Dogs over 8-10 years of age are considered Senior and need to be carefully monitored at home for signs of illness such as weight loss or gain, increased water drinking or urination, increased or decreased appetite, exercise intolerance and coughing, or difficulty getting up or walking. Here are some of the disease processes we commonly see:
In older dogs, especially those without regular dental check ups and care, dental disease can progress to the point where the gums are severely inflamed and bleeding. Teeth can even become abscessed and loose. This makes eating painful and can lead to chronic pain and weight loss. Generally, a veterinarian can examine the teeth and determine if they are a health issue. Untreated periodontal disease can lead to disease in other organs, particularly the heart and the kidneys. Treatment involves a preanesthetic blood and urine test, anesthesia, extraction of any severely diseased teeth, and ultrasonic cleaning and polishing of remaining teeth. If possible, the owner should follow up with brushing or an oral rinse as a preventative.
Arthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease)
Arthritis is unfortunately very common in older dogs, especially large breed active dogs. Symptoms of arthritis may include difficulty getting up, limping, pain or crying, swelling of a particular joint, or inactivity. Diagnosis is by physical exam, and often x-rays are needed if the problem is severe or ongoing. Non-Steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Rimadyl and Metacam can be extremely effective in controlling pain and reducing inflammation. They are not without side effects however, so we need to test liver and kidney function prior to starting them and periodically afterwards. A good glucosamine, chondroiten, and MSM supplement can also be helpful and we like all our older dogs with joint issues to be on one. They seem to work synergistically with the other drugs. Avoid aspirin without a Doctors advice as it can cause stomach ulceration. Other human drugs like Ibuprofen and Tylenol are toxic and should never be given. Sometimes acupuncture can be effective for joint and back or neck pain, so if medications are not providing relief we consider adding in acupuncture. Regular daily gentle exercise is important, such as walking or swimming. We generally recommend no running or jumping in older dogs with arthritis. There are now some physical therapists in the bay area for dogs; they can be very helpful in reconditioning after an injury or in weight loss for an arthritic dog. Lastly, weight control is very important in prevention and treatment of joint issues.
Heart disease is fairly common in older dogs, especially in certain breeds. Smaller breed dogs (Terriers, Poodles, Pomeranians, etc.) tend to get Mitral Valve Disease and certain large breed dogs (Boxers, Dobermans, Mastiffs) tend to get Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Diagnosis is by physical exam, chest x-rays, and sometimes EKG or cardiac ultrasound. A veterinarian listens to the heart for murmurs, which can indicate a leaky valve, and for the heart rate and rhythm. Heart disease can generally not be cured but it can be effectively treated for a long time with medication. The goal is to keep the pet out of Congestive Heart Failure, which is a very severe, and life-threatening situation. In congestive heart failure the heart cannot keep up and fluid builds up in the lungs (pulmonary edema) or the abdomen (ascites).
Fortunately for dogs, kidney or renal disease is not as common as it is in older cats. Owners will see increased thirst and urination, weight loss, decreased appetite, and sometimes vomiting. Blood and urine tests are needed to confirm kidney disease. Early kidney disease can often be treated with a prescription diet alone. This is one reason why annual blood work in older dogs can be very helpful at picking up health problems before they become clinical. More advanced kidney disease is treated with subcutaneous fluids, phosphate binders, anti ulcer medication, and sometimes vitamin/mineral supplements. Treatment can maintain a pets quality of life for a while, but this disease tends to progress faster in dogs than in cats. Severe or acute renal failure is best treated with hospitalization and intravenous fluid therapy for three to six days prior to the previously mentioned protocol.
Diabetes can be diagnosed in any age dog but does become more prevalent with age. The classic symptoms are increased thirst, urination, and appetite with severe weight loss. Overweight, sedentary dogs are more at risk. Blood and urine tests are needed to diagnose this disease. Treatment is with insulin given by injection. Since a tiny needle is used, almost anyone can learn to give the injections. Treatment is very effective. We monitor treatment periodically with blood glucose curves. A blood glucose curve is a series of glucose readings using a drop of blood taken every few hours over the course of one day. Some owners are even able to learn to check their dogs glucose level at home. The new glucometers (glucose measuring devices) are so much easier to use than in the past that we teach owners to do this if they are comfortable with the idea.
Middle aged and older dogs can become hypothyroid. A decreased metabolism results in weight gain, heat seeking behavior, acting prematurely old or sad, symmetrical hair loss, and even limping. Diagnosis is through a blood test. In borderline cases an additional blood test is done that measures the unbound thyroid level in the blood. Treatment is highly effective and involves oral supplementation with synthetic thyroid hormone. Owners sometimes report that they thought their dog was just old but now he acts like his old puppy self again!
There are many other diseases in older dogs, but this is a good introduction to the more commonly seen problems. Your Senior dog deserves special attention at home to monitor for symptoms, and we recommend annual exams and periodic blood and urine testing to try to catch disease processes early.