Veterinarians often recommend more frequent health checks for older dogs. Have you ever wondered why this is the case, and how these checkups can help keep your senior doggo happy and healthy?
If so, we’ve got the answers!
Dr. Petra Warnock explains why she likes to see her older canine patients more often than once a year, and exactly what she looks for during these appointments.
Q: First of all, why do you recommend that senior dogs visit the vet more often than the annual examination they received during their younger years?
A: You’ve heard the comparison that one dog year is equivalent to about seven human years, right? While that’s not precisely true for every life stage (dogs grow up even more quickly than that, for example!) it is a helpful comparison when we think about the frequency of vet visits.
A dog that gets a nose-to-tail health check just once a year is similar to a human waiting seven years between doctor visits. In the prime of life this might be adequate, but as dogs get older changes to their health can happen more quickly. The chance to catch issues early means that we have a better chance to address them before they get too complicated.
These appointments also give us the chance to discuss subtle changes in behaviour, weight, energy levels, and mobility, so we can help families create a supportive home environment and good health habits for this stage of their dog’s life.
Q: Do you assess senior dogs differently during their examination? What do you look for?
A: Lots of things stay the same no matter the patient’s age – we always perform a full body assessment, evaluating their different systems as well as their overall appearance and demeanour. We look for anything out of the ordinary, or for changes since our last examination.
But as dogs age, their bodies undergo changes that have the potential to cause trouble or make existing conditions worse. For example, did you know that their saliva changes? Older dogs tend to produce less of it, and the saliva itself is thicker – two facts that can cause dental disease to progress more quickly than it does on younger dogs. Dogs can also be more susceptible to skin issues as they age, particularly depending on what other conditions they might have.
We also keep a close eye out for any new lumps and bumps. Some of these lumps are not harmful (although they can be uncomfortable depending on their size or location) but others can be problematic. The opportunity to remove them early, before they have a chance to cause systemic harm, can literally be life-changing.
Q: Obviously you expect to see changes to a dog’s sight and hearing as they get older, right?
A: We sure do – and their other senses as well, like their sense of smell! These appointments are a great chance to ask guardians what they’ve noticed about their dog’s perception and behaviour. Dogs are so sense-driven. As their sense of smell becomes less acute, for example, it can affect their appetite if their food doesn’t smell as delicious as it used to. To compensate for this, diets formulated specifically for senior dogs sometimes use different shapes and textures of kibble to stimulate their other senses and encourage them to eat.
When their hearing is compromised, dogs will be more prone to startle – they might not realize their humans have come home, or miss hearing them approach as they sleep. Getting used to creating a heavier tread so the dog feels the vibration, or waking them gently by moving their blanket to let them know someone is there, are small habit changes people can make to adjust to their dog’s less-acute hearing.
As dogs get older, their eyes often get a cloudy hue. People sometimes suspect this is the start of cataracts, but this cloudy colour is usually the normal result of the lens in the dog’s eye becoming thicker over time. Cells continue to build up on this lens throughout their life, eventually giving their eyes that characteristic blue-grey hue. This condition is called nuclear sclerosis, and while cataracts affect a dog’s overall vision, nuclear sclerosis only affects their depth perception. This means they might be more hesitant to go down stairs, or they will take a little longer to jump up on their favourite chair. Helping them out by adding floor-level lights to dark stairways, for example, can keep them safe and comfortable as they navigate their home.
More frequent wellness checks mean that we are able to monitor ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ signs of aging. We also have the chance to help our clients understand what these changes mean, and brainstorm how they can make life a little easier for their dog through these changes.
Q: Don’t older dogs also tend to slow down a bit? Is that just an inevitable part of their journey into their golden years?
A: It’s true that older dogs are often less enthusiastically bouncy than they used to be! But I wouldn’t say that all of this ‘slowing down’ is inevitable. Arthritis and joint inflammation is a huge source of chronic pain in older dogs – in fact, it affects four out of five senior dogs. When detected early, there are lots of options we can explore to help slow progression of arthritis and keep the dog pain-free for as long as possible. These are also issues that can get worse quite quickly. ‘Use it or lose it’ is a helpful concept when we’re thinking about mobility – keeping dogs comfortable and active helps them retain their muscle tone, which in turn helps them avoid injuries.
We also use these more frequent appointments to keep a closer eye on the dog’s weight – not only is it easy for the pounds to unintentionally creep up when dogs are less active throughout the day, but the inflammatory effect of excess weight plays a big part in escalating joint disease.
Q: What about dogs who seem to get a bit forgetful or confused when they get older?
A: One of the great things about advances in veterinary medicine is that we’re able to help keep our companions healthy and thriving for longer than we could in the past. As they get older, however, we do start to see the same kinds of cognitive changes and decline that we see in humans. One example of this is something called ‘sundowner syndrome,’ where the experience of disorientation or confusion starts in the evening, affecting the dog’s sleep cycle and causing them to pace at odd hours of the night, sometimes panting or vocalizing, and even making them a bit more fearful or reactive. Episodes of incontinence, increased symptoms of anxiety, and changes to their regular habits or activity levels are also associated with cognitive decline.
These behaviours can really strain the relationship between aging dogs and other family members. It’s so stressful watching your companion struggle, and as deeply as people love their pups, no one is thrilled about accidents in the house or midnight vocal serenades! There’s a lot that we can do to help slow this cognitive decline or manage the symptoms, from nutritional support to medications to changes in the home environment. Regular check-ins help to catch issues in their early stages, when options for treatment and support are most plentiful.
If you have any questions about how you can support your dog as they journey through their golden years, we’re happy to help! Give us a call at 250-658-5922 and we can book a consultation for you and your companion.