Aging Gracefully: Preventative Care Tips for Mature Dogs

An Interview with Dr. Sarah Wooten

By Si Si Penaloza

As veterinary medicine advances, our pets are living longer. That means more pet owners are dealing with the issues that come with age. Sometimes it is hard to tell if a new behavior is emotional, mental or physical in nature. While the cost of advanced medical treatment may be prohibitive for many, it is becoming more widely available and pet health insurance can help defray the costs of cutting-edge therapy.

To help our readers gain insight into canine aging, we connected with certified veterinary journalist Dr. Sarah Wooten. Dr. Wooten is an animal veterinarian, author, speaker, and communications consultant. She is also a mom, proud dog owner, tea tavern owner, and expert contributor to Greeley Tribune, Vetted, Firstline, the Bark, and Vetstreet. Dr. Wooten speaks on leadership, work life balance and wellness. She practices at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital in Greeley, Colorado.

As my dog ages, are there mood or behavioral changes I should look for?

I always say that old age is not a disease. There is no reason why a 13-year-old dog should not have the same zest for life as a 2-year-old dog. If your dog’s behavior changes as he ages, that is indicative of underlying pathology that is interfering with your dog’s quality of life. Increased grumpiness, sleeping, loss of interest in activities that used to bring him joy—these are all signs that something is not right under the hood, and a local veterinarian should be consulted. The most common cause of such symptoms is undetected arthritis pain. It is currently estimated that over 20 million dogs in the United States suffer from arthritis pain, and that number is believed to be underestimated because the signs of pain can be so subtle.  Other causes of behavioral change in older dogs include hormonal conditions such as hypothyroidism and Cushings disease, and dementia.

What are the most common medical problems with older dogs?

Far and away the most common condition seen in older dogs is osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease. Other common diseases seen in older dogs include obesity (that is a big one – no pun intended), hormonal conditions, and cancer.

Why is the proper bed so vital for aging dogs or dogs recovering from surgery?

For aging dogs or dogs recovering from surgery, lack of a sufficient rest period is a major obstacle to a good quality of life and optimal recovery. Poor sleep quality is associated with a continuous activation of the 2 major components of the stress system: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. That is not good for older dogs or for healing!

When you’re awake, neuromuscular activity and awareness help to protect joints from injury—when you’re conscious, you will automatically stop doing anything that causes your body pain. When you’re asleep, that protection goes away as the force of gravity takes over, pushing joints into hard surfaces, and that can cause pain to arthritic joints. The force of gravity is sufficient to deform soft tissues, including muscles and joints, even when the body is resting. This is well documented in humans to cause back pain, and the same is true for your dog. Pain causes stress, which contributes to lack of sleep, which causes further stress. It’s a vicious cycle. A bed that is calibrated to properly support a dog’s body weight goes a long way to preventing pain. Remember that it is common for dogs to sleep for upwards of 12 hours per day! So the right bed is absolutely critical.

Providing a supportive sleep surface for dogs who are debilitated from age or surgery is necessary to counteract the forces of gravity that can cause pain, reduce sleep quality, and delay healing.

What should I be looking for when selecting the ideal orthopedic bed for my dog?

The most important thing is that your dog’s joints are cushioned properly from hard surfaces, which is why Big Barker beds are considered the gold standard. They have been clinically proven to reduce pressure points and protect sensitive joints from hard floors. It is also important to make sure you buy a bed that is made in the USA, as Chinese foam beds are notorious for being contaminated with lead and other toxins. Finally, the bed should have a warranty that guarantees that the foam won’t flatten.

How much does my dog’s dominant sleep position – sprawler, spooner, belly up, belly down, bagel style –  influence what kind of bed is best for them?

Ha ha, what a great question! The position your dog sleeps in will influence the size of bed he or she will need. If you have a sprawler, then you will need a bigger bed! Think about how your dog sleeps in all seasons. During winter, my dog curls up for warmth, and in the summer, she sprawls like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

What is the benefit of the bolster feature on an orthopedic bed?

It’s a comfort feature for the dogs. Some dogs like resting their heads on top of it, others (like mine) use it as more of a butt-rest. The headrest isn’t needed for joint support, but it can make the dog feel more protected and can allow a dog to get into several different comfy positions!

 Photo: Big Barker

What kind of fabric covering is ideal for an orthopedic dog mattress?

As far as your dog is concerned, they need a fabric that’s soft and breathable. If air is able to flow through the cover and through the foam, it won’t trap body heat, and your dog will stay cool.  Just as important, though, you want a dog bed that looks great in your home and looks like a piece of high-end furniture that fits in well with your decor.

To serve all those needs, the best choice is microfiber, which is a soft, durable, attractive fabric that’s often used as upholstery. A high-end microfiber will get compliments from guests and keep your dog cool and comfortable. Just be careful of low-grade microfiber. High-end microfiber isn’t cheap, so if you see a dog bed that’s $100 or less that claims to be using microfiber, there’s a good chance it won’t feel as plush and could possibly fall apart or break down over time.

What are some things I can do to make it easier for my dog as they get older?

The first-ever canine lifetime diet restriction study showed that dogs maintained in lean body condition throughout their lives can extend their medial life span by 15 percent – 1.8 years. Studies also show that you can reduce the signs of arthritis by up to 25% by weight loss alone! Moral of the story is to not let your dog get fat.

