Winter Worries


My “very mixed-breed” dog, Otto, turned 12 years old at some point in the past couple of months. For a big dog (currently 72 pounds), that’s getting up there in age! And he’s got some health issues that I have to stay on top of – a benign mass on his liver that we are monitoring, lipomas that have just started blooming in size and number in the past year, and molars that keep fracturing and needing removal (despite the fact that he doesn’t chew on anything hard – no bones for this guy for years). He also has a very subtle, intermittent limp on his right front leg, particularly when he first gets up in the morning.

The good news is that he’s still as mentally sharp as ever, and still getting around well. He can still jump into my car, and will still jump into the back of our truck if the tailgate is down and we happen to walk by it – just in case we were going somewhere for the kind of fun he associates with the truck: paddleboarding, fishing, hiking, camping. I don’t take him on long hikes anymore, because he gets way too stiff and sore afterward, and I don’t want him to tear something when he’s fatigued. He still stays ahead of me and my friends on our regular two- to three-mile off-leash walking routes and is only a little stiff the next day. But it’s hard to keep from hovering and fretting.

Communicating with a deaf dog

This week and next, I’m caring for a friend’s 14-year-old small dog, Leila, while my friend visits family in Europe. Leila has stayed with me and my dogs before, but it’s been at least six years or more; she’s a very different dog at 14 than she was at 8 or so – solidly deaf, for starters. She still chases her tail and barks when she wants attention, skips around when it’s mealtime, and her eyes are bright and happy, and her vision seems good! That’s fortunate, because what’s new to me is that her habitual gait is quite slow, and she sometimes stalls out and stands still, not sure if she wants to go with me and my dogs as we travel the 100 yards or so back and forth between my house and my detached office building on our fenced property.


I’m in the process of figuring out what sort of body language and gestures encourage her to come along. We’ve established that she does not want to be picked up, and that she will definitely hurry along if I happen to make a treat available from the depths of one of my jacket pockets. She can trot along, and will for a treat, but left to wander around the property without a destination in mind, she sort of shuffles and snuffles; she’s enjoying all the smells on my property, that’s for sure. But I think I will recommend that she see her vet about something for what looks to me like arthritis pain.

Hoping for many more good years

Observing Leila at 14 is kind of ramping up my anxiety about Otto at 12. How much time do I have before Otto has mobility issues, or can’t hear me? This is stiffening my resolve to diet-and-exercise away those extra two pounds that now appear on the vet’s scale every time Otto weighs in. He’s already great at physical cues (without a verbal reminder or co-cue), so we’ll just keep practicing those.

The cold temperatures just add to my worry. My last heart dog, Rupert the Border Collie, passed away (at 14 years old) in the winter, and so many of my friends’ dogs passed away in the winter, too.  I’m so relieved that, even though winter has officially just recently started, we are past the solstice and the days have started getting longer again. We still have many cold days ahead, but at least we’ll have more light.

He still has good muscle tone, but is a couple pounds heavier than his long-time adult weight. I’ve been working on reducing that.

Here’s looking forward to spring and, we hope and pray, gifts of at least one more year with our precious heart dogs.


  1. I know when my old hound was in his last year of life I had the opposite seasonal worry. He barely tolerated warm weather in his last few years. I worried about him falling on icy or sidewalks that didn’t get shoveled but the colder weather he thoroughly enjoyed!

    Good luck with all- it never gets easier! 🙂

    • I’m in the same boat as you are, Jacki. My 9 year old GSD loves the winter. When my teeth are chattering on a walk she’s in her glory; and the more snow the better. She’s a throw-back, old school, short haired shepherd. Think of Roy Rogers Bullit or Rin Tin Tin from the old TV shows, not the long haired, slope backed GSD’s popular today. When it starts to warm up she starts to suffer. A half hour walk in 68 degree weather will have her laid out and panting for hours. She’s a big girl at 85 – 88 lbs but you can easily feel her ribs and see a waist when looking at her from above so it’s not like she is way overweight and the vet has checked her heart and blood panel and she’s fine as far as that goes. When the ceiling fan is fine for me, I still drag out the portable A/C for my girl. Truth be told, I agree with her about the heat. Here in northern NJ we also have a humidity problem. Summertime, both that and the temps can be in the 90’s for days on end.

