Senior Dogs, Part II: The Joys of Loving an Elderly Dog

Throughout their lives, dogs are experts at showing unconditional love and acceptance for their owners. Once dogs have moved into their senior years, owners can return that love by helping them stay comfortable, happy, and healthy.

Harmony Peraza, a veterinary technician and the study subject manager for the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Dog Aging Project, has seen from her own senior dog just how rewarding it can be to own an older animal.

While the adage may be that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” senior dogs can usually do anything that younger dogs can do, as long as they have some patience and help from their owners.

“Old dogs can learn new tricks! In fact, older dogs may be easier to teach,” Peraza said. “They likely have a longer attention span and more focus than a young puppy. Additionally, teaching your older dog new things can help to keep his mind sharp and slow the signs of senility.”

Owners can also help older dogs stay more youthful by making small changes to their diet and activity to better suit their aging bodies.

Diet changes for a senior dog may be recommended by a veterinarian to treat certain health conditions, encourage weight loss, or help maintain an ideal weight.

“Often, an older dog does not need to consume the same number of calories as a younger dog,” Peraza said. “This can be accomplished by simply feeding less or moving to a lighter or low-calorie food.”

Older dogs may need fewer calories, but this doesn’t mean that they should live a sedentary life. If vigorous exercises like running or jumping have become too difficult for a senior dog, it can still benefit from walking, jogging, swimming, or playing.

Just as with younger dogs, regular trips to the veterinarian are important for keeping senior dogs healthy and comfortable. Peraza recommends taking old dogs to the veterinarian for exams and lab work every six to 12 months and keeping up with flea, tick, heartworm, and intestinal parasite control.

“Having your dog’s health regularly monitored can lead to early discovery of problems, and early discovery of problems can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome,” Peraza said.

Most importantly, owners should remember to give a senior dog the love, attention, and comfort it deserves.

“Offer a comfortable, cool place for your pup to rest,” Peraza said. “Regular baths and grooming are a great way to not only keep your dog clean, but also provide an opportunity to give a nice little massage to your aging family member.

“A little patience, understanding, and a gentle hand can go very far with older dogs,” she said.

Dogs spend their entire lives loving us, so it is the least we can do to make sure they stay just as loved until the end.

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest parts of dog ownership, but researchers across the U.S. are taking some of the first steps toward extending the lifespans of our canine companions.

“We all love our companion dogs and want them to stay with us as long as possible,” said Dr. Kate Creevy, CVM associate professor. “The Dog Aging Project seeks to understand how genes, lifestyle, and environment influence lifespan and health span, the period of life spent free from disease.”

This project will enroll 10,000 companion dogs and their owners from across the U.S to advance the understanding of the aging process in dogs. Learn more at dogagingproject.org.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

Senior Dogs, Part I: The Signs of an Aging Dog

As a dog ages, several changes may occur besides a greying muzzle. Senior dogs have more health concerns than younger dogs, but they can still make playful, loving companions.Black dog with grey muzzle smiling and looking off to the left in front of a green grass background

Harmony Peraza, a veterinary technician and the study subject manager for the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Dog Aging Project, discusses the most common health conditions that may arise in a senior dog.

While there is some variation among breeds, a dog is typically considered a senior at 8 years old. Large dogs may age faster, becoming seniors as early as 6 or 7, while smaller dogs may not start showing signs of age until they are 9 or 10.

One of the most common concerns in senior dogs is arthritis, which can cause a dog to move stiffly and slowly and sometimes also gain weight because of decreased activity. Providing a soft surface to lay on and reducing exposure to the elements are easy ways to help a dog with arthritis stay comfortable.

“I also recommend reaching out to your dog’s veterinarian for suggestions of supplements and, in some cases, medications that can potentially help with the discomfort of arthritis,” Peraza said. “Aging doesn’t have to be painful for your dog.”

Many dogs also lose their hearing and vision as they age, but this does not mean that they can no longer live a full and happy life.

“If you notice that your older dog seems withdrawn, is sleeping deeper than usual, doesn’t come to you as readily when called, or seems lost and confused, these can be signs that he or she has lost some vision or hearing ability,” Peraza said.

