Top 5 Ways to Improve Life for Your Senior Dog

Staying in tune with your dog’s health and needs can make the difference in improving its quality of life as it ages. It doesn’t require great effort either, say dog owners and experts.

Manage Your Dog’s Senior Years

Five simple steps will help your furry friend age well:

1. Visit your veterinarian frequently. “Instead of seeing the veterinarian once per year, make an appointment every six months,” says Dr. Gary Ryder, a veterinarian and pet expert on JustAnswer. “This will help catch any diseases, tumors or ailments before they progress too much. Many times, we can catch something before it spreads and offer a cure, or at least greatly improve the quality of life.” Annual blood work will help you monitor the function of your dog’s internal organs. It’s smart to get a baseline blood panel when your dog is 7, the age most dogs are considered to be senior, advises Dr. Debbie Van Pelt of the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado.

You’ll also want to discuss with your veterinarian any aging issues related to your dog’s breed. Too often, says Van Pelt, dog owners assume there’s nothing a veterinarian can do for common aging problems, such as arthritis. However, you should know that many new medications, particularly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs designed for dogs and cats, have been developed in the last couple of decades. “We see a lot of older dogs and cats who have arthritis, and owners are giving them baby aspirin,” notes Van Pelt. “That’s really doing them a disservice.” Both you and your veterinarian should regularly evaluate your dog’s dental care as well. Poor dental hygiene can lead to gum disease and numerous health problems.

2. Watch your dog’s weight. An overweight dog is likely to suffer more mobility and health issues and find its quality of life to be diminished. Consider switching your dog to a high-quality commercial food that is designed for seniors and adjusting your pal’s calorie intake. It’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian about when to make the switch, since breeds age differently.

3. Keep your dog moving. Walk your dog regularly, alternating between short and long walks. Debra Atlas, an environmental journalist, also keeps her 15-year-old dog healthy with swimming, when it’s feasible. “There is essentially no impact on the joints, but it allows muscle activities and it burns calories,” says Atlas.

4. Maintain training. “As dogs get older, they will lose some of their sight and hearing,” says Ryder. “With that in mind, it’s nice to use hand signals and repetition so that they have a routine. This will help prevent wandering off and accidents due to any old age impairments.”

5. Modify your dog’s environment and activities. Your dog may still want to play but may no longer initiate activity, says Atlas. Know that though your dog is still a puppy at heart, its senior body can’t keep pace, says Sonia Singh, who blogs for Paw Posse, a retail website for big dogs. Be sensitive to how much your dog is able to do. Atlas has installed a dog ramp that enables Magic to descend the steps into her backyard. You might need to make other adjustments, such as moving the location of your dog’s bed for better access, says Van Pelt.

Top 10 $1,000 Dog Health Insurance Claims

Few of us consider that treatment for a single pet health incident or condition can cost $1,000 or more -- a reason many dog owners give for surrendering their pets to shelters. A recent survey from Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the nation’s oldest and largest provider of pet health insurance, identified the top 10 most common claims that cost $1,000 or more. They are:

1. Torn knee ligament/cartilage

2. Foreign object in the intestine

3. Foreign object in the stomach

4. Intervertebral disc disease

5. Stomach torsion/bloat

6. Broken leg

7. Laryngeal paralysis

8. Tumor of the throat

9. Ear canal surgery/Ablation

10. Ruptured bile duct

Heart disease, diabetes and other types of cancer didn’t make the list because the survey includes large one-time expenses rather than the cost of care for chronic diseases.

Common Sudden Expenses for Dog Owners
Out of the top 10, the most common costly problems affecting dogs are Nos. 1 through 5, with three among those related to stomach and/or intestinal problems, according to Dr. Silene Young, a veterinarian and the director of veterinary marketing for VPI. Stomach torsion/bloat is of particular concern for large dogs, since this condition is usually fatal without immediate surgical intervention. “Basically, the dog stomach is like having a wet towel that is folded diagonally in half -- held at the corners and then swung around so it flips over on itself,” says Young. “Because the stomach can’t flip itself back around once this happens, the twist at each end obstructs the passage of food and fluid in or out of the stomach.”

