animal," and improved nutrition have all played a role in dogs living longer. However, while being able to spend more time with your beloved companion is a blessing, longer-lived animals have different needs and health problems than their younger counterparts.

"Certainly dogs are living longer than they were 20 years ago," said Leah Cohn, professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri Columbia. "The biggest change has been the advent of routine vaccinations 50 years ago."

Improved nutrition is another factor, she says. "They're not getting random table scraps." On the contrary, dogs' biggest nutritional challenge nowadays is obesity.

Local vet Dr. Stephen Brammeier of Kingsbury Animal Hospital agrees, "My feeling after being in practice for 32 years is that they're probably living a couple of years longer than they used to."

The pet food industry, too, has adjusted formulas to accommodate older pets by adding fatty acids, extra vitamins and extra protein to help the less-efficient digestive systems of older dogs absorb nutrients, said Mark Roos, director of Global Nutrition and Communications at Purina.

"The general estimate is that, versus 10-15 years ago, dogs and cats are living an average of five years longer," he said. Market share of senior pet products is growing.

"We're starting to see more and more of the senior products being used," he said, though some owners are apparently reluctant to buy "senior" food, because they don't wish to see their pets as being old.

But, when is a dog a "senior"?

Calculating Your Dog's Age

While many of us grew up with the notion that multiplying a dog's years by 7 gave their true age, Brammeier uses an age chart correlating age with weight and size. Larger breeds such as the Irish wolfhound and the St. Bernard generally have shorter life spans than smaller breeds. Some big dogs are considered seniors at age 5.

Dogs reach young adulthood in the first two years of life.

"A 1-year-old dog is like a 15-year-old kid," said Brammeier.

"Somewhere between 7 and 11 they become senior, depending on their weight. A 7-year-old, 100-pound dog is a senior dog. A 7-year-old, 20-pound dog is not."

"Once you get to 14, 15, 16, that's really old. Their bodies are giving out on them."

While the weight of a dog may determine its true age in human years, both large and small dogs need extra care as they age.

Dr. Brammeier's tips for keeping your senior dog healthy.

1. Pay attention to dental health. Have your dog's teeth cleaned, and brush them regularly. Dental problems and excessive dental infection can reduce the length and quality of a dog's life. (Imagine a mouthful of toothachy teeth). For dogs who cannot have their teeth cleaned, vets can prescribe "pulse periodontal antibiotics," which help control infections in a dog's mouth, especially under the gumline.

2. Maintain routine medical care. Have your senior dog examined by a vet every six months. The vet should test for parasites, heartworm, liver and kidney function, check thyroid and examine the eyes for glaucoma. Keep all vaccinations current, as an older dog may have a weaker immune system.

3. Continue to give your dog moderate exercise, such as a 30-minute walk twice a day. When dogs become arthritic, they are in pain and may limit their movement, reducing muscle tone. Brammeier gives his arthritic patients NSAIDS or acupuncture to help them keep moving freely.

4. Feed your senior pet the best possible food and avoid table scraps, especially if the dog is overweight. Excess weight is especially hard on the joints of aging dogs.

For more information on taking care of your senior pet, go to the American Veterinary Medical Association, at https://www.avma.org/animal_health/care_older_pet_faq.asp.

Common Diseases of Senior Dogs

Just like humans, dogs succumb to cancer, kidney disease and cirrhosis. As veterinary oncology becomes more accepted, pet owners have many treatment options, including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Brammeier says about 30 percent of his patients opt for some type of cancer treatment, but the main objective is always the comfort of the dog.

Older dogs may also develop Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, a condition that has been compared to Alzheimer's disease or senile dementia in humans. "They get disoriented. They get more distant. Housebreaking breaks down," Brammeier said. Other symptoms include restlessness, pacing and getting "stuck" in corners or under furniture. While not curable, he said, there is medication for this condition.

Time to Say Goodbye

One of the hardest decisions that dog owners face is whether or not to euthanize dog that is sick or very old, and if so, when.

"Almost everybody does (euthanize)," Brammeier said. "It's seldom that an animal curls up and dies without a long period of deterioration."

Quality of life for both owner and pet, vets say, is the most important consideration when deciding whether or not to end a dog's life. Is the dog still interacting with you and happy to see you? Does the dog still eat? Is the dog in pain? Can the dog move by itself?

"If the responsibilities and stress of caring for a dog that is soiling the house is creating a burden, it causes resentment and changes the person's relationship with the dog, which affects the dog's quality of life as well," said Brammeier. "At some point, I encourage people to take their own lives into account and not feel guilty. It becomes a gift that you can decide to peacefully end their life."

When Belle, a black cockapoo was 18 and a half, Ruth Przybeck of Creve Coeur decided it was time. Prior to that moment, Przybeck, her husband, Tom, and two sons had adapted to Belle's weaknesses. When Belle lost her hearing, around 16, the family used hand signals to call the dog. When Belle started having accidents in the house, they put her in a room behind a baby gate and used diapers. After Belle lost the use of her back legs, they carried her outside. Belle wasn't allowed to go outside by herself because she was blind and had fallen in the pool. They gave her prescription food for her kidney disease and a tranquilizer to help with peeing accidents. Still,it was hard to let Belle go.

"I called her my little old lady," said Przybeck.

But, when Belle began losing her fur and wouldn't eat, they decided it was time.

"We were struggling a little bit before we put her down," she said. "But she was getting worse."

Hilary Davidson is a freelance writer. 

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