Holistic Healthcare For Your Senior Dog
It is inevitable that as our beloved dogs age their requirements change and they start to show visible signs of slowing down and reluctance to perform tasks which were once enjoyed. Here are a few pointers to look out for and changes to put in place which could make a really positive difference to your senior dogs’ quality of life and make the transition into their golden years a little easier. Possibly the first sign that your dog is feeling his advancing years is loss of mobility, general stiffness, or sudden reluctance to take part in certain activities. Noticing that our dog is limping is an easy symptom to spot, but dogs are subtly communicating how they feel the whole time, if we only take the time to observe. Have you noticed a hesitance to jump in or out of the car; how your dog can no longer lower himself down onto his bed but rather just lets his body drop onto it; how the bedding is often wet in a certain area as he constantly licks at his paw or leg for comfort due to aching joints; or when lead walking on the pavement you can hear how he intermittently drags one foot along the ground and the claws are worn on that paw; perhaps an uncharacteristic onset of nervous behaviour is apparent when in certain areas of the house. These are all signs that need further investigation as the dog is starting to struggle with changes within their body which could be a short-term problem that is easily dealt with or a signal that permanent lifestyle adjustments need to take place in order to make life more comfortable for them.
• Weight reduction or management – excess weight certainly makes it more difficult to improve or manage health complaints particularly where joint pain is concerned. It will also mean the other positive lifestyle changes that you make are less successful and you become more reliant on pain medication to manage arthritic conditions.
• Pain relief and Supplements – many people are reluctant to resort to veterinary prescribed medication for pain relief, but they can be really useful in the overall management of pain and inflammation and if used alongside an entirely holistic approach you can often greatly reduce the use for drugs altogether. It is important that the dog is not in pain and is encouraged to gently exercise with minimal compensatory movement, this will allow muscle tone to improve which aids in supporting fragile joints, maintaining weight loss and increasing the range of movement in joints. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are not without their side effects in longer term use particularly where the kidneys, liver and stomach are concerned, so therefore it is really important to make many other lifestyle changes that give an overall improvement to health and not just rely on medication.
There are many supplements available for aging dogs which can help with mobility issues brought on by old age. It is important to start early particularly with a dog who has been very active, or for working and competition dogs that have suffered more wear and tear over the years. Glucosamine, chondroitin and green lipped mussel-based supplements have been popular for some time in helping to improve the mobility of joints but there are also other natural ingredients that are often added such as Boswellia serrata, msm (methylsulfonylmethane) and turmeric which are used for their anti-inflammatory properties. The inclusion of Omega 3 fatty acids in the diet is a great idea for mobility, improved coat and skin and overall reduction in inflammation. The best source is oily fish but if your dog is not keen then try adding tinned sardines or pilchards in spring water or tomato juice twice a week, which are also great for tempting fussy eaters or hiding medication.
• Suitable flooring and home improvements – some of the most dramatic improvements I have seen to the mobility of arthritic dogs is from something as simple as giving them nonslip flooring under their feet. The constant slip, slide, having to brace themselves to avoid falling, loss of confidence and fear which makes them panic and more inclined to fall is disastrous to arthritic joints, muscle pain and the emotional state of elderly dogs. Nonslip mats and runners to cover laminate or tiled floors are cheap to buy and can make a huge difference to the maintenance of the elderly dog.
• Use a car ramp – it is so much kinder to your dogs’ joints and particularly to their shoulders than jumping in and out of the car, not to mention the potential strain to your own back if you lift the dog to and from the boot of a car. Take time to get them used to going up and down the ramp on a lead and support them by cradling chest and hind end or use a suitable harness to guide them up if necessary until they get confident using it – make it fun by using treats, it will be worth the effort and invaluable as the dog gets older. Purchase one that you find easy to use and importantly has nonslip footing and ideally it should have a raised border which can help blind dogs sense that they are close to the edge of the ramp whilst walking up it.
• Dog beds – elderly dogs sleep a lot so providing a soft bed which offers protection and support for their joints is crucial. Some dogs love to stretch out and others curl up in a ball, so bear this in mind when choosing a bed. If you have the hard plastic beds make sure they are big enough so that the dog isn’t forced into an unnatural shape and that they have enough room to stretch out when needed, this is particularly important for neck and limb comfort. I find that senior dogs cope better with a raised bed, as this aids in getting up from a prone position. Not so high they have to jump down from it but raised enough to assist in getting on and off with ease. There are many new orthopaedic style dog beds that are really supportive and much more suitable than many blankets which end up entangled around the dogs legs and offer no support to the body.
