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Older Dogs

Prepare Your Dog for Old Age
Signs of Aging
Diet and Weight
Kidneys and Water Intake
Arthritis andExercise
Daily Hygiene [Eyes, Ears, Nose, Skin, and Teeth]
Heat and Cold

Personality and Behavior
Love and Loyalty
Warning Signs Requiring a Vet Visit

Just as people seem to vary in health and activity level during old age so every dog ages at a slightly different rate from other dogs of its breed. However, between breeds there is a great different in what constitutes "old age". Large dog breeds do age much earlier than smaller ones. A Great Dane will show signs of aging at 6 yrs. A Westie may not slow down until age 12 and may be vigorous until the end at 18 yrs! The best way to ensure that your dog lives a long healthy life is to provide good care in the early years and to safeguard against accidents. [Twice as many dogs die from accidents as from problems of disease or old age.] Back to top

Prepare Your Dog for Old Age
Start preparing for old age when your dog is a puppy. The care a dog receives throughout its life has important bearing on its life span. So, first make sure the dog has the best nutrition possible. For instance, dogs that are fed scraps of people food or other dinners conducive to obesity can be expected to have shorter life spans than those fed well-balanced diets.

A dog that visits its veterinarian regularly and is kept current on its vaccinations, heartworm prevention medication, and parasite checks and, later, routine geriatric blood tests can be expected to live longer than dogs that lack such care. Six-month check ups by your veterinarian for your older Westie will pay big dividends in allowing the doctor to find problems before they become critical or life threatening.

Finally, dogs that are kept outdoors tend to have shorter lives, not only due to greater exposure to adverse weather, disease, and chance for accidental death, but also because they tend to receive less attention from their owners. As a result, the dogs incur problems that go unnoticed until it is too late to treat them. Back to top

Signs of Aging
There are a number of common signs of aging in dogs. The one that Westies, as white-coated dogs, do not experience is the graying of the fur on the muzzle and head.

Owners may notice that their dogs are:

  • Being less active
  • Sleeping more
  • Gaining weight
  • Moving more slowly [arthritis?]
  • Having difficulty standing after lying down [arthritis?]
  • More sensitive to heat and cold
  • Less responsive to verbal commands [hearing?]
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Diet and Weight
An older dog can have an enjoyable life but at this stage some adjustments may need to be made. For instance, a dog whose metabolism has slowed and activity level has dropped may gain weight if his food is not reduced in quantity or in calories. An overweight dog not only may develop heart, kidney, or other health problems but the stress on its joints can lead it to be even less active. For a dog with arthritis, being overweight can mean significant additional pain in its joints.

There are several nutritious dog foods on the market that are made especially for senior dogs. However, before you change your dog's diet, be sure to check in with the veterinarian to see if there is a special diet recommended for your dog's condition, such as one low in salt for heart problems or easily digestible for intestinal trouble. And be sure to count any treats you give your Westie as part of the food total the dog gets each day!

Ideas for reducing a dog's weight [check with your veterinarian first!]

  • Reduce the total amount of the dog's daily diet by 25%
  • Switch to a commercial diet specially for formulated for overweight or senior dogs
  • Substituting low-calorie snacks for the usual between meal treats
  • Increase exercise gradually
  • On the opposite side, an older dog that is losing weight should see the veterinarian right away as this could be a sign of an internal problem. To be able to judge gradual changes, it is best to weigh your Westie twice a month. What is an overweight Westie? You should be able to feel the ribs but not see them. You can also check with your vet to see what weight is best for your particular dog.

If your Westie is less interested in his food, it may be that the senses of smell and taste have diminished. Heating the food will make it more appealing by increasing the scent and flavor. Do not promote finicky eating habits by substituting "fun" food. If the dog does not eat for a couple of days, take him promptly to the veterinarian. Back to top

Kidneys and Water Intake
After obesity, water intake is the most common factor causing problems for older dogs. Older dogs sometimes have kidney problems that cause an increased amount of water to be released when they urinate. To compensate for this loss and prevent dehydration, the dog must drink more water than he used to. [Dehydration can damage many internal organs, cause a build up of toxic by-products in the dog's body, and result in a life-threatening problem.]

