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November 9, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Veterinary Q&A: More on health issues facing aging dogs

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

weeksmug.JPGDr. Karen Weeks, a veterinarian at Frontier Village Veterinary Clinic in Lake Stevens, answers another installment in a series of questions about the health issues aging dogs face.

Question: What role does diet and exercise play in maintaining the health of an older dog? What do you recommend to clients to keep their dogs agile and mobile?

Answer: Diet and exercise play as an important a role in maintaining the health of older dogs as they do in older humans.

Good quality food will help feed aging cells, and exercise will help keep dogs mobile and feeling good.

Exercise also helps to prevent muscle wasting from inactivity.

When I say exercise, I mean consistent, low-impact exercise like walking or swimming. Working up to 30 minutes a day is a good goal for most older dogs. Some dogs can handle more strenuous exercise, like hiking or running, but it depends on their level of conditioning and what types of activities they are used to doing.

If you are finding that your older dog is debilitated after a hike, it might be time to rethink how hard you push or how long you go the next time.

The point, though, is that exercise is crucial to maintaining joint and muscle health, prevents obesity and it is a great way to spend time with your dog.

Question: How important is the quality of food?

Answer: Food quality is very important. There are many good brands out there that have done a lot of research regarding pet nutrition.

AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officers) defines the terms that pet-food companies use on feed labels. For example, if the term "chicken" is used, this means chicken flesh or skin, but excluding feathers, heads, feet and entrails.

I always recommend that owners look for foods with the specific protein in the name because this indicates that at least 70 percent of the food is that specific protein. For example, Brand X Chicken Dog Food means that 70 percent of the total product is chicken. "Chicken Dinner" means that chicken is at least 25 percent of the total product. "Chicken Flavor" means that less than 3 percent of the total product is chicken.

Dr. Karen Weeks, right, works with Darryl, a rescue dog from Old Dog Haven. Photo by Neena Pellegrini

Well balanced diets should contain proper proportions of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The proper proportions depend on an animal's lifestage (young, adult, or senior), lifestyle (active, sedentary) and health needs (weight loss, underlying disease).

If a diet is labeled as "100% complete and balanced", it will have the proper proportions for that lifestage.

While I don't think it is wrong to cook a homemade diet for your dog, anyone who wants to do so should consult a veterinary nutritionist to develop a well-balanced diet appropriate for that specific dog.

Question: How important is the quality of protein? Do older dogs need as much protein as younger dogs? How much is too much?

Answer: Protein quality is important in the sense that you want to feed your dog a food with good-quality ingredients.

There is no black or white answer to the question about how much protein to feed an older dog. It depends on how the dog is doing, what the dog is doing and if they have any underlying diseases.

For example, if your senior dogs still go hunting with you, they probably need a higher protein performance food because they are burning more energy. If a senior dog has blood work that reflects renal failure, he/she probably need a lower protein food to reduce the kidney's workload. (Many renal toxins come from the metabolism of protein).
Dogs with cancer may require a higher protein food if they are experiencing cancer cachexia (muscle and body condition loss from the cancer).

For your everyday, average activity, healthy dogs, a good quality adult or senior dog food should serve all of their protein needs.

Question: What about nutritional supplements?

Answer: Most quality dog foods are nutritionally balanced -- they should have all the required nutrients and minerals a dog needs.

There are many instances, however, where supplements can be very helpful.

The supplements I recommend the most often include fish oil, glucosamine and probiotics.

Fish oil has natural anti-inflammatory properties and can be useful as an adjunctive treatment for osteoarthritis, dermatitis, cardiac disease and renal disease.

Glucosamine is often recommended to help support aging joints and cartilage against future breakdown.

Probiotics are often recommended in cases of gastrointestinal upset and diarrhea and can also help keep a dog's digestive system balanced during times of stress or when they are on antibiotics.

Many brands of dog food have these supplements as ingredients but often not at high enough levels to be beneficial.

As always, before starting your dog on any supplement, you should check with your veterinarian, because there may be situations in which they are inappropriate or even contraindicated. (For example, if I am running a food trial with a patient that I suspect has food allergies, I will not have the owners supplement with fish oil.)

Your veterinarian can also help you figure out whether a prescription diet or a nutritional supplement can be helpful, and what dose of a particular supplement is appropriate for your dog.

Finally, know that these products are often not regulated by the FDA, so not all products are equal. Your veterinarian can recommend brands that they use and trust.

Question: Is it common for dogs to become finicky eaters as they age?

Answer: It is not necessarily common for older dogs to become more finicky eaters as they age. It can happen, but often there is an underlying medical cause.
A veterinary exam and even some lab work can often help rule out underlying disease, such as nausea or oral pain.

If you think that your older dog is getting finicky, you can try a new food -- switching from dry to canned or canned to dry -- or even warming up food slightly to make it more aromatic (for the dog).

Remember, any time a dog is put on a new food, you should slowly add the new food to the old food, phasing out the old food and taking one to two weeks to make a complete transition. A rapid transition onto any new food can cause gastrointestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, nausea).

Question: What if a senior dog loses his/her appetite or stops eating altogether. What can this be a sign of?

Answer: Loss of appetite or anorexia is a very important sign of many diseases and absolutely warrants a trip to the veterinarian.

Before you go to the vet, make sure you know if your dog is coughing, sneezing, vomiting, having diarrhea, how much water they are drinking (more than normal? less than normal?), and if they are acting lethargic.

