By Kelly Fast
Volunteer, The Grey Muzzle Organization
Increasing Life Expectancy
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published the Geriatric Issue in 2006, observing “America’s pets, like its people, are aging.”
When I was in graduate school recently, I studied aging and wrote about families caring for dependent elders. I knew people were living longer, but I was shocked by the statistics. In 1900, the average human life expectancy at birth in the US was less than 50 years; today, that number is closer to 80 years.
Dogs are living longer too. The official world record for the oldest dog is 29 years, 5 months, held by an Australian cattle dog that was put to sleep in 1939. Many dogs today exceed life expectancy, as owners are increasingly eager to maintain quality of life for aging dogs, and technology and veterinary treatment options have evolved.
I adopted my beagle, Honey, in April 1996 when she was a few months old, expecting that beagles typically live 12-16 years. We celebrated her 16th birthday, and then her 17th birthday, and then her 18th birthday in 2014 with the requisite Facebook fanfare. She made it to 18 and a half, and I marveled at the extra years that we got to spend with her.
Honey’s old age and the senior years of our three other dogs were a special time, but were certainly not without their challenges, both medical and emotional. After saying goodbye to all four of our family pets within an eight month period, our vet sent a bouquet of flowers with a note, “from our family to yours.” We had gotten to know the vet staff well during the last few years of our dogs’ lives.
Changes and Aging Dogs
Dogs experience many changes as they age. One of the most daunting for our family was my little old Pekingese’s habit of pacing at night. My vet called it “sundowning.” We tried many supplements, including melatonin, to no avail, and just had to adjust to disrupted sleep patterns for a time. Other common issues facing senior dogs include:
- Behavioral changes that can indicate a medical condition
- Medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and chronic pain
- Geriatric conditions such as cognitive dysfunction, glaucoma, and osteoarthritis
- Changes in appetite and nutritional needs
Most experts recommend more frequent and thorough examinations for senior dogs. Test results can provide earlier detection of health problems and positively influence individualized care plans, which can include medication, supplements, and treatments such as physical therapy. Findings can also be used to tailor preventative care. As our dogs and their joints aged, mealtimes at our house looked a lot like an assembly line. We would line up all four dogs’ dinner bowls and carefully add glucosamine and fish oil pills to each one. In addition, we found that periodic acupuncture treatments and chiropractic adjustments were helpful with preventing stiffness and soreness.
Owners need to be aware of their pet’s environment and make changes to keep their dogs safe and comfortable, especially as dogs experience vision and hearing changes. We learned that our dogs became less interested in the food that they had relished for years. By making minor adjustments to their meal plan – sometimes adding broth or simply adding variety – we were able to keep them interested in their food and ensure they were properly nourished, too. Nala, the Pekingese, was a notoriously selective eater and had no interest in the chicken livers we once cooked for her. Thankfully, she really did have a soft spot for peanut butter.
Facing the Future
At some point, owners will need to consider end of life care and options for their pets and themselves. Grey Muzzle’s blog post, “Planning Your Dog’s Care for After You’re Gone,” has great tips on how to ensure that your dogs are provided for in the event that something happens to you. Among the suggestions is to prepare for the unexpected. Make arrangements (both temporary and permanent) with family or friends in the event you become ill or incapacitated and are unable to care for your pet. Another great resource is Grey Muzzle’s webinar in which Amy Shever of 2nd Chance 4 Pets outlines options to ensure lifetime care for pets.
In my graduate thesis, I concluded that people need to plan for old age before they become dependent. Thorough planning can help alleviate many problems that face families with dependent elders. The same is true for our senior dogs who rely on us for security, well-being, and love.
References and Further Reading
American Veterinary Medical Association: the Geriatric Issue:
Grey Muzzle blog post:
Grey Muzzle webinar:
The information presented by The Grey Muzzle Organization is for informational purposes only. Readers are urged to consult with a licensed veterinarian for issues relating to their pet's health or well-being, and prior to implementing any treatment.
The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal welfare groups nationwide.