So it is very important to always provide fresh clean water. Putting several water bowls around the house is helpful if the Westie doesn't get around as well as he used to. Notice the level of the water in the morning and again at night to make sure he is drinking. Back to top

Arthritis and Exercise
Besides slowing down in general, older dogs often develop arthritis. This is an inflammation of the joints, which makes movement difficult and painful. But ALL older dogs, even arthritic ones, need exercise. In fact, lack of exercise that allows joints to stiffen can make arthritis worse.

It is a good idea to design the exercise program for a senior dog to be gentle and consistent. Walking is easy on a dog; running is hard on its joints. One of the best exercises is swimming. It works the muscles without stressing the joints. Another point to keep in mind is that you should not exercise your Westie hard one day and then skip a day. A consistent amount of gentle exercise daily is more beneficial for a senior dog.

Before any exercise, be sure that all the nails are trimmed properly so that there will be no discomfort to the feet due to nail over growth. Back to top

Daily Hygiene [Eyes, Ears, Nose, Skin, and Teeth]
Daily attention and care from the owner is vital in maintaining a Westie's health. As age related changes occur, many times only the person who has known the dog for years can detect a difference. It is up to you to watch for gradual changes that can lead to problems. As the dog ages, its skin may become either too dry or too oily. Daily brushing will help distribute oils throughout the coat and promote healthier skin.

During the daily brushing can be a good time for you to check your Westie for problems:

  • Are the eyes clear? Or cloudy? Or runny?
  • Are the ears clear? Or brown and waxy? Do they smell?
  • Is the nose clear? Or is there a mucous discharge [not just wet]? Or caked? Or cracked?
  • Is the skin OK? Or is there redness and irritation? Or is there a new bump? Or a tick?
  • Are there any cuts or abrasions on the pads of the paws? Is there any debris between the toes?
  • Is the dog's breath OK? Or foul? Are the teeth clean? Or yellow with plaque? [Not only do plaque laden teeth and inflamed gums lead to bad breath and tooth loss, but bacteria from these sources can enter the blood stream and travel to the heart and kidneys where it sets up an infection. Infection of the heart valves and subsequent heart failure can all too often be traced to periodontal disease.]
  • Finally, is the anal area clean? Or does the fur need to be trimmed? If you do not take care of the grooming for your dog, please make sure to make a note of anything that needs to be done and bring it to the attention of your veterinarian or groomer as soon as possible.
Back to top

Heat and Cold
The older Westie may appreciate comforts that he shunned in his youth. A soft pillow can feel very good underneath old bones. Arthritic dogs appreciate warmth and should have a comfortably warm bed, so moving the dog's sleeping spot nearer to a source of heat in the winter may be a good idea. A senior Westie may also like a sweater on particularly cold days. Older dogs must not be left outside during the winter except on moderately cool days when they can be in the sun. Neither should these seniors be subjected to extended periods in the heat of summer. Allow the Westie out early in the morning and again in the cool of the evening. During the heat of the day, the dog should be indoors in the air-conditioning. Back to top

Personality and Behavior
As the dog ages, he may like change less and less. He may become a bit cranky and intolerant of interruptions [esp. in his rest periods]. You may need to ask visitors, particularly children, to be considerate of your elderly dog. Any dog may be snappish at being disturbed in its bed or while sleeping but an older dog may react quicker if a youngster intrudes. This is very true if the dog is hard of hearing and is not aware of a child approaching its bed.

Senility in elderly dogs is not uncommon. Dogs with heart problems may experience this problem as a result of less oxygen reaching their brain. Liver or kidney problems may also be a cause. A vet visit to discuss the behavior changes is in order. Back to top

Love and Loyalty
Your dog needs you during his later years. He wants only your familiar hand to brush and inspect him and only your voice to call and encourage him. His love and loyalty to his family should be rewarded with daily care, exercise to match his abilities, games to stimulate his brain, and medical care when needed. His last days should be spent in the comfort of familiar surroundings with the people he knows and trusts. Back to top

Warning Signs Requiring a Vet Visit

  • Loss of weight
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased drinking or urinating
  • Bumping into objects
  • Difficulty standing or breathing
  • Blood in the urine or stool
  • Coughing
  • Drooling
  • Reduced response to your voice
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Continued whining with back arched [in pain]

"Book of Dogs" -University of California -Davis School of Veterinary Medicine [published by HarperCollins ISBN: 0-06-270136-3] "Caring for Your Older Dog" -Chris C. Pinney, D.V.M. [published by Barron's ISBN: 0-8120-9149-3] Back to top

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