Blindness in Senior Dogs

There are many causes of blindness in older dogs including cataracts and cancer, untreated infections and glaucoma, Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), and the most tragic of conditions, Suddenly Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS) with total blindness occurring over a few days to several weeks.

It’s vital for your elderly dog to have regular visits (at least every 6-to-9 months) with his veterinarian, as the sooner the condition is detected and diagnosed, the better the possible outcome.

Even with reduced or complete lack of vision, dogs can fare surprisingly well, as long as they are in a familiar environment. It’s vital to keep the layout of your home the same. Your dog will form a mental map of his surroundings, and your goal is to keep that map accurate. You can also help your dog orient himself by leading him around on a leash and teaching him directional cues such as “left,” “right,” and “stop.”

Pad the sharp corners on coffee tables and other furniture with sharp corners, especially those at your pet’s head height or treat them with bitter apple until he is comfortably navigating around them. Place carpet runners over slick tile floors, (you may also want to add runners to indicate a clear path from one room to another), and if you have stairs, place a uniquely textured mat at the top and bottom to let your dog know when he’s reached the last step.

Place your dog’s food bowl and water dish on a large plastic mat, keep them in the same place, lead him there and teach him the word “home”. This way, should he become confused elsewhere, he can return “home” to re-orient himself.

If you need to move things around for any reason, be sure to walk your dog on-leash through the new configuration several times to help him become familiar with the path he needs to take.

Take advantage of your dog’s other senses. Flavor extracts, like vanilla, or natural essential oils, like lavender, can be used to scent mark important places in your house and your dog’s toys. Always use caution with essential oils, though. Many are very irritating and some can be toxic if ingested.

Speak when you approach or before you pet him, so you don’t take him by surprise. Keep a radio or TV playing when you are out of the house to give him a reference point to orient to and help muffle loud outside noises. And walk with a heavy step when approaching your dog, as the vibrations from your footfalls will cue him you are coming.

Teach him to “wait” and use this command when you open the front door, when getting your dog out of the car, or when he is about the wander into the street. Put your dog on a leash and begin walking with him. Tell him “Wait” while applying steady but gentle pressure on the lease until he stops. Praise and reward the second he stops. Practice this until he is responding reliably, both indoors and out, and with distractions. Then practice off lead in the house, then outside in an enclosed area and slowly add distractions. Always release your dog from “wait” with a release command such as “Freeeeee!”

Use the “slow” command to alert your dog that he’s there is an obstacle is his way. Put your dog on a leash and begin walking with him. Tell him “Slow” while applying steady but gentle pressure on the lease until he slows. Praise and reward the second he slows. Practice this until he is responding reliably both inside and out, and with distractions. Use the “Slow” command if you see your dog is about to run into something.

Walk him often (a halter will give you greater control) and allow him plenty of sniffing exploration breaks. At first, he may be reluctant to explore new places. If so, keep your walks to familiar routes. Give him time to adjust, and extend your walk by just a little each day.

Just like any dog, blind dogs love to play with toys and play with you. Consider buying Kongs filled with smelly treats, toys with bells inside, and tennis balls scented with vanilla extract that makes noise when they bounce, allowing you to play limited games of fetch.

Prepare your dog for being out in the world by teaching him a cue like “say hello” that lets him know a person is about to approach him. This will help prevent him from being startled by well-meaning people on the street who simply want to pet him. And be sure to warn people to first approach your dog verbally and then let him sniff them. Only let them touch your dog if your dog seems comfortable in the situation.

Remember to practice patience, and consider putting yourself in your dog’s paws to better understand how challenging his world has become. With some simple and practical adaptations and a positive attitude, you can provide your blind senior dog a rich and fulfilling life.

Dental Disease in Senior Dogs

Because periodontal disease is so common in older dogs, caring owners should check their dogs’ mouths regularly for signs of tartar buildup, gingivitis and tooth decay. They should also monitor them for bad breath, bleeding gums, blood in their mouths, loose teeth, shrinking gums, and a reluctance to chew or eat. Even one of these issues merits a prompt visit to the vet.

Many times, dental disease in older dogs can not only cause pain but it can also lead to infections in the gum tissue. If your dog is in extreme pain, your vet may prescribe a medication to help ease it. But if your dog has a gum infection, broken or decayed teeth, your vet may medicate him to get rid of the infection, then extract the affected teeth. This helps protect his health since infections from gums and decaying teeth can spread throughout his body, causing problems with his organs, and a dog can easily live with missing or no teeth.

When a dog is older, the challenge of treating dental disease escalates and many owners are fearful of the risks associated with anesthesia. However, with proper testing such as blood work, x-rays and ultrasound, and barring any mitigating medical conditions, most senior dogs can, in fact, safely undergo the surgery.

To err on the side of caution, however, it’s best to bring your dog to the vet twice a year for a thorough oral examination. During these checkups, your vet will not only examine the state of your dog’s teeth but also detect problems you yourself can’t see through the use of x-rays and other imaging tests.

And yet, if an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure, helping to prevent or at least manage dental disease in your aging dog should be your primary concern.

Begin by brushing your dog’s teeth regularly – the younger he is the better. Buy either an actual doggy toothbrush or a finger brush. You can also use a child’s soft toothbrush or your finger. Buy specially designed dog toothpaste as well. Never use human toothpaste since the fluoride can be toxic, and avoid using baking soda because dogs shouldn’t swallow it. Brushing your dog’s teeth should take about a minute and you should concentrate on the outer surfaces of his teeth.

Feed your dog specifically labeled “dental food” which is designed to promote good dental hygiene by cleaning his teeth, preventing plaque buildup and helping remove plaque. Always speak with your vet beforehand to ensure the dental formula is appropriate for your dog’s age and beneficial to his overall health. And make certain your dog will be able to chew the new food.

Chew toys can aid in keeping your dog’s teeth clean, but because many older dogs don’t like to chew as much as they once did, they may not chew enough to make enough of a difference. Try giving him dental treats instead which can help rub off some of the plaque on his teeth and put a powdered or liquid oral care additive in his water bowl – at the very least, it will help freshen his breath.

For best results, however, it’s advisable to first have your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned by your vet, then use these products to help keep new plaque from forming.

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.