10 Common Health Problems in Senior Dogs
10 Common Health Problems in Senior Dogs
At what age are dogs considered senior?
Dogs are typically considered to be ‘senior’ at age 7. There are a few exceptions and variances to this rule, however.
Larger or giant breed dogs, such as Great Danes, Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shepherds, St Bernard’s and Irish Wolfhounds, have a shorter life expectancy of around 8-10 years. Therefore, these breeds would be considered senior between ages 5 and 6 and can start experiencing some common health problems.
On the other hand, smaller breeds of dog tend to live a bit longer. Therefore, they would be considered senior that little bit later.
As a general rule though, you can expect your dog to be considered a ‘senior’ at around 7 years old.
So, what are some of the common health problems affecting older dogs?
1. Lumps and Growth
One of the most common conditions older dogs suffer from is lumps and growths. The more technical term for these would be neoplasia or tumours.
A lump is an abnormal cell or tissue growth that can range from being diagnosed as benign in nature or malignant.
It’s not uncommon for a puppy to develop lumps but typically, they are more common in older dogs.
To diagnose the nature of any growth or lump, veterinarians will assess the growth and ideally, take a sample, to determine the cause and whether it may be cancerous.
Dependant on its location and the results of the sampling, it may be recommended for the growth to be left alone without treatment – or removed. If found to be malignant or cancerous, further testing will be completed to see whether it’s likely to have spread.
If you do find a lump or growth on your dog, always seek veterinarian advice as early as possible. Early detection and treatment greatly increase your dog’s chances of a full recovery.
2. Degenerative Joint Disease
Osteoarthritis, otherwise known as degenerative joint disease, is the loss or wearing down of the protective cartilage layer in the joint. It occurs with age and is typically due to some form of underlying condition.
Joint problems can include hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia along with injuries, such as ligament damage, that can cause arthritis.
The signs of arthritis vary depending on the severity. Early indicators may include signs of stiffness, reduced tolerance of exercise, difficulty getting up and down, particularly after being down for a little while, imbalance, or reluctance to play.
When signs of advanced progression appear, you can expect to see limping and reluctance to bear weight on the affected leg or joint.
More often than not, mild arthritis goes unnoticed until more physical signs of discomfort are detected.
Management strategies for Osteoarthritis includes weight control (being overweight places more strain on the joints), gentle exercise, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. Swimming is great for rebuilding muscle strength.
Further treatment may include joint supplements (glucosamine or fish oil), anti-inflammatories and injections.
3. Heart Murmurs or Heart Disease
Heart disease is the general term used to describe a cardiac condition. Heart murmurs are classified as abnormal turbulent blood flow within the heart and are the most common heart conditions.
Heart murmurs are not always age related and can be congenital. Signs that may indicate your older pet may have a heart murmur or a heart disease could be an increased respiratory rate, fatigue, reluctance to exercise and in more severe cases coughing or shortness of breath.
The typical age of onset can depend on the cause. However, the most common type of murmur that we see, particularly in small dogs, happens at around 5 or 6 years of age.
Many heart murmurs aren’t always visibly apparent and are only picked up upon routine examination. Another reason we recommend that we see all dogs at least once a year, if not twice.
Diagnostics for heart murmurs and heart disease typically include an ultrasound and/or x-rays of the heart. Treatment and management options include medication, lifestyle and dietary adjustments and in some cases, surgery.
4. Hepatitis or Liver disease
Hepatitis describes inflammation of the liver. The clinical signs can often be vague, and you may notice signs such as poor appetite, weight loss, increased urination, increased thirst, bloated appearance to the belly or abdomen.
In end stage liver disease, you may see visible signs of discoloration or yellowing of the gums and the extremities that occurs when the liver is starting to fail.
It’s rare for it to get to this stage however, as most dog owners will notice the earlier signs, such as the animal going off their food, and seek earlier veterinarian advice.
Hepatitis can generally be seen around 7 years onwards and treatment will depend on the underlying cause.
What predisposes dogs to hepatitis?
There are several reasons why your dog may have developed hepatitis. This may include infections, certain medications, exposure to certain toxins, growths in the liver or idiopathic (cause unknown).
While your veterinarian will conduct a full health check and screenings to what has caused your pet to develop hepatitis, they may suggest modifying your pets’ diet and recommend you avoid any medications that could be harmful to the dog’s liver functioning.
5. Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease)
Hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s disease is characterised by the abnormally high production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. It can be caused by a problem with the adrenal gland itself, or a problem with another gland such as the pituitary gland stimulating the adrenal glands to overproduce these hormones.
Age of onset is usually between 5 and 10 years. Clinical signs can obscure but you may notice increased urination, increased thirst, increased appetite, changes to the coat or the hair (loss of hair or thinning hair), abdominal bloating, becoming tired or weak and excessive panting.
Hyperadrenocorticism is diagnosed by running a set of blood tests. This condition can be treated quite effectively with long term medication.
Hypothyroidism is a disease characterised by abnormally low levels of thyroid hormones. The thyroid hormones are what dictate an animal’s metabolism or metabolic rate. When the thyroid levels are low, the metabolic rate is reduced, leading to weight gain and reduced energy.
Some dogs may become intolerant of the cold and might seek out warm areas. There can also be visible thinning or loss of hair particularly in areas where friction occurs – such as the elbows, base of tail or back of the legs.
Typical age of onset would be between 6 and 8 years of age. Luckily, this condition can be effectively treated with medication. Once on medication, owners will often see a significant increase in their pet’s energy levels.
7. Periodontal disease or Dental disease
Dental disease, like in humans, is an infection or damage to the supportive structures around the teeth. It occurs cumulatively over a period of time.
It tends to start with a minor build-up of tartar and progresses to gingivitis. Long-term neglect results in aggressive decay.
We typically see this most often in dogs over 4 or 5 years of age that have not had any care or routine dental management over their earlier years.
Clinical signs include discolouration to the teeth, bad breath, reduced energy and sometimes they will be duller or quieter because of oral pain.
In the later stages of periodontal disease, you may notice visible swellings on the face which is usually the result of an abscess or oral infection.
Age of onset can be any age; we will sometimes see dogs as young as 1 or 2 having dental disease but it is more common in older dogs.
Good dental care, healthy diet, approved dental chews and regular oral hygiene checks is an excellent preventative and maintenance routine to help your dog live their best life.
8. Canine cognitive dysfunction
Canine cognitive dysfunction is a degenerative change in the brain that can occur with age, leading to dysfunction in a number of ways. You may notice that your pet appears to be disorientated, they become forgetful of previous tricks or behaviours, they have a disruptive sleep pattern, or compulsive pacing and vocalising for no reason.
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction will be inclined to withdraw from people and we find this affects dogs 10 years and older.
While treatment options are limited there are many things your veterinarian can recommend in helping to improve your pet’s quality of life. These include medications and a diet that is high in fatty acids and antioxidants. This approach has shown positive results in slowing down the progression of this condition.
Obesity is associated with a dietary imbalance and the result of excessive food, or reduced exercise. It can be associated with hypothyroidism in some cases – but much of the time it is simply excessive weight gain.
An older dog carrying excess weight often has poorer outcomes in a range of conditions, such as heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes – which is commonly associated with obesity.
We can manage this quite effectively with diet modification and a tailored diet plan to help reduce the excess weight safely. Using things like slow feeders, or puzzle feeders is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog without placing emphasis on the quantity of food provided.
Diabetes is the result of reduced insulin production. Insulin is responsible for lowering blood sugar levels, so when we have reduced insulin production, we have excessive glucose levels/ blood sugar levels. This imbalance causes a whole host of problems.
It’s important to seek veterinarian advice if you notice an unusual increase in urination, increased thirst, sometimes increased appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, a bloated abdomen or a rise in skin infections.
Dogs with diabetes often suffer from urinary tract infections and cataracts or white clouding within the eye.
Typical age of onset would be 7-10 years and the condition can be effectively managed with insulin therapy.
There is no cure for diabetes in dogs; it requires life-long management. We teach our dog owners how to give their dogs insulin to effectively manage their blood glucose levels.
How often should elderly dogs come in for a check-up?
We recommend that senior dogs come in for routine check-ups every 6-12 months. Six monthly is ideal, but 12 months should always be considered to be the minimum.
The main consideration to be aware of with elderly pets is that any small condition can escalate quite quickly.
Therefore, a check-up every 6 months when they are in their later years, is certainly sensible.
Early prevention and detection is key to providing your pet with a happy, healthy life, so you can enjoy their company for as long as possible.