Treating this very serious condition is no easy task. “The surgery requires a large incision in the abdomen to twist the stomach back into place, evaluate for additional organ damage and then tacking the stomach to the wall of the abdomen permanently so it doesn’t happen again,” she explains. “Because most of these dogs are in critical condition on arrival to the hospital, the cost of care is not just surgical, but also supportive.”

Preventable Conditions
When shown the top 10 list, Dr. Karen Halligan, a veterinarian and the director of veterinary services at the Los Angeles SPCA, was surprised. “What I thought was interesting was that several of the conditions on the list were preventable.” Dog owners, for example, can be more vigilant about not overfeeding, particularly over a short period of time, as this is one cause of bloat.

Halligan was also surprised with throat tumors being that common, since she rarely diagnoses them, but cancer in general is on the rise, partially because pets are living longer. That’s an important point, because dogs go through the aging process faster than we do. Prevention can help to stave off certain health problems, but you will probably be caring for your pet through its old age, when medical issues can creep up.

Pet Insurance to the Rescue
The only thing likely to cure the shock you experience when a steep veterinary bill comes is pet health insurance. “Most of us will have pets with an expensive veterinary bill at least once,” says Young. “Pet insurance is how you plan and prepare for that eventuality so, in a time of stress, you can focus on your dog and not your bank account.”

People often think that insurance is an investment that should pay back money. Some owners do save quite a bit, however, depending on when an illness or accident happens. Like home, auto or any other type of insurance, however, the real benefit is planning for the future -- with your dog in mind.

Pregnant Dog Care

Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson has three words of advice for dog owners thinking about breeding their dogs: Don’t do it. “Just because your dog is cute and your neighbor’s dog is cute does not mean they should get together to make puppies,” says Nelson. “You need experience and know-how to breed. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

Nelson suggests spaying and neutering to avoid unplanned pregnancies. If you do find yourself tasked with the care of a pregnant dog, there are important steps you can take to ensure a healthy pregnancy and delivery. Below, Nelson weighs in on how to provide the best prenatal and postnatal care for your pet.

Veterinary Visits
When you first suspect your dog is expecting, it’s important that her veterinarian examine her in order to confirm the diagnosis. “Infections to the uterus can mimic pregnancy, with an enlarged midsection and discharge,” says Nelson. “These infections can be life-threatening, so it’s important to rule this out.”

Once your vet establishes your dog is indeed pregnant, her vaccination schedule should be checked to make sure she is up-to-date. “Maternal antibodies last 12 weeks in puppies,” explains Nelson, adding that the puppies “benefit from having a fully vaccinated mother.”

Dogs gestate their babies for nine weeks. Your dog will see her doctor two or three times during this period. The veterinarian can help you to anticipate what to expect during labor, especially if your breed has notoriously difficult deliveries. “Dogs with large heads and small butts often have labor complications,” says Nelson. “For example, bulldogs almost always need C-sections.”

Nutrition and Exercise
Because her most pressing need during pregnancy is for more calories, a pregnant dog should be fed a nutrient-dense puppy formula beginning immediately after her status as a mother-to-be is confirmed. Make sure, however, that the formula you choose is for small- to medium-sized pups, as large-breed puppy food contains fewer calories in order to slow growth.

Like a pregnant human, a pregnant dog can benefit from regular exercise. Stick with low-impact exercise, such as walking and chasing. If her muscles stay toned, she’ll have a safer labor and delivery.”

Labor Day
In advance, prepare a private, quiet place for the birth to occur. “Like human females, a female dog doesn’t want 10 people in the room when she’s in labor,” says Nelson. She suggests providing your pet with a birthing area -- a comfortable bed or box. Nelson also suggests a room with a tiled floor to make cleanup easier.