• Raised bowls – you may find that your dog is more comfortable feeding and drinking from a raised bowl, which takes the strain off forelimbs, shoulders, neck and lower back. There are many purpose-built stands on the market, but I have found that the plastic bowls which stack together do a good job and you can experiment with the number of bowls you need to get the correct height for your particular dog. Use a stainless bowl to place in the top as these are much easier to keep really clean and there is no risk of plastic contaminating your dogs food.
Exercise requirements will start to change, and this can become tricky in a multiple dog household if you have an oldie that still thinks they can keep up with the younger dogs and, as much as they enjoy themselves at the time, the following days can see them really struggle because they have overdone it.
There will come a time when the older dog needs to be walked separately so they get the benefit of exercise that is appropriate for them at their level of mobility. Inappropriate exercise such as repeated ball throwing, or vigorous tug of war games will have to become a thing of the past as they will undoubtedly undo any of the good work put in place with a holistic healthcare plan. If the dog loves to run free always make sure that you walk on the lead for at least ten minutes, so they are adequately warmed up before letting them off. Once a dogs’ hearing or eyesight is failing then personally I think they are safer on a lead, make use of a long line if they enjoy a bit of a run, then you still have some control and ability to keep them safe. Harnesses can be more comfortable than a collar and should your dog need additional support such as going up a ramp or negotiating a step they are ideal to guide them. Harnesses with a Y shaped design that do not come across in front of the chest and cause any restrictive movement are a good choice. It should have options for adjustment to suit your individual dog and avoid the need to bend arthritic joints in order to put the harness on. If you have very elderly or frail dogs then all they need is a mooch round the garden or a very gentle short stroll, leaving them to dictate the pace. One of a dog’s greatest joys is sniffing and following a scent so to prevent them from doing this is taking away one of their basic needs. It is so upsetting to see people dragging their elderly dogs behind them on a lead, it causes the dog stress and puts tremendous strain on their joints and muscles as they try and keep up with the handler. We all have aches and pains at times, and we adjust our gait and speed to make movement as easy as possible so imagine being forced to walk at a speed that you found way out of your comfort zone. Many dogs lose their confidence and feel vulnerable as they become frail or eyesight and hearing fails, often becoming vocal or reactive maybe for the first time in their life. See this as a sign that they are not coping well with the environment they are being exercised in and only allow familiar, calm dogs to interact with them or take the dog somewhere very quiet where they feel safe.
Complementary therapies are really helpful for the older dog and help keep them mobile. Massage and gentle body work is excellent and can pick up muscle weakness, compensatory movement, stiff joints and tight shortened muscles which, when all the information is put together, helps form a picture of how your dog is using their body and why that may be so. Ask your therapist for some homework you can do in between treatments. Heat pads are a good idea for very cold weather or use a soft fleece dog coat for additional warmth. Acupuncture is a fantastic treatment for the elderly dog and helps in managing arthritic conditions in particular. The fine needles are applied in very precise areas of the body to stimulate the release of endorphins which are the body’s own form of pain relief. Hydrotherapy either in a pool or treadmill is great non weight bearing exercise to build or maintain muscle tone and also help shed any excess weight.
• Keeping nails short and trimmed goes a long way to help prevent or manage arthritic conditions of the feet and takes the strain off tendons in the lower leg. Long nails will touch the ground first, pushing the base of the claws into sensitive tissue within the pad. This puts strain on the tendons of the front legs, the hip area and hind legs while also making the dog reluctant to walk. Regular trimming with canine nail clippers or a special drill attachment specifically for claws will help prevent this from happening. Trim away long hair from underneath the pad which can become matted and uncomfortable and also cause slipping on smooth surfaces.
• Dietary changes – many dogs start to lose their sense of taste as they age and will lose interest in their usual food. Gradually changing over to diet higher in moisture will be much kinder to the kidneys and the inclusion of antioxidant rich fresh vegetables, berries and omega 3s in the diet will help in protecting against disease and supporting overall health.
Age related cognitive decline is the canine equivalent of dementia which can vary in its symptoms from mild to severe. The symptoms can include staring into space, confusion at which way a door opens even though the dog may have used the same doorway for years, restlessness and becoming vocal at nights, soiling in the house and extreme changes in temperament towards people and other dogs. It is important to rule out other physical factors such as pain, infection or sudden decline in eyesight for instance before coming up with a plan of action to manage the situation. Although there is no cure for cognitive decline, providing the dog with stimulating mind games such as hunting for treats and toys in the garden or using food puzzles and snuffle mats can help keep their minds active. The inclusion of antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids in the diet will also help in some way to slow the decline down if the initial symptoms are spotted early enough.
Enjoy your beloved senior companions
Caroline Hearn MICHT, Dip ICAT
Canine & Equine Holistic Massage Therapist