Starting your dog on glucosamine hydrochloride, chondroitin sulfate, and a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid will not only protect joints but also promote kidney, skin, and heart health. Talk with your veterinarian about a dosage for your dog. In addition to weight management, a healthy diet, and high-quality supplements, make sure your dog gets moderate exercise every day—maintaining muscle mass is necessary to prevent frailty syndrome in older dogs. Frailty syndrome is exactly what it sounds like – a common and important geriatric syndrome characterized by age-associated declines in physiologic reserve and function across all organ systems, leading to increased vulnerability for adverse health outcomes. Keep muscles strong, weight lean, and eat a healthy diet— same advice as for humans!

Do I need to change my dog’s diet as they age?

As long as your dog does not have any medical conditions that would require a therapeutic diet, such as kidney disease, then it is not necessary to change to a “senior diet.” Any high-quality diet that is formulated for all life stages is appropriate for healthy senior dogs as well.

Do you ever prescribe supplements to help keep joints healthy? What innovations are you seeing on this front, on nutraceuticals for aging pets?

Yes – absolutely I do! I just went to a continuing education seminar from orthopedist Dr. Brunke, and here is what he had to say:

Glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate are still two of the best joint supplements available for dogs. These supplements have been tested in clinical trials to be as effective as prescription strength pain medications; the only difference is they take longer to be effective. Some dogs may still need some pain medication, and other dogs may be able to come off pain medication completely.  I also recommend omega 3 fatty acids to my patients – 5,000 mg EPA and DHA per day for large dogs (75 pounds or larger). The amount of omega-3 fatty acids present in most commercial dog foods (regular dog food, not a joint therapeutic diet) is not high enough to benefit dogs with arthritis. Avocado Soybean Unsaponifiables (ASUs) 300 mg every 3 days is also a good supplement.

I let pet owners know that it will take 6-8 weeks to see effects from joint supplements, and they need to continue giving regular pain medication during that time, and then see if they can reduce the dosage of pain medication after the initial 6-8 weeks. In large breed dogs, I recommend starting joint supplements early to protect cartilage and provide the maximum benefit – you can start as early as 6 months with the supplements I listed above.

As far as anti-aging supplements and medicine, this is a relatively new area in veterinary medicine, but an exciting one. Helping pets age successfully should be a prime goal in the overall management of veterinary patients. The earlier that proactive measures are taken, the higher likelihood that we will reach those goals. Even in dogs with disease and chronic inflammation, researchers are discovering new ways of helping the body to heal and repair.

Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, healthy diet and exercise are still the best way to promote healthy aging. As far as other supplements, an exciting area of research for me is supplements that support the body at a cellular level. Emerging science of the Nuclear factor-like 2, also known as NFE2L2. Activation of the Nfr2 pathway triggers DNA to produce antioxidant enzymes, inflammatory proteins, and detoxification genes, which is basically a switch that gets turned one so that cells can protect themselves. These protective pathways in almost all areas of health. One supplement that is using this research is Petandim, which I just recently learned about. I don’t have any experience with the supplement; however, the research looks very promising.

The human to pet relationship is more emotionally deep and complex than ever before. Pet parents are increasingly taking time off work to care for aging dogs, and so much of our happiness and joy comes from all the endearing little things our pets do. What advice do you have for humans with aging emotional support pets?

As far as care of aging pets, the same principles apply – by starting early and adopting good habits, you have a much higher likelihood of helping your pet age gracefully.

 Dr. Sarah Wooten

Diet:

Feed your dog a balanced, top quality dog food. Supplement with fruits and veggies, and use my above recommendations for supplements.

Exercise:

Old human beings decline because they don’t keep up their muscle mass, which is why cardio and strength training is so important for healthy aging. As long as your dog’s pain is controlled, exercise him or her every day moderately for 30 minutes to an hour.

Weight Control:

Fat pets don’t live as long and suffer twice as much chronic pain. Keep your dog thin to improve quality of life.

Veterinary care:

While senior pets have reduced risk of infectious disease or trauma as compared to their younger counterparts, they are at increased risk of chronic disease, cancer, and arthritis. Make sure to take your senior dog in at least yearly for a checkup, and follow the veterinarian’s recommendations for lab work and other treatments. One of the most common and sadly most preventable causes of decreased quality and quantity of life is dental disease – periodontal disease allows bacteria from the mouth into the bloodstream, where it increases wear and tear on the internal organs. Keeping your pet’s mouth healthy is a necessary part of dental care – even old pets deserve to have healthy mouths!

Pain control:

a large percentage of older dogs suffer in silence from arthritis. Dogs react different to chronic discomfort than humans – they typically don’t complain, they just ‘slow down’. If your dog has arthritis, then you can greatly improve quality of life with pain medication, physical therapy, laser therapy, or the joint supplements I already mentioned.

Pet Insurance:

Most of the pet parents I know would do anything for their pets if money weren’t an obstacle. With pet insurance, the money concern goes away, the pet gets the care that he needs, and the pet parents feel good that they are taking care of their best friend. I highly recommend pet insurance – it is a cheap way to save lives and preserve the human animal bond.