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How to Help Your Senior Dog

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

Ketchum just turned 15 years old. Where did the time go? She has changed from a healthy, energetic puppy, trouble shining in her bright eyes, into a frail, pretty deaf, confused dog who struggles to maintain weight and is losing control of her hind legs. So, what can we do, as we see our puppies fade into old age, to help ensure their senior years are as robust and lively as their youth?

First, of course, is veterinary. We cannot beat bad luck and genetics, and cancer, organ failure, and arthritis are tough battles to wage. I will say, I have been lucky so far, in that Ketchum has been healthy throughout. That is absolutely in part due to the food I feed. Not the brand, which has shifted over the years, but rather how much. My dogs all stay lean and fit, and the studies will back me when I say I see fewer health issues including cancer and arthritis in my senior dogs.

Food: As dogs lose muscle mass, they need more protein to help them keep up and retain what they have. But protein is a double-edged sword. Senior dog foods of old were often low in protein and fats, the very thing active seniors need more of. The reason for this is that many senior dogs are not active, and therefore require fewer calories, many of which came through fats, and at the time, we believed that high protein affected kidney health. We have since found out that only animals in active kidney failure require low protein diets (and there is still a bit of a debate about that), but for everyone else, protein is fine, and I would stress, that protein is necessary to help with muscle retention, and mobility.

Ketchum eats the same food every one else does (a 'premium' dog food) but with added meat for protein. The working dogs (Cody, Billy, Tagg, and Matilda) also receive extra meat.

Adventures. Study after study in humans have shown that taking up new hobbies, new adventures, and trying new things helps senior humans' brain function, slows memory loss, slows brain cell death, and improves mood. Ketchum still has adventures, and we still do some fun things with her, even though, with her balance issues they are limited. She still goes down and runs the sheep, we just bring her up to the house before she gets tired. She still runs with the ATVs, we just turn around and put her away before continuing along with the rest of the pack.We introduced free shaping to her at 13, she did her first back packing trip at 12, and started spending lengthy vacations with the neighbor's daughter (and spending time at the local vineyard!) at 13. It's harder for her to get into a car. She can't hear as well, so she has had to pick up hand signals, and all of this is learning, it's requiring the brain to remain elastic and flexible. This will help slow whatever cognitive decline she was going to experience.

For dogs with severe limitations, I suggest scent car rides and field trips. Just roll down the windows and drive by feed lots, bakeries, KFCs, and petting zoos. Let your dog have scent safaris at home with tubs filled with great scents to explore. You can pick up used bedding at pet stores (rodent, lizard, snake, what have you), near beaches you can pick up seaweed, shells, sand, even stinky fish parts. If we think it's gross, they'll love it!

You can set up age appropriate obstacle courses. As dogs age they lose muscle mass quickly, especially, if like Ketchum, they have spondylosis impairing nerve function to the rear limbs. This accelerates muscle loss. I want to keep my dogs up and moving as much as possible, and things like cavaletti, walking in deep sand, or shallow water, swimming, uneven terrain and the like, will preserve this function as much as possible.

Supplements: I have never been a big supplement user, but for my seniors, I will add extra essential fatty acids (EFAs) to their food. I will also ensure they're receiving supplemental turmeric for brain function. I also add more fruits and vegetables to ensure that nutrients are plentiful, varied and available.

Ketchum receives EFAs daily, Tumeric supplements daily, and I try to offer frozen blueberries or dried cranberries daily as well.

Exercise: Excercise can be incredibly hard to maintain for older dogs, especially if they have ouchy joints. If I have a dog who is painful, I will absolutely provide all of the pain relief necessary to help them be as pain-free as possible for as long as possible. If your senior dog is overweight, I cannot stress this enough, cut back their food until that weight is gone. Thin dogs live healthier, happier lives. I would rather my dogs stay active for three more years and die of liver disease from the NSAIDs, than watch them become inactive and crippled for five.

I modify group activities to include Ketchum, She loves the ATV, but the two-four miles we do with the big dogs is out of the question, as is putting her frail bones onto the ATV. So, we take her a quarter of a mile or so, turn around, bring her back, give her food in the house, and take the rest of the dogs for their run. She gets to be a part of the fun.

She does everything the dogs do in the yard and around the ranch, just at her own pace. While the youngsters are racing back and forth like idiots, she just races ahead once.and waits for me to catch up so she can race ahead again.

I no longer ask her to climb to the second floor, but she does climb onto the deck and climb the steps on the various levels in the house.

Younger Dogs: This one is super tough. Many people get puppies for their senior dogs thinking it will make them more active, and sometimes it works, in most cases it doesn't, anymore than having your elderly parent adopt a 10 year old child is a good plan, getting a puppy for a senior is usually a terrible idea.

I got Brisco three months ago, and he is an exuberant, crazy goofus. He risks crashing into Ketchum and knocking her over, and she does not like his over the top energy. He is not permitted to solicit play from her, bum rush her, or run like an idiot in her presence.

I also keep Ketchum insulated from the chaos that is Ruby and Matilda. I want her to be a part of the energy, but not endangered by it.

Old dogs, rightfully, become very frightened of falling, and may have increased sensitivity to fast moving dogs in their proximity. I do not want Ketchum to think that she is in danger in her own yard from the horde of maniacs that inhabit it, so I have taught her to stay near me, where I can create a buffer when I initially let dogs out. She is also the first dog in or out of the door to allow her time to clear it, and to ensure that no one jostles her in their rush to go in or out.

Every day we have with our dogs is a gift to be prized. Ketchum is a dear old hiking partner and friend, and I owe her every bit as much attention as I gave her when her future was bright and full of promise. I owe her an old age that she can enjoy.

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