Your veterinarian should speak with you about the signs that your dog is going into labor. “She may become very aloof, or on the flip side, very clingy,” says Nelson. Follow your dog’s lead: If she doesn’t want company, don’t force it on her. “Her hormones are raging. She’s very protective of these arriving babies. Read her body language and take it seriously.”

Postpartum
As with your pregnant dog, the most important consideration for your new mother is nutrition, specifically a higher caloric intake. She should continue to eat puppy food until her puppies have weaned (about eight weeks after birth). “Especially if the litter is big -- more than three puppies -- intense nutritional support is in order,” says Nelson. Consult your dog’s veterinarian about how much food she’ll need.

You should also be tuned in to the mother’s overall health. Postpartum dogs can develop eclampsia, which results from a calcium imbalance and can be life-threatening. It usually happens within a week of delivery, and signs include shaking, seizures and lethargy. If your dog exhibits these, get her to the vet immediately.

With the right medical and nutritional support, every dog can have a healthy pregnancy and a happy Mother’s Day -- every day.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/Xseon

Who Works at Your Dog’s Veterinary Office?

Staff members at your dog’s veterinary office may handle everything from checking your dog in, to collecting your dog’s vital statistics, to evaluating your pup’s health, to cleaning the kennel if your dog stays overnight. While the roles can vary depending on the size or location of the practice, it helps to have an understanding of whom you might encounter on a typical veterinary visit.

Dr. Karen O’Connor, who recently opened her Coastal Georgia Veterinary Care practice in Richmond Hill, Ga., and Jessie Merritt, practice manager for Oswego Veterinary Hospital in Lake Oswego, Ore., explain the following roles:

Receptionist or Client Service Coordinator
“When you come in the front door, the first person you meet is one of the client service coordinators,” says O’Connor. Expect this staff member to welcome you, update your personal information (like your phone number and address), and to direct you to either relax in the lobby or wait in an exam room, if possible. A client service person might also weigh your dog.

Veterinary Assistant or Veterinary Technician
O’Connor considers her assistants to be similar to nurses or nursing assistants in a human practice. They’re the lifeblood of many practices, serving multiple roles. “The nurses function as a filter. They’ll get a lot of basic information, get a preliminary exam, come in the back and present the case to me,” says O’Connor. “I’ve been in practices where I feel they’re underutilized. Here, I’m working these guys to the bone. They’re having a much more enjoyable experience; they’re learning medicine.”

So, what’s the difference between a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician? A veterinary technician has typically attended a school accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association and has passed the Veterinary Technician National Examination, says Merritt. “These individuals invested time and financial resources to receive a level of training that enables them to perform procedures unlicensed veterinary assistants are unable to legally perform,” she explains. Those functions vary from state to state and might involve such work as taking blood or X-rays.

Veterinary assistants typically train on the job and often may receive additional training through conferences or other classes, says Merritt.

Veterinarian
Your dog’s doctor will usually take information from an assistant or technician, then talk to you about your concerns in the exam room. He or she will conduct a thorough physical exam of your pooch, then administer necessary treatments or order needed tests or procedures. Veterinarians must hold a degree in veterinary medicine and a license to practice. The competition is stiff to become a veterinarian, says O’Connor, since there are only 28 veterinary schools in the United States.

Kennel Assistants and Volunteers
These workers usually keep the kennels clean, walk dogs and help with other necessary, routine tasks.

Office Manager
An office manager may manage front-desk personnel, handling their scheduling and other paperwork.

Practice Manager
A licensed veterinary practice manager will oversee the clinic’s operation. “I am a certified veterinary practice manager, which means I had to meet specific and extended requirements involving length of experience, routine duties and education, and then I sat for the CVPM exam and passed,” says Merritt. Merritt’s wide-ranging role includes human resources, business organization, labor law, marketing, accounting and internal controls, policy and procedure implementation, hiring and termination, and even team-building exercises.

