Features January 2010 Issue

Caring for an Elderly Dog - Age is Often Mistaken as a Symptom of a Treatable Illness

What an owner thinks of as “just old age” is often a treatable illness.

Aaron Epstein’s 14-year-old Australian Shepherd-mix, Sam, was losing weight and his appetite wasn’t the same. “I just thought he was getting old because in addition to not eating with the same vigor, he was slowing down a bit, wasn’t able to walk as far, and sleeping a little too much,” Epstein recalls. The once 45-pound dog had shed close to 15 pounds -30 percent of his body weight -before concerned friends could convince a reluctant Epstein to get Sam to the veterinarian for an exam and blood work, both long overdue.

At the clinic, Sam was found to have an enormous mass growing on his spleen. The pressure from the mass made eating physically uncomfortable for Sam. Epstein followed the veterinarian’s recommendation and opted to have Sam’s spleen removed, as well as a number of other small tumors around his pancreas. Sadly, the veterinarian also discovered that the cancer was malignant. Although the prognosis for Sam was limited, he was home a few days later, eating like a horse and acting more like his formerly happy-go-lucky self.

From roughly age seven years on, a dog is considered senior, or geriatric, and it’s important that owners realize that old age is not a disease! If your senior dog is losing weight, drinking and urinating more than he used to, can’t walk as far as he once did, or is exhibiting other changes in behavior, he’s not “just getting old” -he’s not well! Changes in our geriatric dog friends are usually indicators of early chronic disease.

Photo by Aaron Epstein

Aging is a natural process that is the result of the net effect of negative changes in physiology over time. In a chapter of Geriatrics and Gerontology of the Dog and Cat, William Fortney, DVM, writes, “A common characteristic of aging body systems is progressive and irreversible change. The effects of disease, stress, malnutrition, lack of exercise, genetics, and environment may hasten this change.”

There are common metabolic and physical effects of aging, but these should not be confused with chronic disease. Older dogs can be expected to experience a decreased metabolic rate, decreased immune competence and greater susceptibility to infection, and reduced thermoregulation. In addition, each organ system undergoes changes as dogs age. Examples of some of the physical changes that naturally occur with age include:

Digestive system: Gastric mucosa atrophies, hepatocyte (liver cell) numbers decrease.

Endocrine system: Pancreatic enzyme secretion decreases, hyperplasia of pituitary or adrenal glands.

Integument: Skin becomes inelastic, footpads hyperkeratinize (get thicker), claws become brittle, muzzle grays.

Cardiovascular system: Lungs lose elasticity, vital capacity (volume) decreases, cough reflex and expiratory capacity decrease, cardiac output decreases.

Genitourinary system: Kidney weight decreases, prostate gland enlarges, testes atrophy (intact dogs), prepuce becomes pendulous.

Musculoskeletal system: percent of body weight represented by fat increases; muscle, bone, and cartilage mass are lost; bones become brittle; bone marrow becomes fatty and hypoplastic.

Nervous system: number of cells decreases; reduced reaction to stimuli; altered memory; diminished visual acuity, hearing, taste perception, and smell.

Although it is possible that one of these effects might lead to deterioration in body function, each alone is simply a result of the natural aging process. It’s when one or more of these changes progresses that we begin to see chronic disease. If even one of these changes occurs in your dog, it’s worth mentioning to your dog’s veterinarian to confirm whether it’s a normal aging change, or a preliminary sign of disease.

Someone to watch over me

“It’s easy to list the common signs that indicate a potential problem, such as loss of appetite, increased drinking or urination, unusual bumps or discharges, vomiting or diarrhea, constipation, and lethargy/depression,” says holistic veterinarian Susan Wynn, DVM, CVA, CVCH, RH, of Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Atlanta. “But I find that owners frequently miss two of the more common problems. A 'loss of appetite’ can be total or partial, but if it’s a partial loss, most owners tend to think their dogs have become 'picky.’ Many people will try to get their 'picky’ dogs to eat better for months while the disease process that caused the appetite change goes on unabated. This is an important message: If your dog has eaten well all of his life and suddenly becomes picky, this is a danger sign.

“The other thing that many owners miss is weight loss. If you think your dog has inadvertently lost weight, make a veterinary appointment now, because it means something went awry weeks to months ago.”

