Cataracts in Senior Dogs

Any opaqueness in the lens of the eye is called a cataract — a small spot that doesn’t initially or significantly affect a dog’s vision. However, most cataracts will progress, cover the entire lens, and ultimately cause blindness. Since the lens is located directly behind the colored iris, as a mature cataract develops, the pupil may appear white. Vision through a mature cataract is like looking through white painted glass. And while cataracts can be the result of injuries or diabetes, most of them are inherited.

Currently, no medications are effective in treating mature cataracts. Treatment requires the surgical removal of the discolored lens material, and once it’s removed, the cataract won’t recur. The name of this procedure is phacoemulsification ultrasound technology.

Phacoemulsification ultrasound technology is used to break up and remove the lens material. It’s then replaced with an artificial lens inserted into a pocket formed by the original lens capsule that remains permanently in the eye. If, however, a weakness in this capsule is detected during surgery, replacing the lens may not be possible. Cataract removal without lens replacement results in a dog’s vision being somewhat blurry, but it’s an improvement over what he was able to see before the operation.

If your dog is having difficulty navigating stairs, if he’s sniffing for treats rather than seeing them, or if he’s not able to fetch or retrieve as well as usual, he may have a cataract in one or both of his eyes. If you either suspect or actually see that your dog has cataracts, consult your vet or a veterinary ophthalmologist to discuss whether or not he’s a candidate for surgery.

Since the surgery is performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist on an OUTPATIENT basis, your dog can go home with you the same day, but must return for his first post-op examination the following day. Upon admittance to the hospital on the morning of his surgery, the hair will be clipped from the area around his eyes and from one of his front legs (to administer the anesthetic). Prior to the operation, which takes approximately one hour per eye, an electroretinogram test will be conducted to confirm the retina is functioning properly, and he’ll be closely monitored for a few hours following the operation.

When he returns home, he’ll be wearing a firm plastic collar to keep him from rubbing at his eyes and to avoid injuring them. It’s also vital to keep your dog quiet and to avoid all direct nose-to-nose contact with other animals during the first two weeks post-surgery. And while gentle leash walking is acceptable, bathing and uncontrolled exercise are not. Most dogs experience improved vision immediately, and their vision typically continues to improve over the next three to seven days.

Post-operative care involves eye drops as well as oral medications. The first two weeks involves multiple eye drops four times a day, which is usually reduced to once a day long- term therapy by the two-month recheck. Periodic follow-up examinations are then scheduled with the veterinary ophthalmologist on a six-month to a yearly basis to ensure your dog remains pain-free and sighted for life.

Cognition and Anxiety Issues in Senior Dogs

As dogs change from adults into seniors, behavioral changes are sure to follow. Because of this, protective pet parents must become proactive pet parents to ensure their cherished companions receive the extra care they require.

For senior dogs without a specific disease or injury, these are some of the most common behaviors associated with their overall physical and cognitive decline:

Confusion and disorientation: Many dogs may appear lost or confused in familiar surroundings, including their own home. While they may seem distressed the first few times this happens, they generally calm down once it’s become a common occurrence.

Changes in responsiveness: Dogs may appear to not recognize family members and may respond poorly to basic commands.

Vocalizations, restlessness and/or new sensitivities: Some dogs may begin to perform repetitive behaviors or vocalizations such as whimpers or howls, become more restless or develop separation anxiety even if they’ve never had it before, and/or become more sensitive to loud noises like thunderstorms.

Reduced activity: Not only will most older dogs slow down physically, they may also eat less, groom themselves less, and become less affectionate.

Changes in the sleep-wake cycle: Many senior dogs experience disturbances in their sleep cycle, leading them to sleep during the day and stay awake at night when they may pace and/or vocalize.

Changes in house training: Many seem to lose their house training skills causing them to have frequent accidents inside and/or forget to go when they’re outside.

To provide the best possible care for your senior dog, start by having him thoroughly examined and tested by your vet. The results will reveal whether his new behaviors are due to a treatable condition or to canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, i.e. normal cognitive decline.

If your dog does suffer from cognitive dysfunction syndrome, your vet may prescribe a medication like selegiline hydrochloride to help ease his symptoms. If he’s been diagnosed with separation anxiety, your vet may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication for him. In addition, specially formulated food for senior dogs can help with joint problems and many other common aging issues he might have.

