Integrative pet vet: Teaching about old dogs |

Integrative pet vet: Teaching about old dogs

Ron Carsten, DVM, Ph.D, CVA
Integrative Pet Vet

It is hard to imagine that puppy with boundless energy or that young adult with the fluid grace of an athlete, becoming, in what feels like a few short years, an individual that sleeps longer, has diminished eyesight and hearing, and has discomfort associated with osteoarthritis. Dogs progress through the same aging changes as humans. In fact, the similarities have lead to development of university based aging studies in the dog as a way to better understand human aging.

The average lifespan of a dog is 12-15 years. Unfortunately, the aging process occurs much more rapidly in giant-breed dogs than in small-breed dogs. This means that small and medium size dogs (less than 50 pounds) would be considered senior at 7 years of age, large breed dogs (51-90 pounds) at 6 years, and giant breeds (over 91 pounds) at 5 years. In general, a dog is considered elderly when it is in the last 25 percent of its lifespan.

Aging changes happen gradually, making them less obvious in daily interactions. Common signs of aging include gray hair, grayish lenses and reduced vision, less acute hearing, sleeping more and more deeply, development of osteoarthritis, weakness and difficulty getting up from laying or sitting, reduced ability to exercise, alterations in intestinal function, and changes in cognitive behavior. The speed and severity of the changes, in conjunction with your pet’s normal lifestyle, dictate how impactful these age-related changes are. For example, a dog that hikes regularly can be significantly impaired by osteoarthritis while a small dog that spends the majority of time indoors generally is not.

The above changes can be observed through daily interaction. Many other changes are found with a physical examination and routine blood and urine testing. The physical examination can identify irregularities with the heart such as a murmur or changes in lung sounds. Early evaluation of lumps and bumps can make management easier. Monitoring oral health becomes increasingly important because dental disease can compromise the heart and kidneys. Aside from the effects of poor oral health, liver and kidney function are known to decline with age, making regular testing important. Thyroid function can also be impaired, complicating the aging process. This makes early identification of health problems essential for optimal care.

While the normal loss of function associated with aging cannot be stopped, there are approaches that may slow the decline. For example, keeping a dog active will help to maintain muscle strength and muscle tone longer. Unfortunately, dogs with unmanaged osteoarthritis are less active and can lose strength rapidly. One of the keys to improving activity levels, and by extension muscle strength, is to address joint pain. Depending on the intensity of the joint pain, supportive care may involve weight loss, use of glucosamine, herbs like boswellia, nutritional supplements, vitamin D supplementation, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Joint discomfort is not the only reason for decline in muscle strength. There is an age-related, progressive decline in the ability of muscle cells to produce work and there is a loss of muscle fibers. In addition, nerve function also declines. These factors can result in weakness and an unsteady gait. While these changes relate directly to the ability of muscles to perform work, other issues that affect muscle include diminished heart and lung function resulting in reduced oxygen and blood flow to muscles. Exercise is an important way to maintain muscle strength. However, activity levels must be tailored to the dog’s ability. This often means giving up strenuous hikes and instead using multiple short walks daily.

Cognitive dysfunction in older dogs can also be challenging. Some dogs experience degeneration of nerves in the brain that affects behavior and cognitive ability. These dogs may have decreased awareness, confusion, vocalization, altered sleep cycles and loss of house training. Increasing the levels of antioxidant vitamins has been advocated to reduce declining brain function. Interestingly, providing whole food, rich in antioxidants has been more successful than the use of isolated vitamins. Providing more B vitamins and fatty acids in the form of fish oil may also be beneficial.

Aging happens to everyone, including our pets. The process is complex and each individual experiences aging in different ways. Support for the aging dog should focus on quality nutrition, appropriate levels of exercise, mental stimulation, the use of targeted nutritional supplements and herbs, and regular veterinary exams to detect emerging age related diseases.

If you have questions about your aging dog, contact your veterinarian to discuss these important issues.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates. He has a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology, and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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