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EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LOVING A SENIOR DOG

https://ohmydogblog.com/2021/04/loving-a-senior-dog/


“His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me… whenever… wherever-in case I need him. And I expect I will-as I always have. He is just my dog.” — Gene Hill

Since the day after Christmas, Violet has been fixated on her forthcoming April birthday. In her mind, turning four is monumental because she thinks that’s when she becomes a Big Kid. She had me list the dates of everyone’s birthday in the family, just to see whose was coming before hers. Going through the list, it hit me: Cooper turns 11 this summer. Eleven. I suddenly realized: He’s not even really a newly senior dog anymore. He’s just an old dog. A sweet old man whose gradual aging slipped past me, I think, because we’re never apart from each other and the day-to-day stuff all blends and blurs together.

I’m so lucky to have this old dog in my life. There is nothing better than an old dog. But how on earth has my puppy become an old dog?!?! Have any of you felt that way about your old dog, too?

Senior dogs, generally speaking, are slower. They don’t need to rush through life at a frenetic puppy pace. They know what they like and what they don’t, and they seek out their preferences: specific people to cuddle, places to nap, toys to chew. They’re often calmer, wiser. A senior dog might not want to run a marathon alongside you, but he wants nothing more than to just be alongside you. They usually don’t gobble up furniture or dig holes in the yard or jump on your Aunt Gladys. The slower, gentler pace of life settles into their old bones. It’s a beautiful thing to pass the time with an old dog.

Sadly, senior pets often land in shelters when their owners no longer can or no longer want to care for them. The Chicago Tribune reported that senior pets make up about 5 percent of the shelter pet population. But, The Dodo cited, “Seniors make up the bulk of the 1.2 million dogs put down at shelters every year in the U.S.”

Let’s break down all the things that you might need to know about a senior dog so we can dispel some myths about caring for an old dog, share the joys of life with an old dog, and–perhaps–encourage someone to add a senior dog to their family!


WHEN IS A DOG CONSIDERED A SENIOR?


By most accounts, dogs are considered seniors after age six or seven. Large breeds age faster than small breeds, so there’s some wiggle room in that timeline.


The reality is a dog’s aging is just like a human’s. Some enter seniorhood strong, while others hit their golden years already tired.


There’s a lot you can do before your dog enters those older years to help him thrive. If your dog isn’t quite six or seven or maybe just celebrated those birthdays, take a good, honest look at his fitness. We’ll talk about this more, but it’s easier for a senior dog to be healthy if he ages with a good baseline of health. If your pup needs to lose weight or build strength, it’s easier on his body if he’s younger.


HOW TO TAKE CARE OF A SENIOR DOG


As we age, our needs change. Same for our dogs. The food that served his body well as a young adult may need to change. The exercise routine that kept him fit may need to be adjusted. The once-a-year trip to the vet might need to become a bi-annual affair. While senior dogs can live long, happy, healthy, fulfilled lives, it’s up to us to tweak their care to ensure that happens.


Let’s dig into a few general categories–fitness, health and wellness, and fun–with specific ideas.


FITNESS


Three years ago, John trained for a marathon. He was already a runner and completed several half marathons, but he decided to tackle the full. His training regiment built incrementally onto duration and distance. Throughout his training, Cooper ran alongside him–up until the 8- or 9-mile marker. Then, John decided Coop was done and brought him home.


Cooper would’ve run the full 26 miles if John let him. He would’ve run until he dropped. He still would–if we let him. But we don’t. Because we can see the dramatically elongated recovery time he faces after each run. We can see the soreness in his joints. We can also see the sheer joy he gets from running, so now we modify his runs to accommodate his almost-11-year-old body.


Fitness encompasses food and exercise, and both the food your dog eats and the exercise he gets contribute to his overall wellness.


The first place to start when assessing your dog’s fitness level? The vet.


We’ll discuss veterinary care in greater detail in the next section, but check in with your vet about your dog’s weight. Are there any concerns? Does he need to gain or lose a few pounds to be in better shape? Ask your vet for ideas. Some might be as simple as feeding less food. Others may include a specific exercise routine.


Many seniors do slow down. They live more sedentary lives, resting more and getting less strenuous exercise. It stands to reason, then, that their metabolisms slow down, too–just like our aging metabolisms! If you’re struggling to keep your senior’s weight down, here are three simple ideas that might help:

  • Swap out store-bought treats for fresh fruits and veggies. Carrots, blueberries, apple slices, and so on all make excellent low-cal treats for pups who still deserve treats (i.e. all of them!) but also need to watch their weight. Here’s a list of 15 veggies to consider along with details on how best to serve them.

  • Don’t skip the walks. It’s hard, I know. Our schedules are busy, the weather is bad, and the backyard is so convenient. However, for your dog’s longevity, take those daily walks. It’s great for him to keep his joints moving, his muscles working, and his heart pumping. Bonus points: Add a tiny bit of distance (one more block, two more houses, a second lap, etc.) or a second walk each day to really boost your dog’s fitness level.

  • Be mindful of table scraps. We all do it: slip a bite under the table, set a bowl down for your pup to lick, drop a scrap and not bother to pick it up because, of course, the dog will get it. All those bits and bites add up. In our house, it’s the toddler and the preschooler who are guiltiest of this behavior, so we’ve started putting Cooper behind a baby gate during meals to keep him from getting too much. Plus, digestive issues are incredibly common among seniors, so fewer food oddities are in their best interest.

You might want to add in supplements, too, but talk that over with your vet first. Cooper takes a bunch, like probiotics, fish oil, and a joint supplement. Of course these are optional and depend on your dog and your budget.


HEALTH AND WELLNESS


Your vet should be your partner in caring for your senior dog.


Your dog might have been one of the lucky ones, thriving on his once-a-year checkup and vaccinations. That’s never been our lot in life, but if it was yours–that’s awesome! Though be aware: Senior dogs need a lot more veterinary care.