November is “Adopt-a-Senior Pet” Month

Psst! Spread the word. Now is the time. Time to brighten the darkening days of November. Time to warm the cooling nights of November. Time to think snuggles and slippers and cookies and cuddles.

Want a hint?

There’s nothing more satisfying, more contenting or more comforting than curling up with a good …. no, not a book.

A good old boy or a good old girl.

Why, then, adopt a senior dog? For more reasons than you can shake a stick at. Throw a ball for. Or toss a bone to.

• Older dogs may know all the old tricks, but they’re still open to learning new ones.
• Older dogs are fully-grown, and so are their personalities: what you see is precisely who they are.
• Older dogs are like mind readers because they’ve long practiced what their earlier owners preached.
• Older dogs slip as easily into a comfortable home and a comforting routine as easily as slipping into an old shoe — preferably one of yours.
• Older dogs understand the true meaning of the word “mutual” as in mutual admiration (including love, loyalty and devotion) society.
• Older dogs no longer leap tall fences in a single bound, but they still need and enjoy the proverbial walk around the block every day.
• And, finally, on a more serious note, older dogs are usually the last dogs to be adopted from shelters, and the first dogs to be euthanized.
• With their golden years still stretching out ahead of them, to lose those years is to be cheated out of something most precious: time.

Why, then, adopt a senior dog? If for no other reason than that: time. Time to love them as fully and deeply as they, most assuredly and unconditionally, will love you.

And these golden boys and girls — all available for adoption — come packaged and gift wrapped in every imaginable breed, shape and size. Their tags may describe them as “senior” dogs, but they’re breathing, barking proof that you are only as old as you feel.

Most of these golden oldies are hale and hearty, healthy and happy. And don’t pass the iron pills to any of these spry and sprightly members of the not-so-geriatric set. Many of them could outrun you in a four-legged race with one leg tied behind their backs. In an age of ageism, age is just a number, and what’s considered a senior dog in one breed is still a teenager in another.

Heart Disease in Senior Dogs

While heart disease in dogs can be either congenital or acquired, approximately 95 percent of cases are classified as acquired.

Seen most often in middle-aged and older dogs, acquired conditions typically develop over time and result from normal wear and tear coupled with aging. The most common types of acquired conditions are: canine valvular disease, which occurs when the heart valves weaken and begin to leak; arrhythmias, which occur when an issue develops within the dog’s electrical system and interferes with the way it “tells” the heart to beat; and pericardial disease, which develops when the sac surrounding the heart fills with fluid and affects the dog’s heartbeat.

Therefore, all conscious canine owners should be on the alert for:

  • Coughing: While coughing is a common symptom of many illnesses, minor coughs shouldn’t last for more than a few days.
  • Difficulty breathing: This includes shortness of breath, labored breathing or rapid breathing.
  • Changes in behavior: These include tiring more easily, being less playful, being reluctant to exercise or accept affection, being withdrawn or appearing depressed.
  • Poor appetite: If combined with any of the other symptoms on this list, loss of appetite could be a strong indicator of heart disease.
  • Weight loss or gain: While both may be symptoms of heart disease, weight gain presents as a bloated or distended abdomen, giving your dog a potbellied appearance.
  • Fainting or collapsing: If your dog faints or collapses at any time, seek immediate veterinary help, as it may be a sign of many serious illnesses including heart disease.
  • Weakness: When combined with some of the other symptoms on this list, seek immediate veterinary help.
  • Restlessness: If he becomes restless, especially at night, he may have heart disease.
  • Edema: Edema is the swelling of body tissues, and if his abdomen and extremities are swelling up, he may have heart disease.
  • Isolation: If he suddenly starts isolating himself or keeping his distance from you and/or the other pets in your household, this may be a sign of heart disease.

Heart disease is an umbrella term for any number of conditions that interfere with how the heart functions and treatments are broad and wide-ranging. It can be treated or managed through the use of prescription medications and supplements, dietary adjustments, and even surgery depending on the condition and severity of the disease. As always, your first step should be a visit to your vet.

Depending on your dog’s symptoms during that visit, your vet may recommend one or more of the following: blood and urine tests, x-rays, cardiac evaluation, electrocardiogram, echocardiogram and cardiac catheterization.

With many acquired heart diseases, your vet is likely to recommend an ACE inhibitor (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor) to help reduce the amount of stress on his heart by reducing both blood pressure and blood volume. A diuretic may be prescribed to manage any fluid accumulation around his lungs, as well as such drugs as Beta blockers, nitroglycerine and digitalis — all designed to help reduce your dog’s symptoms and improve his quality of life.