Blind and deaf dogs are great at finding new ways to navigate and stay active, but they do need more patience and understanding from their owners.

“Even dogs that go blind can manage to get along very well,” Peraza said. “It is recommended to keep furniture or objects in the home and yard in familiar order for the dog. Rearrangement of items can be confusing and cause the dog to bump into the newly arranged items.”

Dogs have an increased risk for cancer as they age, as well as “wear” on important organs like the heart and kidneys. If a senior dog has increased panting, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, or a change in appetite, thirst, or the frequency of urination, it should be seen by a veterinarian, as these can be symptoms of heart and kidney problems.

Pet owners can help prevent heart and kidney problems in senior dogs by keeping up with oral hygiene.

“A red gum line and tartar build up on a dog’s teeth indicate bacteria or infection within the mouth,” Peraza said. “Bacteria is shed into the bloodstream and directly affects the health of the pet’s heart and kidneys. Dental disease is much more than just smelly breath and yucky looking teeth.”

Beyond physical changes, an aging dog may also develop dementia, causing it to act withdrawn or confused.

“Keeping a dog engaged through play and training activities may help keep its brain healthy and sharp,” Peraza said. “Additionally, your veterinarian can recommend special foods and supplements that, in some cases, may help delay or minimize the onset of senility.”

Finally, it may be common to find an older dog napping, but a dog that suddenly becomes less active should be evaluated by a veterinarian. While some laziness is expected from a dog that has lived a long, active life, excessive sedentary behavior could indicate health problems.

Even though dogs may develop health conditions as they age, they can still make great pets and live well past the point of becoming seniors. Saying goodbye is one of the hardest parts of dog ownership, but researchers across the U.S. are taking some of the first steps toward extending the lifespans of our canine companions.

“We all want to help our companion dogs live long and well,” said Dr. Kate Creevy, CVM associate professor. “To accomplish this, a better understanding of the aging process in dogs is needed. The Dog Aging Project brings together a community of dogs, owners, veterinarians, researchers, and volunteers to advance this understanding.”

This project seeks to understand how genes, lifestyle, and environment influence lifespan and healthspan, the period of life spent free from disease. It will enroll 10,000 companion dogs and their owners from across the U.S. Learn more at dogagingproject.org.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

How to ‘Chews’ the Best Dog Chew Toys

Pet stores often carry an overwhelming number of dog chew options, from rawhides and antlers to rubber toys and ropes. With so many choices, how do you know which is the best for your dog?Dog chewing toy

To help with this decision, Dr. Lori Teller, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, weighs the pros and cons of the most common types of dog chews.

Teller describes dogs as “innate chewers” that enjoy having some sort of dog chew or toy to sink their teeth into. From a young age, they often “explore the world with their mouths,” so it is better to give them their own chew toys rather than sacrifice your shoes and furniture.

“Chewing can help relieve stress and anxiety, keep their teeth clean, and keep their minds stimulated,” she said. “Puppies also chew to relieve the pain and irritation of teething.”

While there are countless dog chew options on the market, the most common include rawhides, real bones and antlers, pig ears, and chew toys made from nylon or rubber.

“Rawhides can help limit plaque and tartar buildup, keep jaw muscles strong, and potentially slightly freshen a dog’s breath,” Teller said. “Look for rawhides sourced from American beef and processed in the U.S.”

While rawhide has its benefits, it can also cause some problems that dog owners need to watch out for. Some dogs develop gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, or diarrhea after chewing rawhides, and others may chew off pieces that can become choking hazards or create intestinal blockages.

Rawhides approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council tend to be safer and cause fewer problems, Teller said.

“It is also important to pick a rawhide chew that is the right size and shape for your dog to minimize these risks,” she said. “In multi-dog households, separate the dogs when giving chew treats to eliminate potential competition or the urge to gulp down a treat before another dog can steal it.”

Real bones, antlers, and hooves can seriously injure dogs if pieces splinter off and cause obstruction or puncture wounds. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also warns owners against giving dogs these chews because bones can cause cuts in the mouth and fracture teeth.

