Caring for a Senior Dog
Much like us, our pets are living longer now than ever before. In fact, one of my oldest canine patients, a handsome Labrador Retriever named Hunter, will be celebrating his 18th birthday this year! While not the most scientific equation, if you consider the unofficial yet widely used ‘7-year-rule’, this would make Hunter 126 years old in ‘human years’! Labrador Retrievers have a typical life expectancy between 10 and 14 yers of age; while Hunter’s case is certainly extreme, there is an undeniable increase in life expectancy for the average canine these days. This increase in life expectancy can largely be attributed to advances in veterinary medicine, improvements in nutrition, as well as the emergence and utilization of alternative healthcare options available to more informed, proactive owners.
When caring for a geriatric four-legged family member, owners can use these simple strategies to ensure their pet is comfortable and happy in their old age:
- Ensure your pet has routine primary care with their Veterinarian to monitor organ function and identify any potential health issues. Older dogs tend to develop soft tissue lumps and bumps as they age – the majority of these lumps are benign fatty deposits known as lipomas, however it is important to have your veterinarian inspect any unusual growths. If necessary, your veterinarian may insert a fine needle into the lump and collect cells to look at under the microscope to rule out a possible cancerous growth.
- Ensure proper nutrition and optimal body weight. Dogs (and people) who are overweight place undue stress on their joints which can perpetuate the uncomfortable symptoms of arthritis. To put it into perspective, when a person loses just 10lbs of excess weight, there is a 40lb decrease in pressure placed on the knees (Messier et al, 2005). Weight management is even more important in larger breed dogs or those with pre-existing joint conditions, such as hip and/or elbow dysplasia, as they are prone to developing joint arthritis earlier in life. If your dog is slowing down in terms of daily activity, it is important to factor in calorie intake. The old adage, ‘calories in, calories out’ applies to dogs too! Cut back their daily intake if they are expending less energy to avoid weight gain – substituting veggies in lieu of kibble helps to cut calorie intake when calorie expenditure drops. For example, substituting pumpkin pureé for a portion of kibble is an easy, and delicious way to cheat calories from your dogs’ meal. Not only is pumpkin pureé full of fibre which helps your dog still feel satisfied, but it has plenty of vitamin C which is important for collagen synthesis and connective tissue formation, which is vital for joint health and stability.
- Support the Joints. There are hundreds of supplements on the market targeted towards the geriatric dog owner – specifically those designed to promote joint health and reduce inflammation. The research regarding the clinical efficacy of joint support supplements varies, however the general consensus is that the benefits outweigh the risks. While joint support supplements likely cannot reverse existing joint damage, they may be helpful in slowing the progression of arthritis by optimizing the production of fluid within the joint and nourishing articular cartilage. Two of the most commonly known ingredients in joint support supplements are: glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate. Glucosamine is one of the building blocks of cartilage and a component of synovial fluid – the lubricating ‘oil’ within the joint. Chondroitin sulphate is an important structural component of cartilage that attracts and holds water which helps the cartilage resist compression. When looking for a well-rounded joint support supplement, look for one that also contains Hyaluronic Acid and Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) as these compounds are also important for joint lubrication and protection of intra-articular cartilage.
- Spice it up. Turmeric is the spice that gives many different curries its’ yellow colour and is commonly used in Indian and Thai dishes. Curcumin is the active ingredient in Turmeric that has recently gained attention for its potent anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and antibacterial qualities. A 2014 study comparing turmeric vs. Ibuprofen revealed that turmeric was as effective at reducing pain in subjects with knee arthritis, only without the nasty gastrointestinal side effects associated with Ibuprofen (Kuptniratsaikul, et al, 2014). Adding Turmeric to your dogs’ food is a safe effective way to help fight inflammation and relieve joint pain.