Utilizing managers to handle operations frees veterinarians to focus on your dog’s care, explains O’Connor.

The Veterinary Career Path
If you think you might be interested in a vet-related career path, both O’Connor and Merritt agree it’s best to gain some hands-on experience first. Working as a volunteer or kennel assistant lets you see the inner workings of a practice and can help you decide if you want to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

You’ll likely find that no matter their position, most veterinary professionals share a “profound respect and compassion for the animals they work on daily,” says Merritt.

Protect Your Dog’s Teeth From Disease

Did you know that 80 percent of dogs show some sign of gum disease by the age of 3? The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) does, and that’s why they have declared February Pet Dental Health Month. “Veterinarians report that periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed health problem in dogs,” says Dr. Larry Corry, immediate past president of the AVMA. “This can lead to painful infections in the mouth, and in severe cases, these infections can spread and become life-threatening.” Below, dentists weigh in on how to identify and prevent dental problems in dogs.

At-home Assessment
Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council, suggests you quickly assess your dog’s mouth by looking at its gums: Healthy gums are pink as opposed to red, with no buildup of tartar along the gumline. Additionally, a healthy mouth does not produce horribly bad breath.

Additionally, your dog’s vet should do an oral exam at each annual visit, says Nelson. “In older dogs especially, they can get abscesses with no easily visible signs. A thorough assessment may require sedation.”

In-office Procedures
Dr. Linda DeBowes, a Seattle-based veterinarian, acknowledges that periodontal illness is often a silent disease. When your veterinarian diagnoses it in your dog, it’s because she has seen plaque, abscesses, loose teeth and lower-jaw fractures, which can occur with chronic dental problems. “At that point, we need a cleaning to get below the gumline, which requires anesthesia,” says DeBowes. Once under, your dog’s teeth will be cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler or a hand scaler. The veterinarian will look for loose teeth, deep dental pockets, exposed roots or other signs of disease. Some teeth may need to be extracted.

Tooth Disease Prevention
“Once there is disease there, it’s painful and costly to deal with,” says Dr. Trisha Joyce of NYC Veterinary Specialists. “But you can protect your dog’s teeth just like you protect your own, with daily brushing and regular checkups.” She adds: “The only difference between your dental health and your dog’s is that he can’t do it for himself. His owner has to watch out for him.”

Dr. Brook Niemiec, a board-certified veterinary dental specialist in San Diego, suggests beginning a dental routine with your dog as soon as possible and using the following methods for brushing:

1. Start with a soft toothbrush and flavored toothpaste made for pets. Human toothpaste contains detergents that may cause stomach upset. “I don’t recommend the fingertip brushes for two reasons,” says Niemiec. “The bristles are not very effective at cleaning, and this puts the pet owner’s finger at risk for a bite from even the most placid animal.”

2. Go slowly and be very positive, using food treats if necessary. Place the brush at a 45-degree angle to the gum line. Brush in a circular motion, with a firm stroke away from the tooth. Try to reach all tooth surfaces, but concentrate on the outside surface.

3. For puppies, introduce the brush at around 6 months -- and be consistent. Animals like routines, so making brushing a habit it will be easier on both of you.

In addition to brushing, foods and chew toys can help maintain your dog’s dental health. Nelson advises looking for a food or treat with a seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council -- a VOHC seal. “If it’s got the seal,” she says, “it’s guaranteed to be a good dental treat or food.” Look for treats that contain sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP), which lives in the saliva for up to 12 hours, breaking up plaque. Chew toys, such as a rawhide or a Kong, help deal with plaque mechanically. While your pet chomps, tartar is broken down.

Finally, keep in mind Nelson’s three D’s of doggie dental health: daily brushing, dentistry and diet. Follow these and your dog can sport pearly whites throughout the rest of its life.