“When antlers became popular as dog chews, veterinarians and veterinary dentists noticed an uptick in the number of fractured teeth they were seeing and started cautioning owners to avoid these chews for their dogs,” Teller said.

Most dogs enjoy the strong scent of pig ears, but these chews are frequently contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella, which can be dangerous for both dogs and people who come into contact with the chews.

Finally, while chew toys made from nylon and rubber can be good options, they can also be dangerous if a dog begins to tear off and eat pieces that are too large to pass through the gastrointestinal tract.

“Remove any toy that has reached the size where it can become a choking hazard or cause an intestinal obstruction,” Teller said. “If your dog chews off large pieces of the toy and swallows them, then that toy should also be taken away.”

Teller recommends testing nylon toys by trying to indent them with a thumbnail and avoiding extremely hard options that could break teeth. For both these and rubber toys, make sure to buy an appropriate size toy; larger dogs have been known to swallow or choke on small toys.

Similarly, rope toys can be a lot of fun for dogs but should only be played with under supervision. When ropes begin to fray, remove them to avoid pieces of string getting stuck in the dog’s gastrointestinal tract.

While some dog chews are better than others, it may still take time to find the best option for your pup. Keep in mind the potential health concerns and focus on finding a safe option that will allow your dog to be a happy and healthy chewer.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

The Benefits of a Balanced Microbiome

The term “gut microbiome” is often used to refer to all the organisms—including bacteria, viruses, and fungi—that live in an animal’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. For people and pets, these organisms have a large impact on the health of both the GI tract and the entire body.Dog eating

Dr. Audrey Cook, an associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the importance of a dog’s gut microbiome and the consequences if it were to become altered or imbalanced.

“The sheer number of organisms in a healthy gut is tremendous; any one of us has more organisms living in our GI tract than there are people on the face of the earth,” Cook said. “Although we used to think that those bacteria were just along for the ride, we now know that they play a key role in maintaining health.”

Scientists have yet to discover the gut microbiome’s full impact, but they do know that it plays a large role in a dog’s overall health and well-being, impacting GI tract function, nutrient absorption, immune status, body condition, and many important hormonal responses.

Cook compared a healthy microbiome to an ecosystem, such as a coral reef or rainforest, where organisms work both independently and in relationship with each other.

Unfortunately, many things can disrupt this complex system of microorganisms, creating a condition called dysbiosis.

“These disruptors include many medications, particularly antibiotics; infection with GI tract pathogens; changes in diet; anesthesia; stress; and starvation,” Cook said. “It can take a long time for the microbiome to return to normal after an upset.”

Though the full impact of dysbiosis is still unknown, Cook said there are a variety of symptoms that can occur because of the condition.

“Dysbiosis can result in weight loss, bloating, flatulence, poor appetite, and changes in stool consistency, such as diarrhea,” she said. “Some research in other species suggests that an abnormal microbiome may also contribute to numerous non-GI disorders, including obesity, mental illness, and type 2 diabetes.”

To avoid the effects of an unbalanced microbiome, Cook says there are several ways to foster a healthy community of gut microorganisms in a dog.

First, she recommends avoiding the unnecessary use of antibiotics, because even a short course of antibiotics can have a big impact on the gut microbiome. Antibiotics are prescribed to kill bad bacteria that cause illness or infection, but they also kill good gut bacteria in the process.

“Feeding a consistent, high-quality diet is also helpful, and we certainly want to avoid introducing pathogens such as Salmonella by feeding raw foods,” Cook said.

Probiotics are live, good microorganisms found in some foods and supplements that can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. Many veterinary products claim to contain probiotics, but dog owners should consult with a veterinarian before choosing one of these options, as some are poorly researched.

Similarly, some dog foods contain prebiotics, such as soluble fibers that feed good bacteria, but there is only limited evidence of these foods effectively improving the health of the gut microbiome.

While feeding your dog and giving medications, pay attention to the effect they may be having on the gut microbiome. Though an altered microbiome can have negative consequences, a GI tract full of good microorganisms can be the key to a healthy dog.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

Detecting the Subtle Signs of Pain

The first step in caring for a sick or injured animal is being able to recognize the signs of pain that indicate something is wrong. Acute pain tends to be easier to identify, but chronic pain can have a variety of less-noticeable symptoms.

