There are many different types of health problems and concerns for aging senior dogs. The good news is that with overall good nutrition, routine worming and flea prevention, frequent, regular and appropriate exercise and routine vet check-ups many of these problems are easily detected and treated. Just like with younger dogs, the earlier issues are identified and treatment started the more positive the long range treatment prognosis will be.
While there are very serious health issues that can be fatal, there are also lower level health conditions that are not serious on their own, unless combined with other problems. Managing each and every health issue is critical since each disease or condition depletes the dog's natural immunity and ability to combat infections, diseases, parasites and viruses. For example, a bout with roundworms is not typically a problem even for senior dogs. Combine roundworms with flea infestation, heartworm and perhaps a low quality diet and they may well become very serious and even fatal as the dog's system is simply unable to deal with all the health issues at the same time.
Unfortunately many owners don't realize that the behavioral changes, energy level changes and digestive changes they are noting in the senior dog are not part of the normal aging process, but rather are signs of health concerns and diseases. Understanding what is part of normal aging and what is a more serious condition is important and can only be accomplished by knowing about the breed, knowing your own dog and keeping in close contact with your vet about anything that seems out of the ordinary.
The following sections will outline some typical changes in aging dogs as well as some health issues that are often disguised by these changes. If your dog's behavior falls outside of the normal aging range of behaviors or physical changes, contact your vet for an appointment as soon as possible. Keeping a record or journal of when you notice behavioral changes, physical changes or digestive issues can also help if you do have to talk to the vet.
Changes in Coat and Skin
As dog's age, there is a marked difference in both the skin and the coat. The skin itself tends to decrease in thickness and become more easily damaged through scratching, accidental scrapes and cuts and even show signs of bruising if it is light pigmented. Along with the skin becoming thinner, the coat will become sparser with some hair loss in patches often noted over the entire body. Some dogs will have increased shedding and the hair may not be as lustrous as it was when the dog was in his or her earlier years.
Excessive hair loss, excessive bruising, scraping or lesions on the skin are not a normal signs of aging. Hair loss from aging tends to be more generalized across the body and not specific to only one area, especially when paired with a wet discharge or dry flaky skin. Some dogs will develop sensitivities or allergies to food or environmental components as they age, especially if they were not spayed or neutered. This is often due to the hormonal changes in both intact males and females that develop as the reproductive systems age and stop functioning.
Skin infections are serious at this time since the older dogs tend to have lower natural immunity and decreased immune functions. Any skin lesions should be treated to prevent secondary infection and if the cause of the lesion or wound is not known the vet should be consulted.
Skin tumors or tumors just under the skin's surface can signal cancer and need to be immediately examined and treated. Often skin cancer is the first visual signs of other types of cancers that are already established within the body. Early treatment of skin cancer can help in detection of other cancers as well.
It is very normal for senior dogs to have less energy and stamina than they did when they were younger. However, it is not normal for older dogs to simply become completely lethargic and refuse to exercise or show no interest in a good play, a relaxing walk or even going for a ride in the car if they previously enjoyed these activities. Any sudden or even slow progressive change from a moderate activity level to a very low activity level can be the only signs and symptoms of very serious health issues including diabetes, cancers, metabolic disorders, neurological problems and viral problems that can affect senior dogs.
If the energy decrease is not coupled with any other issues and the dog is experiencing any movement difficulties or pain, arthritis can be the root cause. Thankfully there are several treatment options to help manage this painful joint inflammation, but it does require diagnosis and treatment. Holistic treatments to increase energy levels can also be used very successfully, however it is critical to ensure there are no other underlying health problems before starting these types of treatments.
Perhaps one of the most challenging issues that often effects senior dogs is incontinence and lack of control of the bowels. Females that have been used for breeding are often the most affected by these issues, however any dog can lose some to all control of their bladder or bowels as they age.
Like the symptoms mentioned above, there are health issues that may also cause these problems that are not directly related to aging issues. Tumors, cysts, infections and disease can all trigger these symptoms even in younger dogs. Having your older dog checked by the vet can determine if this is something that can be treated, or your vet can suggest options for managing the condition. Disposable or washable pet diapers are now available for any size of dog that provide a safe, clean option for senior dogs that have this problem.
As a dog owner if you notice any changes in your senior dog that seem to be out of the ordinary or are unique to your dog compared to other dogs of the same age, consult your vet. You may also be able to use information from breeders and other dog owners through online forums and discussions, however keep in mind that a vet really is the expert and verify anything you read on the internet with a reliable source before implementing a treatment program for your senior dog.