As dogs age, they eventually start to slow down and are happy sitting under the big oak tree watching life go by. All dogs will age, and they will all age at a different rate, depending on their size, breed, and how they are cared for throughout life. A dog that is in optimal health throughout her life will age more slowly than a dog plagued by chronic illnesses. If you have an elderly dog in poor health, it is not too late to bring her back to health. Many of the symptoms attributed to old age in dogs are merely a lack of good nutrition.
As your dog’s activity level slows down, her metabolism will decrease and she will not burn as many calories, resulting in weight gain—one of the biggest problems among older dogs. As your dog ages and slows down, her whole body is aging and slowing down, and her digestive tract, heart, kidney, liver, and brain can’t work as efficiently as they used to. Some small adjustments to your dog’s diet and exercise program will give her a better chance for a healthy, pain-free old age.
As your dog’s body ages and functions less efficiently, she will not be able to digest food as easily or absorb as many of the nutrients from her food. The lack of nutrients may cause an elderly dog to become lethargic, and can lead to many of the chronic illnesses that so many people, including veterinarians, shrug their shoulders over and attribute to old age. But aging is not an illness; it is a stage of life. To adjust for these changes, your dog needs highly digestible, low-calorie foods, and a multivitamin-mineral supplement that is easily absorbed. A powered multivitamin-mineral supplement will be more easily absorbed than a pill. If the multivitamin-mineral supplement is not specifically made for the older dog, give her one-third more than what is recommended for an adult dog.
Use powered vitamin C, and once a year up the dose a little to bowel tolerance (gas or diarrhea means your dog is getting too much vitamin C), to see if your dog could use some additional vitamin C. Double the vitamin E to daily doses of: 200 IU for small dogs, 400 IU for medium dogs, and 800 IU for giant dogs.
To compensate for the less efficient digestive tract, well-cooked carbohydrates will be easier for your dog to digest than meat, so cut back a little on her meat and add more carbohydrates. A heaping spoonful of plain yogurt with active cultures at each meal will also aid in digestion by keeping her intestines rich with much-needed bacteria. Digestive enzyme supplements are also available for dogs. Follow the directions on the label for appropriate dosages. Some elderly dogs lose their sense of thirst, so add extra water to her meals and when you cook the grains.
To avoid weight gain, in addition to cutting back a little on her meat, buy the leaner cuts of meat and add more vegetables if she starts licking the bowl clean or seems to be hungrier than usual. If you are feeding her a commercial dog food, cut back on the food a little and add vegetables if she seems hungry. To avoid dental problems that can lead to eating problems, give your dog a marrow bone once or twice a week. They are much less expensive than having your dog’s teeth cleaned, and chewing a bone is much more fun for your dog than going to the dentist.
Feeding all the rights foods is only half the key to keeping your dog healthy in her older years. Exercise will help keep the joints agile and the organs strong and functioning, maintain muscle strength, and prevent arthritis and weight gain. An exercise program for elderly dogs needs to be fun and of shorter duration. Rather than one long walk, take her for two walks a day. The expression “use it or lose it” goes for your dog too, and just as with people, dogs need some encouragement to exercise as they grow older.
As your dog ages, you may also notice some behavioral changes, including aggression, barking, confusion, shyness, trouble sleeping, and the desire to be in the background observing rather than the center of attention.
Older dogs who suddenly start snapping when bothered by other dogs or people, or who seek solitude, may be in pain. Growling is their only defense if, for example, they can’t run because of the pain of arthritis. If you observe your dog being uncharacteristically snappy or grouchy, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a thorough physical exam.
Barking, confusion, and shyness are very often signs that some of your dog’s senses aren’t as sharp as they were. Your dog depends heavily on her smelling and hearing to identify people, places, and animals. If the hearing is impaired or there is an ear infection, familiar sounds may now be perceived as a new sound, which can cause barking and confusion. Dogs also use their sense of smell to identify animals, people, and their surroundings. If the sense of smell is diminished, your dog will have trouble identifying friend from foe, which can cause shyness, or aggression toward people, animals, or places she has known all her life.
Starting at age seven for large and giant dogs, and age ten for small and medium dogs, I also recommend a visit to the veterinarian every six months rather than yearly.
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