The sooner you catch any possible symptoms of acquired heart disease, the better and more paws-itive the prognosis for treatment.


Cushing’s Disease in Senior Dogs

Named after noted American neurosurgeon, Harvey Cushing, Cushing’s disease occurs when your dog’s body makes too much of a natural steroid hormone called cortisol. This hormone helps him respond to stress, control his weight, fight infections and keep his blood sugar levels in check.

There are two major types of the disease. Pituitary dependent is the most common, affecting about 80% to 90% of those with Cushing’s, and is caused by a benign tumor in the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain. Adrenal dependent affects about 15% to 20% of dogs and is caused by a benign or malignant tumor in one of the adrenal glands that lie on top of the kidneys.

While the disease’s warning signs may be harder to spot at the beginning, symptoms include: increased thirst, hunger, panting and urination, a pot-bellied abdomen, fat pads on the neck and shoulders, loss of hair, thinning or darkening skin, lack of energy, muscle weakness, insomnia and recurrent infections.

To diagnose the disease, your veterinarian will first take a comprehensive health history of your dog and conduct a thorough physical exam, followed by a blood chemistry profile, complete blood cell count, fecal examination and urinalysis.

The most common test is the low-dose dexamethasone suppression test (LDDS). A blood sample is taken to measure your dog’s baseline cortisol level and a small amount of dexamethasone is administered by injection. Blood cortisol levels are measured four and eight hours after the dexamethasone is given. In a dog with Cushing’s, cortisol is NOT suppressed.

Since no one diagnostic test is definitive in every case, your vet may also run an ACTH stimulation test, a high-dose dexamethasone suppression test, and perform an abdominal ultrasound to determine whether or not your dog has Cushing’s, and if so, whether the pituitary or adrenal glands are to blame.

If the disease is a result of a tumor in one of your dog’s adrenal gland, your vet may be able to remove it surgically. But if the tumor has spread to other parts of his body, and he has other health problems, surgery may not be an option.

If your dog has pituitary-dependent Cushing’s, your vet will likely prescribe one of two drugs — mitotane (Lysodren) or trilostane (Vetoryl) — for him. Other medications such as ketoconazole, selegiline or cabergoline may also be used under certain circumstances.

Because your dog must remain on this treatment for life, you must take care to administer the right doses to him at the right times and monitor his behavior and symptoms carefully. You must also be on the alert for any adverse reactions to the drugs. Typical signs of an adverse reaction are lack of appetite, lack of energy, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes difficulty walking. Should any of these side effects occur, discontinue the medication and contact your vet immediately.

Otherwise, your vet will schedule regular follow-up visits to examine your dog and run blood tests to ensure the treatment is working and that he’s receiving the correct dose of medication. While schedules vary, be prepared to see your vet several times a year once the maintenance phase of your dog’s therapy has been reached.

And so, working together with your vet, the dog you love can usually go on to lead an active, happy and normal life.

Chronic Kidney Disease in Senior Dogs

Chronic kidney disease, also known as chronic kidney or renal failure, is one of the most common age-related conditions in senior dogs. Unlike acute kidney failure (occurring suddenly, it’s mainly caused by the ingestion of a toxic substance like antifreeze or by an inadequate flow of blood to the kidneys), chronic kidney failure is a progressive disease in which a dog’s kidney function declines over months, even years, before any symptoms appear.

Small breed dogs may show early signs of kidney damage at 10 to 14 years of age, whereas large breed dogs with shorter life spans will show signs earlier. While the damage to their kidneys is irreversible, supportive treatment can often improve a dog’s quality of life and slow the disease’s progression.

In healthy dogs, the kidneys act as filters to excrete the body’s toxic waste products. They concentrate and eliminate the waste in urine and then return water and salts to the body to maintain normal hydration and electrolyte balance. In most cases of chronic renal failure, the kidneys simply “wear out” as part of the aging process, drastically reducing their ability to filter these wastes from the blood. Most dogs, however, only show signs of renal failure when 70 to 75 percent of their kidney function has been lost.

The result is a vicious cycle. A dog’s kidneys become less effective at excreting his body’s wastes and less effective at retaining water, producing large quantities of very dilute (poorly concentrated) urine and building up toxins in his bloodstream. To compensate for the increased fluid loss in his urine, he’ll drink more and more water.

