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.

Dog ‘Breast Cancer’: Mammary Disease

Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian for New York City Veterinary Specialists, still remembers the first dog she saw with mammary disease -- cancer of the mammary glands. The first dog she saw with mammary disease was brought in for lethargy. “We started off with blood work and X-rays, and the X-rays showed metastatic cancer in her lungs, which had begun in the mammary glands.” Since that time, Joyce has counseled dog owners on how to prevent and detect mammary disease, and how to proceed once it’s been diagnosed.

Risk Factors
Mammary cancer is one of the most common cancers among dogs, but it is also one of the most preventable. “First and foremost, spay your dog,” says Joyce. Dogs spayed before their first heat almost never go on to develop the disease, compared to the 25 percent of unspayed dogs that will. Spaying before a dog’s second heat is almost as protective. Generally speaking, malignant mammary tumors are unusual in dogs spayed before the age of 2.

Mammary tumors are most commonly found in unspayed dogs between 5 and 10 years old. Breeds thought to be at increased risk include Boston terriers, cocker spaniels, poodles, English setters, Brittany spaniels, pointers and fox terriers. Male dogs very rarely develop mammary cancer, though it can happen -- and it’s usually aggressive when it does.

When Joyce meets owners of unspayed dogs, she encourages them to perform regular mammary exams at home. The idea is similar to the self-exams that women are taught by their gynecologists to perform in order to become familiar with their own breast tissue. “If you know how your dog’s mammary glands feel when they’re free of tumors, it’s easier to catch a growth if one develops,” she says.

To examine your furry friend, run your hand over the fatty tissue around her nipple. “Just rubbing the belly is too superficial. Squeeze the tissue a little, almost like milking a cow. You’re looking for a lump like a little hard pea, or sometimes bigger,” says Joyce. Finding a lump is a good reason to visit the veterinarian, but it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm. Fifty percent of mammary tumors in dogs are benign.

“If a lump is hard and immobile, I’m more worried than if it’s soft and mobile. But you can never say just by its feel,” says Joyce. Still, other than these telltale lumps, mammary cancer is asymptomatic in its early stages. If it metastasizes, the dog may go on to develop health problems related to where the cancer has spread.

Diagnosis and Prognosis
A biopsy is necessary to determine whether a tumor is benign or malignant, but Joyce says that prompt removal of any mammary tumor is most veterinarians’ treatment of choice, no matter its status. Once the tumor is removed, it can be determined whether it was benign or malignant.

Mammary surgery is less complicated than mastectomy in women, since a dog’s breast tissue is outside of the muscle layer. A dog can be back to its normal activity within a couple of weeks. Prognosis is often good: In 50 percent of cases, the cancer is totally eliminated with the surgical removal of the tumor.

In advanced cancers that have metastasized, surgery may still be performed to reduce the impact of the tumor and improve quality of life. Sometimes, though, a metastasized mammary tumor means it’s time to let your pet go. “The tumors can become ulcerative, making just moving around extremely uncomfortable. Or if they spread to the lungs or the bones and make breathing or walking very hard, the most humane option may be euthanizing,” says Joyce.

Mammary cancer in dogs may be common, but it is preventable and very often even completely curable. With early detection and a relatively easy operation, your dog may be back on its feet in no time, with a chest that is free of problematic lumps.


Coping With the Loss of a Dog

Dealing with the death of a dog is difficult for any owner -- no matter the age of your pet. Dr. Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists, and Dr. Wallace Sife, clinical psychologist and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), offer advice on managing the end, grieving and moving on.

End-of-life Decision-making
While a small percentage of dogs may die peacefully at home at a very old age, most pet owners will at some point be faced with the decision to end their dog’s suffering with a medical intervention. “Sometimes it’s an uncomplicated decision -- say an animal stops making red blood cells,” says Joyce. “But just as often it’s a slow process, like cancer. The dog still has a good day every once in awhile.” In the latter situation, Joyce recommends the following:

  • Make a list of the things your dog enjoys, like chasing a ball or spending relaxed time with the family. Consider whether any of these activities are still an option.
  • Give yourself an objective measure -- a point at which you will let the pet go. For example, “Once my dog has not eaten for three days in a row, I will put him down.”
  • Seek guidance from your veterinarian and pet owners who have had to make that difficult decision. The APLB’s website offers chat rooms that address the topic.

“Owners will say to me ‘I can’t kill my dog,’ but that’s not what euthanizing is,” says Joyce. “I think of it as releasing the animal. It’s the last and most selfless decision we make for a pet we have cherished and cared for.”

Memorializing a Beloved Dog
Deciding how to mark a dog’s passing is a very personal decision. Some pet owners choose the formality of a proper funeral in a pet cemetery, while others cremate and scatter their pet’s ashes. Many veterinary hospitals offer to make a clay imprint of a dog’s paw as a keepsake.