If some of your dog’s behaviors have become highly disruptive, consider working with an experienced animal behaviorist. The behaviorist may be able to help him relearn a few basic commands, improve his housetraining skills, create hand signals for him if he’s now hard of hearing, and suggest solutions for a variety of other problems.

Find new or modified ways of keeping your senior dog active, stimulated, and healthy, including short walks, indoor training and gentle playtime. Any activity is better for his brain and his body than no activity at all.

Remember too, that as your dog ages, he may be in pain, and because of this, do your best to be patient and gentle with him. Find ways to make him more comfortable, such as providing him with a heated dog bed that may soothe his joints and make it easier for him to sleep through the night. Take him outdoors to potty more often during the day and before bedtime, and/or provide him with an indoor doggy litter box. But most of all, remember he’s the same dog you’ve always loved and who’s always loved you, and that, with all the resources at your disposal, your time together can still be quality time.

Arthritis in Dogs

Arthritis is one of the most common ailments seen in middle-aged to senior dogs. However, even younger dogs can suffer from arthritic changes to their joints that are as painful as they are debilitating.

Unfortunately, most dog owners and veterinarians often miss the early warning signs of arthritis because dogs tend to hide their soreness and discomfort until the changes are severe.

With that in mind, the seven most common signs of arthritis are:

Limping: Your dog may limp or favor one or more of his legs, depending on which legs and joints are affected. In some cases, his limp may be worse when he wakes in the morning and become less noticeable as he “warms up” by moving around.

Difficulty moving: He may be reluctant to do things that were easy for him before such as going up and down the stairs, getting into and out of the car and climbing up onto the couch or bed.

Spinal issues: Not only do arthritic changes occur in your dog’s legs but also in various parts of his spine. These changes may result in a sore neck, abnormal posture with a visible “hunch” in his back or lameness in one or both of his hind legs.

Tiredness: He may tire more easily, making his walks shorter as they become more painful while he spends an increased amount of time resting and/or sleeping.

Irritability: Your dog may be uncharacteristically irritable, snapping and/or biting when touched or petted if this increases his pain.

Atrophied muscles: His muscles may atrophy due to inactivity and a decrease in their use. An arthritic dog with atrophied or withered leg muscles will have legs that look thinner than normal legs.

Licking, chewing or biting: He may start to lick, chew or bite at the parts of his body that hurt, often leading to inflamed skin and hair loss in those areas.

While arthritis itself can’t be cured or reversed, your dog’s pain can be managed, his mobility increased, and his quality of life greatly improved. The first step is to have him thoroughly examined by your vet (including blood work, x-rays and other diagnostic tests if needed) followed by your working together on a treatment plan for him.

Fortunately, there are numerous non-surgical options to treat mild, moderate and even severe cases of arthritis. Key, however, to any plan is a weight loss (then maintenance) diet and a regular exercise regime. But your vet may begin immediately by prescribing nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) to reduce the pain and inflammation in your dog’s affected joints.

In addition, your vet may suggest: the use of glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and/or omega-3 fatty acid supplements that support joint health; cortisone, visco-supplementation, glycosaminoglycan or steroid injections; and one or more of these therapies — physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, ultrasound therapy, laser therapy, and magnetic therapy.

For your part, alleviate some of your cherished pet’s painful joint stiffness by providing him with low and soft, cushioned resting and sleeping surfaces to keep him off all hard floor surfaces while keeping him comfortable and warm.

Marijuana Toxicity in Dogs

Due to the increased availability of both medical and recreational marijuana, as well as its use in foods, pills, oils and tinctures, marijuana is more accessible than ever before. It’s also stronger because new hybrids and cultivation techniques have resulted in plants with significantly more THC (Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound) than in decades past.

It therefore poses an even greater threat to one’s beloved dog since THC and other cannabinoids affect the central nervous system, causing disruption of normal movement and behavior. The most common ways for dogs to be exposed to marijuana is by inhaling its smoke or by ingesting the dried marijuana itself. Because of the cumulative effects of inhaling this smoke, dog owners who use marijuana, whether medical or recreational, should never smoke anywhere near their pets, particularly ones with asthma or any other lung diseases.

