Fig wandered into a friend's house one day many years ago. Unable to find her a home, she became Fritz and Bonnie's dog by default. It was probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to her! As you can see, despite being at least 12 years old, Fig's eyes are still bright and clear. That's a good thing, because you could bang pans together vigorously 3 inches from her ears, and she wouldn't flinch. As the day wears on, especially if she's been active, she begins to limp on one front leg. Pain medication twice a day keeps that in check. Although Bonnie left us a couple of years ago (a very great loss), the sight of Fritz puts joy in her step and a wag in her tail, she eagerly leaps into his truck with absolutely no hesitation when she goes home after a few days with me. Her teeth are clean, her mouth is healthy, and her coat is full and shiny. Fig is the picture of a dog aging gracefully.
Part of this is due to luck and hybrid vigor. Part of it is due to vigilance and a willingness to go the extra mile for a beloved family pet. During clement weather, Fig goes swimming almost every day. She is taken for walks, fed good food (most of it, I'll admit, from Fritz's plate), groomed, and taken to the vet regularly. All of this contributes to her wonderful life. Good health care, and, in my opinion, good dental care, are incredibly important to keeping your dog with you as long as possible.
"Old age" in dogs comes at widely varying times. If you have a small dog, they may be 12 or 13 before you notice any signs. If you have a giant, you may see signs at 5 or 6 years of age. There are many things you can do to keep your dog aging as gracefully as Fig.
- As I've already mentioned, keep up on your dog's oral hygiene. A healthy mouth helps create a healthy dog. Start young and never give up.
- Routine lab work. No one likes to see their dog getting stuck by a needle, but yearly lab work, once your dog hits middle age, is the best way to keep track of what's going on inside. Internal organs are engineering marvels. You generally don't see signs until the damage is fairly severe. So get that blood work done and make sure your dog's liver, kidneys, pancreas, and other organs are functioning normally. The sooner you find out there's a problem, the easier it is to control, generally, and the better the chance of your dog living a long life.
- Lumps and bumps - don't dilly-dally. Get them checked. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe not. A small cancerous growth is easier to remove, less traumatic for your dog, and easier on your bank account. Plus, the sooner it's removed, the better the prognosis. Plus, it's just one more chance for your vet to take a listen to that old heart.
- Don't fall back on that old saw about your dog being too old to undergo anesthesia. Yes. RARELY there may be a problem. But anesthetics these days are very safe, and the dog's are monitored very closely. There's less risk from the anesthetic than there is from letting a problem go untreated.
- Provide the very best diet you can afford, keep your dog at a good weight and regularly exercised, remembering that old bones tire more quickly.
- As your dog ages, cell turnover becomes slower, coat and skin change. Keep you dog clean and brushed. Since your dog may be less active, make sure toe nails are kept trimmed.
Now is also the time to start being just a little more careful in your dog's day-to-day life. This is all about keeping your dog safe, both physically and emotionally. It's also about keeping other people, especially children, safe. Fluffy may be the sweetest thing on four legs, but pain, or the anticipation of it, can change a dog. So:
- Dogs who are losing hearing and vision become more easily startled. Keep that in mind, and handle your dog accordingly. Don't allow children (or anyone else) to come up suddenly on your dog. A startled dog is a bite waiting to happen. Don't put your dog in that position.
- Let sleeping dogs lie. Unless the house is on fire, let Buddy nap. If you have visitors or children around, make it a rule. Until he's up and at 'em, just leave him be.
- Just like an elderly person, your old dog is less physically able to handle stairs and slippery surfaces. As she ages, you may need baby gates or some other means to prevent falls.
- Don't embarrass your dog - even if Fluffy seemed to be all bladder and able to go for hours as a youngster, age may change this. Don't force your old dog to lose her housebreaking. If it takes getting someone to come in and let her out in the middle of the day, do it!
- And finally, don't leave your dog outside unattended for long periods, especially if you don't have a fenced yard. Aging bodies don't have the greatest thermostats, your dog may overheat or become chilled more quickly, and she may not even realize it. Defunct hearing and/or vision can leave your dog feeling lost and alone.
Your dog has been there for you his whole life. Now is the time to return the favor, no excuses. Think Fig, and help your dog age as gracefully as possible.