Health Problems in Old Dogs

The family pet has never been better looked after in terms of disease prevention through vaccination and in its nutrition. As a result, the domestic dog is now living longer and certain problems peculiar to old age are more frequently encountered by the veterinarian.

Signs that your dog is getting old

The aging process is not obvious in the dog that you see constantly. Only if you are away for a considerable time does the sudden realization occur that the dog you acquired when the children were young is now showing its age.

Grayness around the muzzle, eyes less bright, slowness when getting up, and wasting of the muscles of the limbs are all signs of the aging process. The old dog tends to sleep much of the day but still looks forward to going for a walk, and regular exercise is important in keeping joints mobile and in maintaining muscle lone.

Vision Loss

In summer, delay the walk until the cool of the evening, but in winter try and walk in the daylight hours, as in dim light the eyesight is usually impaired and the outing will not be so enjoyable.

Old dogs become very attached to the routine of the family and its surroundings. As their sight diminishes they are still very capable of living a normal life provided they are not suddenly placed in a strange environment.

Take care with traffic as the ability to judge distances from moving cars will probably also be diminished. Hearing is also impaired in the old dog, so that your commands or words of warning may go unheeded.

Bad teeth

One of the most likely sources of discomfort for your old dog or cat is its teeth. Frequently scaly deposits collect on the teeth and as these build up the gum recedes and exposes the tooth roots.

Infection soon occurs and the tooth becomes loose and painful. Bad teeth can affect the animal’s general health, and it is important to have your veterinarian check the teeth regularly and if necessary remove the scaly deposits.

Heart disease

As with humans, heart disease is common in old dogs. Obesity and lack of exercise play a role in making the dog more susceptible to pathological changes in the heart muscle and blood vessels.

Certain breeds such as Pekingese, bulldogs, and Pomeranians seem to have an inherited predisposition to cardiac defects. Decreased tolerance to exercise and excessive panting in hot weather are early warning signs. It is a good idea to seek veterinary advice if you observe these signs.

Dieting changes such as lowering of the salt content and reduction of weight can prolong the pet’s life, and if necessary, drugs are prescribed which prevent excessive fluid accumulation and aid the action of the heart.

Kidney disease

In cats heart disease is not so common, in this species the organ that tends to show signs of degeneration as the animal ages is the kidney. It is thought that infections early in life may reduce the number of functioning kidney cells.

Another factor may be the concentrated protein diet of the cat places great demands on the kidney as compared with other species that exist on a less protein-rich diet.

Early signs of kidney disease are an increased thirst, loss of weight, and a foul-smelling breath often associated with a brown discoloration of the teeth.

Kidney tissue does not regenerate, but alterations in the diet to reduce the protein concentration, Vitamin B supplements, and possibly antibiotics to treat any associated kidney infection can all aid the kidneys to maintain adequate function.

The diet of old dogs may have to be modified. The muscles of the intestinal tract and the cellular lining become less efficient and cannot cope with large amounts of food. It is preferable to feed an aged animal twice daily.

Avoid large numbers of bones, particularly cooked bones, as they may lead to constipation. An extra vitamin supplement of some of the B group is helpful. This may be supplied in the form of yeast tablets, if your animal is not a milk-drinker a fat-soluble vitamin supplement such as cod-liver oil may be added.

Enlarged prostate gland

Aged male dogs can develop an enlarged prostate gland. With increasing age, the balance of the various breakdown products of the male hormone may change, and it is probably the long-term influence of one of these substances that causes a change in the normal cells that make up the prostate gland.

In the young animal, the prostate gland is situated above the penis and is outside the abdominal cavity. As the animal ages, the cells increase in size and the whole gland enlarges until it protrudes into the abdominal cavity below the rectum.

The further enlargement causes signs of discomfort when the dog has a full rectum and when it is straining to pass a bowel motion. Eventually, the pain may become so intense that the dog avoids defecating and becomes constipated.

Anal adenoma

Another condition of the aged male dog is the anal adenoma. These are growths that arise in the tissues surrounding the anus. Certain breeds such as wire-haired fox terriers, beagles and spaniels seem most prone to develop anal adenomas.

The growths begin as small swellings, usually in the segment of the anus nearest the base of the tail. They are not painful and gradually increase in size until they can be the size of a large walnut. When enlarged the skin surface is prone to ulcerate and may bleed profusely. Once ulcerated, infection occurs, producing a foul-smelling discharge, which attracts flies and which is intensely irritating to the dog.

As with enlargements of the prostate, these changes are associated with the male hormone balance. Treatment of prostatic enlargements and adenomas is similar and is aimed at reducing the secretion of the male hormone, or testosterone.

In the past, castration was always performed and injections of the female hormone, or estrogens, were given. Enlargement of the prostate usually responds quite quickly to this combination, but where a very large anal adenoma has formed surgical removal is necessary.

Recently an alternative to castration has become available. A chemical compound which inhibits the production of male hormone by the testicle and the pituitary gland has been developed.

Injections twice or three times a year are sufficient to keep the level of male hormones to low levels, thus simulating the effect of castration. This substance does not have the undesirable side effects of feminization that injections of female hormones had over long periods.

Mammary tumors

Mammary tumors are commonly seen in aged female dogs that have not been desexed. These tumors vary considerably in size and shape and can occur in more than one mammary gland. Many tumors are quite localized at first and are small, hard swellings in the substance of the gland. Occasionally a softer and more rounded tumor may appear which increases rapidly in size.

Mammary tumors are comparatively easily removed surgically before they become too large. Untreated, some tumors become so large that they reach the ground or hinder the movements of the hind legs. Not only is surgery more complicated in these cases, but there is a likelihood that secondary growths have spread to other vital organs.

As with the tumors affecting the male dog, early consultation with your veterinarian as soon as you notice any abnormalities will save your pet much discomfort and the need for extensive surgical intervention.


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Hannah Elizabeth is an English animal behavior author, having written for several online publications. With a degree in Animal Behaviour and over a decade of practical animal husbandry experience, Hannah's articles cover everything from pet care to wildlife conservation. When she isn't creating content for blog posts, Hannah enjoys long walks with her Rottweiler cross Senna, reading fantasy novels and breeding aquarium shrimp.

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