  2. Just put down the last of my pack- she was almost 14, had gone from 45 lbs to 33 lbs, some hearing/eyesight loss, etc. The real problem was the doggy dementia ( Its heartbreaking. I finally decided better a week too early than a day too late. Unfortunately people think if the dog is eating & walking then everything is ok. They dont see the dog pacing for hours in the middle of the night & the fearful, constant anxiety. Or the amount of drugs it takes to try to calm them down & the toll THAT takes on their system. & the stress of you watching a beloved pet go through that.

    I miss her but am relieved she’s not suffering anymore…

    • Kudos to you for releasing your pup from the stress and anxiety that dementia brings to our beloved pups. Doing what is right for our dogs (or any of our pets) despite what others think or say often takes a lot of both courage and love.

    • Agreed, when a dog stops savoring and enjoying life, and it isn’t a correctable issue, what are they getting out of life? My g. shepherd will be 14 in February. She has been deaf for 18 months. She is incontinent of both 1 and 2, altho the hormones really have improved the urinary incontinence. Unlike some dogs she doesn’t leak, but she apparently lacks total control so that she will wake up in a huge puddle. This rarely happens anymore with the hormones, so it is a big improvement. She still does our 4 mile off leash hike 3 times a week with great enthusiasm, and still lopes to play and chase sticks. When she stops enjoying herself I’ll let her go, but she’s always been a strangely outgoing, friendly shepherd who loves strangers ( who she invariably suckers into throwing sticks), and so far, so good.


  4. I had to say goodbye to my beloved Chumley on Sept. 30 – just 2 months short of his 16th birthday. He was ready, but I was not. It’s always this way, and taking my cues from them that they’re ready for release is part of the commitment I make to them in the beginning. I printed out these lines from Irving Townsend’s “The Once Again Prince” from his Separate Life Times, and have it on my desk. It isn’t the kid of comfort the Rainbow Bridge offers, but still – a description of the company we are keeping does give some solace.
    “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.”

  5. It’s really hard to see your dog family members show signs of aging. If you can afford it, have your dogs go for a senior dog checkup as early as possible. This would probably involve bloodwork for starters. I just wish my vets recommended it sooner rather than waiting until our family dogs were up in their teens. Perhaps we could have slowed some of their problems earlier on.

    I lost my little boy, best buddy, my faithful companion—a 14/15 year old Sheltie—in July 2018. He had shown signs of cognitive disorder at times probably after 12 years, arthritis when he tried but gave up chasing his frisbee, and lost some of his hearing as he aged. He had his first senior diagnosis beyond his normal annual checkup when he was already around 14/15. When the vet first told me his kidney and liver levels weren’t looking great, I was in denial but agreed to put him on a prescription diet. In retrospect, I think she was trying to soften the blow, but I wish she had been more forthright in emphasizing the seriousness of his situation. Then the first time this voracious eater refused one if his favorite treats three months later, I started to worry. Acupuncture, food stimulants, and subdermal fluid treatments helped…but just for a while. Then when (another) vet told me that if I hospitalized him for over a week or more to get him intravenous fluids, he could live a couple more months at least, I knew it was time. I wasn’t going to let him be in a strange place at his age just to extend his life a bit longer and prolong his suffering.

    Shortly after he was gone, we lost his best dog friend, another dog family member (my parents’ 13 year old Yorkie), later in October to what started out as what appeared to be UTI and turned out to be worse. Then I lost the senior 14 year old Chihuahua I fostered in November 2018 then adopted in December to kidney failure and possibly complications after a teeth extractio—less than 4 months after welcoming him to our family.

    Although I adopted another dog this year, a 5 year old Eskie, I still grieve over the loss of all our dogs. Meanwhile, I am trying to make ensure my Eskie has a better chance to long and healthy life by giving him supplements now, such as Alaskan salmon oil. I give him vet-recommended dog food (Hills Science diet for sensitive stomach and skin) but am not convinced it is a healthier option so I plan to try ProPlan next.

    One regret I have is that my parents and I should have had our dogs start much earlier for senior dog chechkup/diagnosis and bloodwork so I encourage others to take the initiative and ask your vets, not wait to be told.