Not eating can often indicate oral pain, gastrointestinal upset/nausea or general malaise. Almost any metabolic or painful disease or injury can cause a dog to not want to eat, including kidney disease, liver disease and cancer.

Take your dog to the vet if they aren't eating for more than a day or two. Your vet may want to test the blood, urine, feces, or take radiographs.

Question: What kinds of changes in behavior can owners expect in older dogs?

Answer: Dogs can experience changes in behavior as they age.

Some dogs can experience increased anxiety, while other dogs become more mellow. Dogs can develop canine cognitive dysfunction, which is sort of like doggy senility. They can forget things (commands, housetraining), can develop separation anxiety and sometimes even lose the ability to recognize family members.

If your dog is diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction, there are medications that may help.

I always recommend a veterinary exam for behavioral changes, as they can often be secondary to other underlying disease.

I once had a patient who kept having accidents in the house. His physical exam was normal, so we did blood work and a urine analysis to rule out primary urinary and kidney disease (urinary tract infections, kidney failure). When these tests were normal, we ended up taking some radiographs.

Based on the radiographs, I diagnosed the dog with osteoarthritis in his hips: the reason he had accidents was that it was too painful for him to get up and let the owners know he had to go outside!

Once we treated his pain, the accidents stopped. He never gave any indication on physical exam that he was in pain.

The point is that there may be a reason for any behavior changes in your older dog, so it is always a good idea to get things checked out.

Question: Older dogs tend to sleep a lot. Why?

Answer: Older dogs certainly do sleep more than younger dogs, partly because they can. They don't usually have jobs or chores (working dogs aside) and so they nap.

Dogs, in general, sleep more than humans because they need less mental stimulation than we do. Older dogs probably sleep more than younger dogs simply because they don't have anything else to do or quite as much energy to burn.

Plus, what we may think of as sleeping, may be more like resting (rather than deep REM sleep).

Question: How well can senior dogs do with diminished senses? What kinds of adjustments should owners be prepared to make?

Answer: Senior dogs adjust very well to diminished senses. I have lived with both blind and deaf dogs, and they can have a very high quality of life, as long as you are willing to make a few adjustments to keep them safe.

You should never let a deaf or blind dog off leash in an unsecured area -- if they can't see you or hear you, they may wander off and get hurt.

My dog is going deaf. I used to be able to trust him off leash as I had good verbal control of him, but now that he can't hear me, I can't trust him to come when he is called. It isn't his fault; it just is what it is, and so to keep him safe, he has to be on his leash in public places.

Blind dogs won't be able to see when they are getting into an unsafe situation, so shouldn't be allowed to wander.

It may not be very nice to change the furniture around either.

Despite these adjustments, with a dose of patience and forethought, it isn't very difficult to help your old dog deal with blindness or deafness.

Question: How do you define/judge quality of life?

Answer: Quality of Life is the term that many veterinarians use in discussions with clients when a pet is sick or injured. It means something different to every pet owner and to every veterinarian.

To me, a dog has a good quality of life when it isn't in pain and when it can still derive some measure of enjoyment from life.

Just because my dog can't jump into my car the way he used to doesn't mean he has a poor quality of life; it just means that we have some adjustments to make. He is still a happy guy. If he developed a disease where I was unable to control his pain, however, then I would consider his quality of life decreased.

I often have to counsel people as to when the right time to euthanize their dog is, and this is never an easy conversation to have.

I truly believe that owners will know in their hearts when the right time is and that as long as they are considering their dog's comfort and happiness, the decision to continue to treat a disease or to say goodbye will be the right one.

Things owners should consider when evaluating their dog's quality of life:

--Is the dog eating and drinking?

--Is the dog able to relieve itself appropriately (outside or in designated areas)?

--Does the dog interact with the owner and get enjoyment from attention?

--Can the dog walk and get around reasonably?

--And most important, is the dog in pain or discomfort?

When suffering outweighs comfort, then it is time to consider humanely letting a dog go. Euthanasia is the hardest decision that owners have to make, but often can be the kindest one as well.

Dr. Karen Weeks

Weeks graduated from Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. She joined Frontier Village Veterinary Clinic in Lake Stevens in 2009. Her special interests include dentistry, soft tissue and orthopedic surgery, pediatrics and obstetrics. She has served on the board of directors for Hope for Horses, a non profit group in Woodinville. Weeks has two cats, O'Malley and Cringer, and a spunky 12-years-old dog, Riley.

•   •   •

Read our past Q&As:
Veterinary Q&A: Eye problems in aging dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Halloween treats and pets
Veterinary Q&A: Health issues facing aging dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Why blood work is necessary
Veterinary Q&A: Are prong collars safe for your dog?
Veterinary Q&A: Birth control for pets
Veterinary Q&A: How to find a good vet
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 1
Veterinary Q&A: Hyperthyroidism in cats
Veterinary Q&A: Incontinence in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Hanging tongue syndrome
Veterinary Q&A: Bad breath in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: How much is too much exercise for my dog? Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: How much exercise does my dog need? Part I
Veterinary Q&A: A killer called bloat
Veterinary Q&A: Initial care for new puppies
Veterinary Q&A: Knee problems in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Flea-control treatment
Veterinary Q&A: Bearded dragon lizards
Veterinary Q&A: Vaccinations for indoor cats
Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: More on aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth
Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

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Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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