Several years ago, a pet’s parent gave me a poem after I (Dr. Perry Jameson) had euthanized her dog. This is always an emotional time for all involved and she was consoling me even though she was the one who had lost a family member. Somehow, I have misplaced the poem, but I will never forget the gist of the message: When we adopt a pet, we unconsciously know we will ultimately be faced with their death, but all the joy they provide through their lifetime will outweigh the loss we feel at the end.
Even though we know they are going to age faster than we do, it is still hard to accept. This is not only a concern regarding the end of their lives but also during the aging process. It is not uncommon for me to be presented with a 15-year-old Labrador and Mom tell me she is worried that her dog cannot get around as well as she once did. Because our pets age faster than we do, it is hard to conceptualize that your 15-year-old dog is like your 90-year-old grandmother who now has to use a walker.
It is important for parents and veterinary care providers to understand what are normal aging changes that have to be accepted and what are problems that can be addressed.
In the Jan. 1 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Jan Bellows and several co-authors do a fantastic job of describing what to expect in our patients as they age (healthy aging) and what we should be concerned about (underlying disease).
With advancing age, dogs develop hair and skin changes. They may have atrophy of hair follicles resulting in areas of hair loss. Changes in the follicles also result in the production of white hair instead of pigmented hair, especially around the face and muzzle. Their hair coat is often dryer and duller than when younger.
Animals are no different than humans in that as they age, their metabolism slows. This has a lot to do with loss of muscle mass and increased fat. Consistent physical activity will slow some of the age-associated loss of lean tissue, so it is important to keep them moving. Swimming is a great exercise for older dogs as it is low-impact on arthritic joints.
Many dogs around age 6 will develop a bluish-gray haziness to the lenses of their eyes. Most parents suspect their pet has cataracts and will lose vision. This is actually called nuclear, or lenticular, sclerosis and does not affect your dog’s vision unless severe. Hearing loss is common in dogs and is similar to that which occurs in humans.
Aging alone does not result in significant oral and dental disease in dogs. However, if dental issues are left untreated for many years, permanent tooth loss can result. If you strictly control plaque buildup on your dog’s teeth, they can remain healthy into old age.
Dogs’ hearts change as they age, as well. Cardiac output declines by as much as 30 percent and loss of the ability for the heart to respond to increased demands occurs. This would manifest as the inability to exercise at the same intensity or for the same duration as when younger.
Most dogs do not develop significant enough aging changes to their lungs to be symptomatic. This would be one area where if symptoms are noticed (coughing, labored breathing), it is worth addressing. Our old Labrador, Ariel, developed laryngeal paralysis. This is where the vocal folds do not open when they inhale. In severe cases it can be fatal, especially in the summer heat in Charleston. However, it is surgically correctable and most dogs do well.
Over time, kidney function will gradually decline. It is usually not significant enough to become symptomatic, therefore, looking for an underlying, treatable cause is worth the effort. Urinary incontinence is something which develops in about 20 percent of spayed female dogs. This often responds to medical therapy.
Hormonal function may decline, as well, with increases in hypothyroidism and diabetes mellitus diagnosed in older patients. Fortunately, these hormonal deficiencies can be easily treated.
As early as 7 to 8 years of age, behavior changes may begin and these changes are associated with brain aging. These may manifest as changes in cognition, sleep patterns, activity, motor skills and human interaction. Interestingly, impaired dogs had a decrease in interaction with people but shifted to just wanting to spend more time around people. In our dog Ariel, we noticed this as she got older. She would follow us around and lay down beside us wanting to be close, but she did not really interact with us very much.
Most body systems change as our pets age. To allow elderly pets to have a good quality into their later years, it is important to know which problems can be treated and which cannot.
When Ariel was aging, we identified the diseases we could treat to improve her quality of life, laryngeal paralysis and urinary incontinence. We also accepted the fact that certain issues, like her severe arthritis, we could not reverse, only treat supportively.
Ultimately, when her quality of life declined and she was having more bad days than good, we knew it was time to consider euthanasia. It was one of the hardest decisions we ever had to make. Knowing that we had done everything possible to make sure her senior years were golden helped ease the pain of her loss.