  6. Great advice, thank you. Didn’t know of this vet service. You & your loved ones had a very difficult period of time, however you got the gift of further insight into how to better care for beloved aging companions. Really appreciate your sharing.

  7. I’ve read the comments, and I see some regarding Dementia. My 13+ mix breed has been showing signs of Sundowners Syndrome for the last couple of years. In addition, she is more anxious and very clingy. She gets stressed when I have to go out without her, especially if I leave in the car. She has been noise phobic since we adopted her at 3 !/2 yrs of age. But that has gotten a lot worse also. I do use Senilife supplement and it seems to help with the dazed, confused look and excess nesting. I would love to hear any other suggestions. I use Rescue Remedy for her anxiety when it gets bad to the point of pacing or trembling, but don’t want to do it on a regular basis unless absolutely necessary.
    Thanks for any suggestions, stories or advice.

    • I highly recommended the website The comments from people in each section will be very helpful in letting you know you are not alone. It was hard to accept that no matter what I did, she was not going to get better.

      When to let go is a very personal decision. I think the best advice I can give, based on my recent experience, is to be honest about what’s happening. I think what finally clinched it for me was recognizing the constant look of terror & confusion in her eyes. I realized that the dog I had for 13 yrs was already gone. What was left was an animal being tortured by fear & anxiety with no understanding of what was happening & when, if ever, would it stop….

      I don’t mean to be dramatic. This was a new experience for me. I’m sorry for anyone going through this….

  8. Otto is such an amazing looking dog! And equal in spirit. When I look at Otto, he reminds me that he could be a dog character in a story book, with his distinct wired or semi-wired face hair, bushy eyebrows, and semi-pricked ears. For whatever reason, he is what I have always imagined the quintessential Story Book dog would look like!- features full of character!

    • I started fretting and hovering over Metta as early as age 9! I know exactly how you feel. You love them so, they’ve been such an integral part of your life, you don’t want to miss a single thing should it crop up. That’s… what a heart dog will have you doing… uber surveillance!

  9. I am sitting here crying. I cannot even bear the thought of losing my little Yorkie. She is my first dog and is the love of my life. She is with me 24/7. She is now 8 and I pray every day that I have many more years with her. I know that she has slowed down a little and has luxating patella in her right leg and she sleeps more than she used to, but that is o.k. because I am older too. I just cannot imagine my life with out her, but I try to just concentrate on each day we are together.

  10. My biggest regret in caring for my senior Great Dane mix, Gabe, who was euthanized just a couple months before his 16th birthday, is that I wish I had “pulled out the big guns” and started him on prescription pain relief (Carprofen) much earlier. He took the natural products like fish oil, glucosmine, DGP, Wobenzym, homeopathy, had regular acupuncture treatments, etc. for years, and they helped a lot. But as his age and joint issues advanced, he needed something more powerful. Like many others, I worried about possible organ damage from an NSAID. But even my homeopathic and holistic veterinarians told me that while they had never had to euthanize a dog from NSAID damage, they had euthanized many for unbearable joint pain. I think if Gabe had started the NSAID earlier, he would have been able to move about better, retained more muscle mass longer, and enjoyed a better quality of life longer.
    I know Otto will always enjoy the best of care and life quality because of Nancy. There is no doubt in my mind that the reason Gabe lived so long for such a large dog (120 lbs.), is because of all I’ve learned over the years from Whole Dog Journal.

  11. Ugh! It is soo hard. We‘ve had one dog with possible dementia and probably held onto her for too long. When my Kaya finally have me an unequivocal „i‘m done“ we listened and let her go. She was about 14 and a Great Pyrenees. I always wonder if we held on too long, even though she still seemed to want to be here…..
    Several of mine did it their way and died on their own terms, but that is rare…..

  12. We had to put down our black lab heart dog when he was 16. His arthritis had gotten to the point where he could no longer stand on his own and he was incontinent. We tried every therapy available but the reality is his body just started to give out from old age. We did not think it was fair to him to keep going because we didn’t want to let him go. It is very difficult to make that decision when your dog still has that light in his eye. You ask yourself, is today the day? We feel very fortunate to have had so many great years with our boy.

