Our beautiful Jack Russell Joe sadly died in 2016, as he began to feel his age I wrote this article,much to his disgust, on looking after your elderly dog which I am now sharing with you.
This summer there has been a change in our household and as always, if not prompted by the children, it is our dog who has dictated it. Thirteen years ago, I wrote of our Jack Russell Joe as an extremely big little dog who I likened to a turbo powered Ferrari with Mensa membership and NATO standard radar detection. Now with thousands of miles on the Ferrari there is a definite slowing down and stiffness in the gear changes, the detection is hampered by hearing loss and poor eyesight and the intelligence has succumbed to the forgetfulness of advanced years. With Joe nearly due his royal telegram in dog years it has become very clear that he has very different needs from the crazy reckless years of his youth and that just like an older person he is going to need a whole new care plan. Of course, what has not changed is the out sized personality that untouched by advancing years has us all dancing to his senior tune.
Joe’s arrival at old age had been subtle initially but now its’ unrelenting inevitability is apparent for all to see. Just like their human counterparts’ elderly dogs struggle with poor eyesight, forgetfulness, lack of awareness, poor hearing, a slower learning curve and much less energy. Those who share their homes with an elderly dog will relate to how we can sit next to Joe for a considerable period before he becomes aware of our presence, or how sudden movements the source of which he can no longer clearly see make him jump violently. There are also the frantic calls to him as he wanders off down the drive towards the road unable to hear our cries, the ever-increasing number of floor cushions that give him access to beds and sofas and a sudden willingness to be carried on walks much shorter than the epic treks of his youth when he once led us to the top of Snowdon.
These physical effects of old age in a dog manifest themselves in behavioural changes. The deterioration in functioning causes disturbances in a dog’s sleep cycle so that they can become restless at night and sleepy during the day. How deeply Joe now sleeps has increased proportionately with the loudness of his snores which echo around the house over our conversations and the noise of the television. With the sleepless nights of motherhood far behind me I now find myself struggling with Joe’s nocturnal toilet needs which he now randomly combines with a midnight stroll around the garden disappearing into the darkness literally deaf to my frantic whispered shouts.
Further responses to this physical deterioration can either be an increase in activity in terms of staring at objects, wandering aimlessly or vocalizing more, or a decrease in activity that leads to a poor appetite and less self care. Elderly dogs that become incontinent can do so if memory loss means they forget previously learnt cues or habits such as house training. More distressingly the effects of old age can also cause a change in a dog’s behaviour making them increasingly clingy and over dependent or even less interested in affection, petting or interaction. Joe’s awareness of his frailty makes him heavily dependent on routine so that what he does each day and at what time is as predictable as a wet British summer or a Bank Holiday traffic jam. Like us all he is at his most content cuddled as close as possible to someone and with all his human family around him.
Of course, just like the centenarian tennis player or marathon runner when a dog is considered old varies and not all dogs age the same. The Dogs Trust says that dogs over the age of seven are old or geriatric, although they also add that smaller breeds tend to live longer producing an overall life expectancy average of thirteen. A giant breed such as a Great Dane is considered old at five or six years of age. An example of how like humans aging does not affect all dogs in precisely the same way is when they go grey and if they ever do. Greying is caused by a reduced number of melanocytes or pigment cells at the base of the hair follicle. Certain parts of the body have fewer or in some cases no melanocytes to start with, which is why some humans and dogs go grey sooner and only in certain areas, such as dogs’ muzzles and human templates, while some have little grey or no grey at all. Joe has a very fine silver muzzle and delicate grey eyelashes while all Labrador owners know that they have the distinguished grizzled muzzle look done to a fine art.
Aging brings with it an increase in health-related problems. The most important factor is not to confuse what is considered normal for an old dog with what could be a potentially serious but treatable health problem. Dogs progressively slow down mentally as they age but this is different to Cognitive Disorder Syndrome or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction which can be treated with medication, and Lenticular Sclerosis which is the bluish or cloudy tinge in an old dog’s eyes and a normal effect of aging which does not affect eyesight while cataracts which are operable do. Just like us old age for dogs can mean the onset of arthritis and a greater probability of developing cancer as well as diseases of the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys. One method of defying old age is to deny it so keep going with vaccinations, worming, flea treatments, regular twice yearly check up at the vets and good dental hygiene. This understandably is an emotive area as owners may mistakenly believe that for an older dog euthanasia will be the only option offered and so will delay or deny when time is not on their side and an early diagnosis of a condition may prolong a good quality of life.
It is ironic that although medical science has increased life expectancy, lifestyle choices that include unhealthy diets, inactivity and lack of mental stimulation have created new modern-day problems and abuses such as obesity to undermine it. Dogs need to use or lose it to maintain their mental or physical fitness, and changes in their health need to be supported and addressed. Less active older dogs can be prone to obesity so need a diet lower in protein and fat. Kidney function is impaired in old dogs which means they must drink more so need access to water at all times, and exercise in a reduced form is still necessary to provide stimulation, keep joints mobile and aid bowel function.
The Dogs Trust at Roden near Shrewsbury in Shropshire had a novel approach to exercise when it came to their late but great elderly sponsor dog Schnoz.Schnoz could not walk long distances anymore so many of the more interesting parts of the kennel grounds were off limits to him and the staff worried that simply walking in the same restricted area each day would provide little stimulation. A volunteer solved the problem by building Schnoz a trolley so that he could ride in style to a different area of the kennels each day for exercise and variety. In fact Roden takes the care of its’ elderly residents vey seriously with the Oakfield Dogs Home an actual house in the kennel grounds adapted to cater for its elderly residents with individual exercise plans, senior food, round the clock yard access, individual rooms to escape to and volunteers to provide plenty of company and cuddles.
Joe’s twilight years however long they last just add to the endless love and pleasure he has brought to our lives. Whether it is setting him up in his bed in the porch wrapped in blankets while the rain lashes down inches from his nose because he wanted to sit outside or staggering drunk with sleep out of bed at three in the morning to cater to the needs of his deteriorating kidneys everything is done willing and with love. We share tales of his elderly antics with a smile but also try to appreciate his needs to ensure that with plenty of attention, regular services and a slower pace there will be many more miles yet to go on this canine Ferrari.
Coming soon our life with the younger Joe-much more hazardous
The Dogs Trust have information on the care of elderly dogs contains advice on the care of elderly dogs.
The Trust advises that you notify your vet immediately if you see the following symptoms in your elderly dog:
- Loss of weight or appetite
- Coughing or difficulties breathing
- A growth or lump anywhere on the body
- An unusual discharge
- Weakness or reluctance to exercise
- Increased thirst or urination
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Fever, increased heart rate or increased breathing rate