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.

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