Senior Dogs: Aging Gracefully

By Dr. Benjamin Hart, DVM,PhD, ACVB


Thanks to improvements in nutrition, medical care and protections from accidental death, our companion animals, like people, are living longer. Just as with people, senior status in dogs is accompanied by behavioral and physical changes.

Geriatric medicine is a field that deals with age-related arthritis, hormone imbalances, visual impairment and loss of hearing. Senior status in dogs is also sometimes accompanied by behavioral changes which may include disorientation, loss of recognition of human family members, onset of fear reactions or loss of house training.

Research is rapidly progressing on preventing or improving the behavioral changes through dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals.

Despite some drawbacks to having a senior dog around the house, there are very rewarding aspects. To many caregivers, older dogs are less excitable and more loving than younger dogs. In compensation for the additional time and expense required, many caregivers feel that old dogs are more faithful and grateful for their care than younger dogs.

The following are some suggestions for making the care of senior dogs easier for you and your dog:

Visual impairment and hearing loss are common. Because deaf dogs cannot hear verbal commands, hand signals should be used. For partial deafness, clapping the hands or stomping the floor is a way of gaining the dog's attention.

People are surprised at how well blind or almost blind dogs navigate a house and may even fool people who don't know about the blindness. Verbal commands can be used for dogs that are partially or completely blind.

Dogs that are impaired in both hearing and sight may require communication through touching parts of the body. You can teach some commands, such as gently tapping the head to mean "come". Remember, the dog can tell where you are by your odor plume.

In older dogs there may be some slippage in signaling to go outdoors, so one should remember to take the dogs outdoors more frequently as a preventative measure. Another idea is to place the sleeping bed near the outer door.

In many cases, older dogs may start moving around in the middle of the night, depriving human family members of a good night's sleep. One way to address this issue is to move the dogs sleeping quarters away from the bedroom, to minimize disturbance to others.

By now you see why it is not uncommon for caregivers of aging dogs to see some similarities between the signs shown by their dogs and a relative suffering from early or mild Alzheimer's disease. The cognitive iimpairment we see in elderly dogs is associated with some of the same changes in the brain as in humans with early Alzheimer's disease, including the accumulation of a protein referred to as beta-amyloid deposits.

We have an ongoing clinical trial at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to assess the effects of dietary supplements, including anitoxidants and substances that protect brain cells, that show promise in laboratory studies to improve behavioral signs of cognitive impairment in elderly dogs. Vist the web site www.vmth.ucdavis.edu/home/beh/dogs/agingdogs.


Reprinted from CCAH Update, Vol. 10, No. 2, Center for Companion Animal Health, UC Davis.