  13. I remember my first heart dog, Dillinger, he got sick in February a few months past his 12th birthday, left us in November (Thanksgiving weekend), two weeks after his 13th birthday; then my next heart dog, she was truly my very special girl, Roxie. . . . started limping in August, xrays showed nothing, a few months later, after undergoing PT for arthritis and no improvement and her tripping on her front leg, xrays showed osteosarcoma, she was gone two weeks later, again Thanksgiving weekend, she was just a couple months shy of her 11th birthday; and a mere ten months later, the rescue we had for 3 years, Bennie, passed from another cancer. . . All my dogs to that point were Rottweilers and when they achieved the age of 9 (rescue was approximately age 9), I never took a moment of their lives for granted because I knew the odds were they were going to leave me. I hugged them tighter, spoiled them more and I know they all were well loved. I now have an 17 month old mini Bernedoodle pup, hoping he lives to a ripe old age. . .

  14. I the best of what I have just read is from the person who quoted the old saying: “better a week to soon than a day too late.” I’ll be going through this probably sooner than later with my 15 year old Cardigan Corgi, who is a rescue who was not treated well before I adopted her at age 10. She has arthritis in shoulders and front feet–controlled so far with meds–and is getting quite deaf and is showing signs of dementia. And it’s always the question: when is it time. I’m hoping that she’ll tell me as most of my other dogs have, but the time may come when it will be up to me to make that difficult decision.

  15. I still remember when you called him Uncle Otto because of his care and nurturing and teaching of some younger dogs.
    He will always be Uncle Otto to me. The lipomas are of great concern and interest to me because my dog has the as well.
    Although there are several WDJ articles on the subject they are a little too technical for me.
    Any insight into lipomas and their reduction would be very much appreciated!

  16. my 55lb mix dog will b 14yo in January. He was pulled from a shelter in 2006, He became a registered therapy dog and has brought joy to many. Always had holistic care and until now was on raw. However dx with oral malignant melanoma (could be his DNA as he has black mouth) and last tumor in May they did not get clean margins. Radiation was suggested but either way his prognosis is not good so I declined putting him thru it. Oncologist has him on Oncept (a sort of immunetherapy) and he gets CBD/medicinal mushrooms/chinese herbs/acupuncture and now I lightly cook his home made food. He also went deaf last year which is sad but altho he no longer likes long walks he is not noticeably stiff but I do give him MediHerb Boswellia mix. He is my life, has seen me thru several losses (senior dogs I have adopted) and the loss of my husband, not sure how I will deal with him leaving me.

  17. We adopted an 11 year old chocolate Lab one year ago. She is definitely my husband’s heart dog (I love them all!) , and it will break his heart when we have to let her go. Senior checkups every 6 months, really good canned food, and several supplements (as well as pain meds) will help us keep her relatively healthy, I hope. Deafness (teach them hand signals early!), near blindness (ditto verbal cues and noisy balls!), and arthritis are all manageable problems. A great resource for learning about dog food is Dog Food Advisor. They rate dog foods at every price point, and have some very informative articles. (Of course, WDJ does a great job, ESPECIALLY with their latest article “Best Canned Foods”, Dec 1018. It covers much more than just canned food!)
    I wish everyone the best with their senior dogs! My sincere belief is that theses gentle souls, put on this earth to help each of us be better human beings, will pass into a better life, and be reunited with us, in the end.

  18. it warms my heart to read the comments here of a community of folks whose dogs are as much as a family member as any human.
    and winter – ugh – I lost my heart dog on dec 17 2017, four years after her leg was amputated due to cancer. We checked for metastasis every 6 months and had no idea that it was growing back on her pelvis at the site of her amputation. We found it after she fell and was in acute pain. I was devastated. Fast forward 6 months and I volunteered to foster a dog from a herding dog rescue (I also have an Aussie and an old man toy poodle.) By the time we had made the five hour drive home, this new dude was already wiggling his way into my heart. He was – and still is – Velcro. As luck would have it, he came with his own history, having been an owner surrender. Turns out he was found on Dec 18 2017 in California, adopted, and then surrendered. He was found the day after my Grace went over the bridge. I like to think that she sent him to find me. Dutch is my boy, he made that clear right from the time we met. I am beginning to believe that we can have more than one heart dog.