Two of the earliest and most easily recognizable signs of kidney failure are increased thirst (polydipsia) and increased urination (polyuria). Other signs include the need to urinate at night (nocturia), loss of appetite, weight loss, bad breath, oral ulcers, pale gums, weakness, poor hair coat, vomiting, blood in his vomit, diarrhea, black, tarry stool, and behavioral changes. These symptoms tend to worsen as the disease progresses.

If your dog exhibits any or all of these signs, see your vet immediately. A correct diagnosis of renal failure requires the following: blood tests to determine the levels of two waste products, urea and creatinine, normally excreted in the urine (elevated concentrations suggest kidney failure), and a urinalysis to measure your dog’s urine-specific gravity (very dilute urine helps confirm the diagnosis).

Once a diagnosis of chronic kidney failure has been made, it’s crucial to provide your dog with round-the-clock access to fresh, clean water — mainly to prevent dehydration due to the large amount of water passing out of his body — and put him on a diet high in moisture, with a reduced amount of high-quality protein and a low phosphorus content. You must also carefully and consistently monitor the amount of food and water he consumes each day, and weigh him at least once a week to insure that he’s getting enough calories to maintain his weight and enough water to maintain the proper levels of hydration in his body.

Many dogs benefit from the administration of fluids under their skin. Subcutaneous (SQ) fluids dramatically increase daily water consumption and help keep their kidneys functioning as efficiently as possible. Your vet or veterinary technician will teach you how to administer these fluids to your dog at home, and while it may sound difficult, most people find the procedure easy and most dogs tolerate it well.

Potassium is often added either to the SQ fluids or to your dog’s diet to safeguard against muscle weakness and heart rhythm disturbances that result from low electrolyte levels. In some cases, IV fluids may also be required.

Because hypertension is a common and dangerous complication of chronic renal failure, your dog’s blood pressure should be closely monitored to help prevent further damage to his kidneys. Left untreated, high blood pressure not only accelerates the progression of the disease but can also damage his retinas, resulting in sudden blindness. And so, certain medications may be added to his regime.

The success of your dog’s treatment for chronic kidney failure depends then, in large part, on you. Your reward for carefully monitoring his diet, water intake and blood pressure, and administering his medications will be an improved quality of life for him and the possibility of a longer, loving future together.

Diabetes in Senior Dogs

Has your senior dog been drinking a lot more water recently, and having to urinate more frequently? Has he begun losing weight despite being hungrier than usual and wanting to eat all the time?

If so, your dog may have diabetes. While the exact cause of diabetes is unknown, genetics, autoimmune disease, obesity, chronic pancreatitis, certain medications, and abnormal protein deposits in the pancreas can play a major role in the development of the disease.

The most common form of diabetes in dogs is Type I (insulin-dependent diabetes), which occurs when the pancreas is incapable of producing or secreting adequate levels of insulin, thereby causing high levels of glucose in the blood. For most dogs with Type I diabetes, insulin therapy in the form of insulin injections is essential to not only regulate their blood glucose levels but to ensure their very survival. And so, if your dog is exhibiting the four classic symptoms of diabetes — increased thirst and water intake, increased urination, appetite gain and weight loss – bring him to the vet immediately.

To make a proper diagnosis, your vet will record all of your dog’s clinical signs, perform a physical examination, and collect both blood and urine samples. Treatment will then depend on the severity of his symptoms, the test results, and whether he has any other health issues that could complicate his therapy. Since every dog responds differently to treatment, your dog’s therapy must be tailored to fit him – now and for the rest of his life.

Your dog’s initial insulin dose will be based on his body weight, and adjustments will be made until the optimal dose has been determined. Insulin injections are usually given twice a day — every 12 hours with meals – and your vet will show you how to administer them. And because regular blood glucose checks are critical to monitoring his blood sugar, your vet will help you set up a testing schedule and show you how to perform the tests yourself at home.

Routine is key to successfully caring for your diabetic dog, and along with his insulin therapy, you must strictly manage and maintain his weight through proper diet and exercise. You should feed him twice a day (when he receives his insulin), keep him on a high-fiber diet to help slow down glucose absorption, and, most importantly, avoid giving him any treats high in glucose.

Because exercise can help avoid high blood sugar levels and may improve the insulin’s absorption into his system, provide your dog with steady, moderate-intensity activities. Too much or too strenuous exercise can cause his glucose levels to become dangerously low, resulting in hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia can also occur when your dog’s had too much insulin or if he didn’t eat when he received his regular insulin injection. To be prepared for just such an emergency, ensure that either glucose powder or a glucose solution is always within reach.

Although diabetes is a lifelong condition without a cure, it can be managed effectively, keeping your beloved dog healthy and happy for as long as paws-ible.