In some cases, dogs may nibble on the leaves and/or buds of homegrown marijuana plants. Unthinking owners may also feed their dogs cookies, brownies or candies infused with marijuana, posing a double threat to their health because anything containing chocolate or the artificial sweetener, xylitol, can lead to a double dose of toxicity.

As with all products, plants and medications dangerous for pet consumption, dog owners using marijuana in any form should store it somewhere out of reach of curious noses and even more curious paws – in a tall shelf, cabinet or drawer with a child-proof lock. The use of a thick glass container with a twist-off lid provides additional security because even if your dog does discover it, the lid’s impossible to pry open.

The most common side effects of marijuana intoxication are dilated pupils, lack of coordination (falling over or walking “drunkenly”), sedation or lethargy, vomiting, urinary incontinence, and slow heart and respiratory rates. However, about 25 percent of those who have ingested THC become stimulated instead, with agitation, excessive vocalization and high heart rates being possible side effects. After ingestion, dogs can become affected in minutes to hours, and signs can last for hours.

If you suspect your dog has ingested marijuana and is unable to walk or cannot be roused, contact your vet immediately. Know too that veterinarians are NOT required to contact the police, even in states where marijuana is illegal. What’s of utmost importance is getting your dog prompt medical assistance.

Treatment for marijuana intoxication can include confinement in a kennel to prevent injury, intravenous fluids to keep his blood pressure normal and medications to lower his heart rate. Dogs most severely affected may also benefit from intravenous lipid emulsions to help decrease the amount of cannabinoids circulating through their system.

The takeaway from this — keep a watchful eye on your dog if there’s marijuana around.

Helping Dogs Cope with Fireworks

National holidays, while celebrated by people, aren’t always cause for celebration by pets. For them, a holiday like the Fourth of July means one thing: fireworks. Or simply put: NOISES, LOUD and SUDDEN noises.

The fear of loud and sudden noise, so common in dogs, is known as a “somatic” response and it’s involuntary, producing such symptoms as trembling, rapid and shallow panting, excessive salivation, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and fleeing.

If yours is a highly sensitive, noise-phobic dog, it may mean bearing mute witness to his extreme reactions. Fortunately, however, there are various ways to deal with his distress both before and after the fireworks have begun.

Feed and walk your dog, ensuring that he’s peed and pooped before the fireworks are expected to start.

Forego the pleasure of leaving to watch the fireworks yourself and stay home. Even if your dog hides or refuses to interact with you, he’s far better off with you there than being left on his own.

Keep your dog inside, close all of the windows, and block off any dog doors/flaps if you have them.

Close the curtains and blinds to obscure the outside view, help buffer the sounds, and minimize the unsettling flashes of light.

Keep your own lights turned on — the brighter the better since this helps to absorb the flashes.

Provide some background noise by keeping the TV or radio turned on at a normal (not increased) volume. However, “white noise” — the continuous sound of static interference or static-type noise from appliances such as fans and fan heaters, washing machines and dryers – may prove to be even more effective than the TV or radio.

Provide your dog with a dark, comfortable place to hide – whether it’s a dog crate, the inside of a closet or a folded blanket under the bed. Being tucked away in a small, snug space allows him to feel more secure while muffling the noises outside.
If your dog comes to you, ease his distress with some ear T-Touch or by gently but firmly massaging his head, neck, shoulders and back. Ear T-Touch and massage have been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, which, in turn, helps to relax the dog and counteract the somatic fear response.

Buy dog-appeasing pheromones (their scent is similar to those released by nursing mother dogs), available in sprays, diffusers and collars at all pet supply stores or online. Anti-anxiety herbal and flower essence remedies also work well on some dogs.
Use a form fitting body wrap, tee shirt or Thunder Shirt on your dog, These work by applying a continuous, gentle pressure over the dog’s body allowing his natural response to “move into pressure” to occur. This has the effect of lowering his heart rate and blood pressure, thereby reducing his anxiety and stress.

If, however, he fails to respond to any of these methods, there are two other alternatives worth considering: working with a qualified pet therapist to learn behavior modification techniques, or speaking to your vet about prescribing an anti-anxiety medication for your dog.

But, whichever path you choose, follow it with kindness, patience and love. Think back to the sounds that may have frightened YOU as a child, and you’ll know just how your precious pet feels.