As a dog grows older, like a human, they go through not only changes that can be seen but also internal and behavioural changes.
At first it is easy to spot an ageing dog, their muzzles and sometimes whole face is greying, they move slower and with less intent and they respond to noises slower( if at all ). But all the obvious changes are only the tip of the iceberg. The ageing process is inevitable for all species. It effects individuals differently and for some earlier than others. You cannot influence the “blueprint” for life span but you can make sure that you help your dog reach its maximum life span with as much comfort as possible. Life span is decided genetically but external influences such as environment or disease can dramatically reduce this.
Before discussing how can help we must understand the process.
Firstly an older dog’s brain is 25% lighter than when he was younger. When he was younger & fitter he was able to transmit information in the Brain at around 225 miles an hour, now he is down to 50 miles per hour. The cells in his Brain stay stimulated for longer periods of time which then means they temporarily cannot receive or process new information, this effects short term memory which in turn makes learning new things more difficult. Dulling reaction times and giving us the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.
Little micro haemorrhages can occur in the Brain which in turn can make older dogs more irritable when disturbed and also slower in obeying, orientation and learning.
The Pituitary Gland, which is responsible for the production of growth hormones, production is greatly reduced. This is the main reason for the ageing process.
All these changes take place in the Brain but there are also changes internally. Kidneys are often impaired with old age resulting in less concentrated urine and the necessity to drink more. The Liver in some dogs accumulates fat which is sometimes secondary to Diabetes. The Lungs and Heart function less well which inevitably reduces the supply of Oxygen and Blood, since this is the Brains main source of energy it will affect the function of it.
Along with these changes there are also sensory changes; Hearing is no longer as sensitive to higher end sounds. Eyesight becomes hazy and taste loses its intensity. However the sense of smell does remain.
In view of the physical changes a dog goes through you can to some extent prepare them when they are younger to help in the later years. I personally teach all my puppies hand signals for basic commands such as sit, stay, down, come & leave. I constantly switch from vocal to hand signal so they are kept familiar with them. This will help if my dogs encounter hearing problems in old age. Keeping a dog energetic and stimulated at all times through his life has been scientifically proven to increase life span. Lots of exercise and mental work outs can only be healthy. I also believe that a good quality diet will also help prevent health problems; it wouldn’t be healthy for me to eat convenience foods constantly throughout my life so make sure that your dog has a good organic meal. Make teeth brushing a daily grooming procedure as tooth decay in older dogs can lead to all sorts of painful scenarios.
As well as preparation a good owner of an elderly dog must be able to offer empathy to their age. It will take them longer to get to where they need to go, walks are important but should be kept short and more often rather than for long distances. With exercise you will get the heart rate going which in turn will increase oxygen levels; which as already mentioned is the Brains source of energy. It is important that the elderly are still allowed to socialise but make sure that they are comfortable so that they don’t become irritated by adolescents. Like elderly people, just because it takes a little more time to understand things there is no need to treat them as if they are stupid, teach them new things but remember it will take longer but that in its self can be part of the fun. Feeling secure in your patience again can only increase an aging dog’s confidence.
When at home ensure a good comfortable bed that is in a quiet spot, older dogs can be reactive if woken up unexpectedly. If you need to waken them, make sure you don’t startle and give an extra few minutes for them to come around, get their bearings and get mobile. If they have bad joint function, a towel around the tummy to create a sling is a good way of helping take the weight if necessary.
Potential homes for older rescue dogs can be difficult to find because of the trend that older dogs cannot learn or adjust. They certainly can learn new things and easily become part of a new family, it only requires a little more time and patience. I dog walk for a family that over the years have taken on three dogs over the age of ten. I have learnt that they fit in perfectly well and go on to lead very fulfilling lives with the correct environment.
I personally feel that just because they are getting older, which is a natural progression for everything living, doesn’t mean that they are finished. I would hate for society to chastise me for something I could not help. If kept stimulated and cared for any owner can give their dog the gift to live to their full potential.