Sife suggests making a contribution to an animal group in your pet’s name, planting a tree in its honor, volunteering with shelter animals, or setting up a memorial on the APLB’s website. “We’ll light a candle for the dog each year on the anniversary of its death,” he says.

Coping in the Aftermath
Everyone deals with loss differently, though dog owners can expect to go through the same stages of grief as anyone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one. Sife suggests reading one of the many books on the topic, including his own, The Loss of a Pet. “The pain is unavoidable, but a book can help to normalize the experience,” he says.

Most important may simply be allowing yourself to grieve. “It can be hard because society doesn’t allow public grieving as much with pets. People feel less comfortable saying ‘I’m going to take a day off of work because I just put my dog to sleep,’ but it’s legitimate,” says Joyce. She adds that some of her clients have found support groups for people who find they need more comfort than they are getting from friends.

Adopting a New Companion
While a pet can never be replaced, at some point many dog lovers may want to bring home a new pet. Sife advises against getting a look-alike. “That may be a way of refusing to accept the loss,” he says. Joyce also advises waiting until the raw part has passed.

Both Joyce and Sife recommend adopting a shelter dog from a local shelter. Saving the life of a dog without a home can be one more way to honor the memory of a best friend that’s passed.

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.

Protect Your Dog From a Deadly Summer Virus

When seven dogs in the same county die of the same thing within two and a half weeks, people tend to take notice. That’s what happened recently in Lancaster County, Pa., as multiple cases of canine parvovirus proved lethal. According to Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., parvovirus can pop up in bunches, especially in summer.

“Our pets become more active in the summer, and parvovirus can live longer in a warmer environment,” says Nelson. “I’ve seen multiple animals at a time present similar signs -- for example, multiple puppies of the same litter, multiple unvaccinated dogs from the same environment and multiple unvaccinated dogs exposed to an infectious source.”

Transmission and Symptoms of Parvovirus
Parvovirus transmits from dog to dog mainly through direct or indirect contact with the feces of an affected canine, which is why being outdoors often can raise your pet’s chances of getting it. But according to Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City, it’s not just an “outdoor disease” -- since dogs can track it inside and leave microscopic yet live traces of it all over the floor. “If one dog is affected in a household or kennel where there are several other dogs, it would be easy to spread,” says Nelson.

Like other viruses, parvovirus has mutated over the years since it first appeared in the 1970s. And although the strains can vary from year to year, they’re fairly indistinguishable when it comes to testing and symptoms. The most common symptoms of the virus show up in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as severe vomiting and diarrhea, as well as a sudden loss of appetite. Left untreated, it can progress to bloody diarrhea, overall weakness, fever, pale mucous membranes, coma and eventually death. Puppies are particularly vulnerable.

“This virus not only affects the GI tract, as most people know, it affects all rapidly dividing cells within the body -- the bone marrow, the GI lining, the myocardial tissues, and the lymph tissues,” says Nelson. “Severe disease can develop rapidly, and may or may not be reversible with appropriate therapy.”

Prevention and Treatment of Canine Parvovirus
Prevention is simple and relatively inexpensive. “Only unvaccinated or inadequately vaccinated dogs are at risk,” says Joyce. “It's part of the standard vaccine protocol given as three shots to puppies, and as an annual or every two- to three-year booster to adults.” If your dog is up to date on its DAPP vaccine (distemper, adenovirus, parvovirus, parainfluenza), he or she is safe. The cost of the vaccine may be about $30, with variations depending on which part of the country you live in, according to Nelson.

Aside from vaccination, Joyce points out a few other control measures:

  • Clean contaminated areas with a household bleach solution.
  • Regularly disinfect food bowls, water bowls, toys and bedding.
  • Disinfect clothing and shoes.
  • Immediately clean up and dispose of waste outdoors.
  • Prevent your pooch from having contact with other dogs’ feces outdoors (no sniffing).

The cost to treat an affected dog, however, can be significant. Nelson says she has seen it run into the $7,000 to $8,000 range. And it’s not the kind of illness where you can wait and consider your options. “When these dogs hit the doors of your hospital, everything must shift into overdrive. A diagnosis needs to be made quickly and efficiently, severity of the disease needs to be assessed immediately, and treatment needs to be initiated as soon as possible,” she says. “Delaying therapy is in general considered hastening death.”

For those who do lose a dog to parvovirus, Nelson says most veterinarians advise not getting a new puppy for six months. By then, it’s assumed the virus will be cleared from the environment, if proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures have been employed. 

The biggest message that both she and Joyce stress is that this is an easily preventable illness. Vaccination protocols have been extremely successful in controlling the spread of parvovirus. If your dog is not up to date on the vaccine, you should aim to correct that immediately.