To help pet owners recognize these symptoms, Dr. Daniel Eckman, a veterinarian at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the most common indicators of pain in cats and dogs.Cat licking its paw

“Signs of chronic pain in cats may include a reluctance to jump or a change in jumping, a change in overall mobility, a change in sleeping locations or positions, and the inability to get comfortable when laying down,” Eckman said.

Chronic pain may cause cats to have changes in appetite or thirst and to use the litter box less often, especially if it has a high rim to climb over. Odd grooming behavior, such as excessive licking, biting and scratching at one spot, or lack of grooming, can also indicate that a cat is in pain.

Cat owners may notice more subtle behavioral changes, as well, such as odd facial expressions, increased vocalization, or a reluctance to be petted.

Similarly, dogs also tend to be more withdrawn while in pain and may even show aggression when approached or touched.

“Signs of chronic pain in dogs may include limping, difficulty getting up or down from a lying position, changes in jumping ability, restlessness, and difficulty walking on a slippery floor or going up and down stairs,” Eckman said.

Like cats, dogs may also exhibit odd grooming behaviors or facial expressions, and may even pant or tremble when in pain.

“Determining the cause of pain may be difficult, so it is best to team with your veterinarian to identify the sources of pain and the best ways of treating it,” Eckman said.

Dogs and cats often have the natural instinct to hide signs of pain, as this would keep them alive in the wild, so it is very important that pet owners know the subtle signs of pain and take pets to a veterinarian if they exhibit any signs.

Eckman recommends visiting the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management blog (https://ivapm.org/pet-owner-blog/) for more information on recognizing signs of pain in cats, dogs, large animals, and exotic pets.

Our pets may not be able to verbally communicate with us, but they do have their own ways of telling us when they need help. As pet owners, it is our job to recognize those behavioral changes and do what we can to keep our animals free from pain.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

Watch Out For Canine Eye Conditions

Vision may not be a dog’s strongest sense, but it still plays an important role in daily life. A dog’s eye health can deteriorate because of aging or disease, so dog owners should be aware of the various eye issues that can occur.Dog starting out sadly

Dr. Lucien Vallone, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, specializes in ophthalmology and regularly treats eye conditions in dogs.

Vallone said there are three main categories of canine eye problems: diseases of the ocular surface, diseases that cause inflammation within the eye, and glaucoma.

Diseases of the eye’s surface impact the conjunctiva—the mucous membrane over the eye—and the cornea—the clear, protective outer layer of the eye. Vallone said these diseases include inflammation of the cornea, dry eye, and eyelid abnormalities.

The second category is diseases that cause inflammation within the eye, collectively called uveitis.

“Uveitis is often linked to diseases that affect the dog’s body systemically, like certain tumors or infections,” Vallone said.

Lastly, glaucoma occurs when there is increased pressure inside the eye, resulting in loss of vision. He said this is one of the most common causes of pain and blindness in dogs.

A dog experiencing any of these eye conditions will usually have red, squinty eyes that leak discharge. If the dog has reduced vision, it may also have altered behavior, such as a reluctance to climb stairs or go outside.

“These signs might occur more frequently at nighttime, rather than daytime,” Vallone said. “These subtleties may help a veterinarian discern one cause of vision loss from another.”

If a dog is diagnosed with any of these eye conditions, its veterinarian may recommend medical, surgical, or even supplemental therapies. Common supplements are believed to provide beneficial antioxidant effects to the lens and retina within the eye.

“These effects may help to delay or prevent several progressive and degenerative diseases of the eye,” Vallone said, though he added that more research is needed before these effects can be proven.

He said many causes of eye discomfort or vision impairment are correctable, especially if treated early. If you suspect your dog has any eye conditions or if you notice any indications of vision loss, see a veterinarian for a diagnosis.

Fortunately, if a dog does become blind, either from aging or an eye condition, it is not as serious as some may believe. Dogs are excellent at using their noses and ears to navigate and are great at re-learning how to do things after losing their sight.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.