- Traction control. Older dogs tend to have less physical strength to avoid slipping or splaying on surfaces like hardwood, laminate and linoleum – think: Bambi on ice. Some strategies to help with this issue are to place carpet runners in areas of high pet traffic, trimming your dogs nails as short as comfortably possible and having your groomer trim the hair between their toe pads. Carpet provides a much more stable surface in terms of traction for dogs with strength, balance and mobility issues. Keeping the nails, and hair between the toe pads short ensures proper contact of the toe pads with the ground, allowing for proper biomechanics and less slippage 🐾
- Less is more. Older dogs typically do not have the same endurance for long walks that they once did. Instead of going for one or two long walks a day, opt for shorter, more frequent walks to avoid fatigue and joint pain.
- Safety first. Just like geriatric adults, dogs’ physical capacity to ascend and descend stairs decreases as their strength, balance and mobility decline. Stairs can become a hazard for older dogs who may not have the strength, and visual acuity that they once did. A fall down the stairs could result in a potentially catastrophic injury for an older pup. Blocking stairways with baby gates, etc can help eliminate the possibility of your older dog going up or down the stairs unsupervised.
- Sweat it out. One of the first things that tends do decline with older dogs is their hind-end strength, mobility and proprioception (body awareness). You’ve likely seen dogs who have a hind leg or two that shakes uncontrollably, who drag their hind toes or appear ‘wobbly’ with their back legs – these are all due to neuromuscular decline. The good news is, there are therapies available (animal chiropractic being one!) and easy exercises you can do with your pet that can help. Underwater treadmill therapy, and hind-end strengthening exercises like ‘sit-to-stand’, backing up and balance exercises can help maintain muscle tone and offset age-related strength and mobility decline. Seeking a safe and structured rehabilitation program from a certified Animal Chiropractor, Veterinarian or Canine Physical Therapist can ensure appropriate exercise prescription, proper technique and safe exercise progression as your dogs’ strength and coordination improves with active care.
- Tickle their feet. No, seriously. Neuromuscular decline in older dogs can cause a gradual loss of sensation and positional awareness in their hind end and can cause ‘knuckling over’ of the feet and dragging of the hind toes. Stimulating the nervous system by playing with/tickling your dogs back feet reminds the brain that those back feet are still there. If you have an electric toothbrush at home, remove the brush head from the prong, turn the toothbrush on and stimulate your dogs feet with vibration to keep those neural pathways firing.
- Bring your senior dog to a certified Animal Chiropractor! Animal Chiropractic is one of the complimentary health care options gaining popularity as a safe, effective treatment being utilized by pet owners seeking to enhance and prolong their pets’ golden years. Chiropractic adjustments help to maintain joint and intervertebral disc health and ensure optimal functioning of the nervous system. Animal chiropractors deliver gentle, yet specific adjustments to your pet’s spine and extremities. These adjustments act to maintain proper spinal motion allowing for optimal functioning of the nerves, muscles and soft tissues surrounding the joints, resulting in pain relief, and improved movement, stance and flexibility. Many animal chiropractors also incorporate soft tissue therapy, rehabilitation exercises and nutritional counselling as part of their comprehensive treatment approach.
Watching your aging dog grow older is never an easy aspect of pet ownership. While we all age with time, the unfortunate reality is that our four-legged family members age faster than we do. Rather than worrying about the final outcome, take the time to enjoy each day; go for walks, enjoy the messy paw prints on your floor, the dog hair in your car, the slobbery kisses on your cheek and the lack of mattress real-estate in your bed.🐾❤️
Kuptniratsaikul V, Dajpratham P, Taechaarpornkul W, et al. Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts compared with ibuprofen in patients with knee osteoarthritis: a multicenter study. Clin Interv Aging. 2014;9:451-458.
Messier, S., Gutekunst, D., Davis, C., & Devita, P. (2005). Weight loss reduces knee-joint loads in overweight and obese older adults with knee osteoarthritis [Abstract]. Arthritis & Rheumatism,52(7), 2026-2032
For more information about how animal chiropractic can help improve the quality of life of your pet. Visit us at:
The Stockyard Chiropractors | The Dog Joint
2567 St Clair West, Toronto ON (St. Clair West and Runnymede)