Graying of the muzzle (or entire face!) is one of the common signs of aging. Age itself is not a disease – but some of the other changes we see in our senior dogs are signs of disease.

We need to do our part at home to notice changes in our canine friends. But don’t discount the expertise that your dog’s veterinarian can offer. Even when we don’t suspect a problem, geriatric wellness exams once (or even better, twice a year) are important. Start this practice (if you haven’t already) when your dog is about age seven. Regular senior wellness checks, complete with full blood work and urinalysis, and examination of your dog’s liver and kidney values, can be helpful in catching disease early.

“Because people see their dogs every day, sometimes they don’t see changes in those dogs. Getting a dog in for an exam twice -or even once -a year can uncover problems,” says Nick Berryessa, DVM, DACVIM, who also practices at Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Atlanta. “Put the dog on the scale, for example, and maybe we’ll see that he’s lost 10 pounds since last year. That’s a significant amount, even if it’s a 100-pound dog. If a person lost 10 percent of his body weight without changing his diet or exercise, it would be a red flag.”

Next: What can go wrong

Comments (6)

Wonderful article! I currently have 4 senior GSD's ages 9, 9, 11 & 14 years. All of them are large but not fat. As a part of their yearly exam I include an abdominal and Thoracic x-ray. That paid off last year when I brought "Gracie" in for her exam and a large mass showed up on her spleen. The spleen was removed and she is doing very well today at 11 years. They never get rawhide chews, pig ears, etc. but they do get fresh, raw beef knuckle bones for their teeth and chewing needs. They all eat twice a day with a lot of broth or liquid in their meals. As they age bloat becomes a bigger issue in this breed and I have found that having them adequately hydrated while they eat seems to help in dealing with this potential threat.

Posted by: Mayday | April 24, 2014 8:57 PM    Report this comment

A good article with a lot of good information. In some cases it may be necessary to discount the expertise your veterinarian can offer. My first dog, a 9 year old Australian Shepherd, developed a mild limp and issues with her neck. It was written off multiple times by a veterinarian as arthritis due to her age. After multiple prescriptions for NSAIDs and 6 months of time,with no changes he gratuitously took 2 xrays of her leg. No arthritis was found. Unfortunately it was too late for her. You see she had a tumor and shortly thereafter it fractured a vertebrae in her neck. She was paralyzed for 2 days until I could get to see a neurologist and a definitive diagnosis. She was euthanized the next day. You know your pets best. My vet assumed her symptoms were due to old age and she suffered as a result.

Posted by: SMI | April 23, 2014 12:40 PM    Report this comment

I do love your magizine BUT i have to say recomending TWO vet visits a year is not practical for most people financially. I dont even see a DOCTOR that often because im not living my life in perpetual financial medical debt. I have had 48 dogsin my life, 99% of them strays i found on the road & i have learned to do 80% of my own health care for them. There are times when a vet is essential but this practice of hauling your dog in for everything is not what i agree with. I stopped your mag subscription because every article ended with "see your vet". You provide great information but people should be informed and educated to do more, have more involvement in, the health and husbandry of their animals.

Posted by: ruckus | April 23, 2014 12:26 PM    Report this comment

My Senior chihuahua Terrier is 18 years old, has been showing signs of Alzheimers/dementia. She gets confused and has started enjoying wading in water. She loves only spaghetti, which is mixed expecially for her with missing link and Prozyme, She also take ProNeurozone, 1/2 baby aspirin and Niacinimide (the latter for her Pemphigmus). She seems to have stabilized with these supplements.

Posted by: FriendsForLife | August 28, 2012 10:32 PM    Report this comment

what a great read! we have the distinct joy of having 12 dogs who are 'veterans' -- 7 years or older large breeds [Ridgebacks & Labradors]. they are such a joy to us, dear long-time friends, the challenges can be immense to meet each dog's needs each day, but we wouldn't trade it or them for the world ...

Posted by: Unknown | May 10, 2011 1:46 PM    Report this comment

Excellent article! I also find that often people scare themselves for so long for little reason -- which becomes a reason. For example, an animal starts drinking a lot and they assume diabetes. They are afraid and worried and put off making an appointment. By the time they get seen and find out it was a simple urinary tract infection, things have worsened considerably and curing the infection is now much more difficult. Regular checkups and testing with vigilant owners can be life-savers!

Posted by: Dr. Sharp | March 23, 2011 4:01 PM    Report this comment

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