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Caring for Senior Dogs

Updated on August 20, 2014

Our Senior Family Member is a Dog

We live with Hans, a Miniature Pinscher who just turned 15. While that places him in the Geriatric Category, on most days he acts more like a puppy. We're very lucky for that and enjoy every minute. However, for the past few years, we have dealt with some age-related health issues that, so far, have been treatable. Here, perhaps, you'll find some tips in helping your own senior canine enjoy life a little longer. You may even have some suggestions; please feel free to leave them at the bottom. Always check with your own vet before trying anything different or new.

Hans as a puppy
Hans as a puppy

A Little Bit About Hans, Our MinPin

When we selected Hans Von Erich Kennedy, the MinPin, he was rather runty; about half the size of his sister. At 10 weeks, our vet called him the perfect pocket rocket. It was love at first sight for all of us, and the growing up years have gone all too quickly. They’ve been filled with laughter over his antics, though, and others who come to visit always comment that he seems human. We know better; he’s “just” a dog after all - but don’t tell Hans that.

He no longer fits in our pocket, nor does he zoom around like a rocket, but he’s still perfect. What a joy he is with his multitude of toys and his own quirky ways. His vocabulary (we think) is amazing and at his ripe age of fourteen-and-a-half, we’re still amazed at his agility and abilities. Health-wise, we’ve had some issues, some of them quite serious. But each time, our wonderful vets have gotten him back to normal. Our hope is that through our experiences, you may find some assistance in dealing with various issues that arise in living with older pets.

The Dreaded Heart Murmur and Later Consequences

As a puppy, Hans was diagnosed with a heart murmur. One vet even asked if we thought about taking him back to the breeder! With each visit, we always asked if it was any worse, and were told that if Hans developed a persistent cough, then it would be time to take action. Sure enough, by the age of nine, here came the cough.

We treat it with a twice daily dose of Furosemide, which is a diuretic. It works by reducing fluid around the heart sac while also placing less stress on the kidneys. A common human drug, it has been an effective heart treatment. We wrap it in a bit of cheese, a small bite of bread or cooked elbow pasta and down the hatch it goes.

A Back Injury

In 2006, Hans was racing around a corner (typical minpin) and ran smack dab into an open closet door. Hitting him at the midway point, he yelped and went down, completely paralyzed. In a panic, we raced to the vet. By the time we got there, he had regained some use of his limbs. They gave him a corticosteroid shot in the back and sent us home. Researching, we found that this was a common occurrence, especially for dogs jumping to grab Frisbees. Their spinal structures contribute to this horrible issue.

The next 48 hours were crucial in regaining mobility. We learned that within two weeks, the mobility gained would be it forever. By then, we guessed Hans was at about 95 percent, with some remaining weakness in both back legs.

Our Terrifying Brush with Rimadyl

By the age of 12, Hans was developing some twitching along his back and hindquarters when we touched him. Some of that was probably compounded by his earlier back injury. The vets thought he might be developing early signs of arthritis and could possibly even be in pain. We came home with a prescription for Rimadyl. For the next five months, all was well. Then, Hans began limping, refusing to use a front leg. We waited a few days until he refused to even try walking and off to the vet we went. This time, we met a brick wall. We were sent home with the diagnosis of “maybe it’s fluid on the brain.”

Fire the vet.

We stopped giving Rimadyl immediately, but in the next two days, Hans began walking around in circles, lifting his head to the right with nose in the air. Because of the limping, we had sort of ruled out CDS (cognitive dysfunction syndrome). Frantically, we searched for a new vet. Where once we’d had the options of a bigger city, now living outside of small towns limited our choices. I found a website for a vet 45 miles away that had a Senior Wellness program and was open to natural treatment options along with standard choices.

We couldn’t have made a better choice at that moment and our lovefest continues today. They made a thorough examination and, after an hour, determined that Hans “might” have a deep inner ear infection or might be having some arthritic/muscular/spinal pain (some of which the Rimadyl would have supposedly treated). Of course, they wouldn’t come out and say Rimadyl was the problem, but they agreed he was better off without it. He received a two-week antibiotic shot (for the possible ear infection) and Temeril-P pills, which were a form of prednisone.

Within two days, we had a normal dog back.

Early reports about multiple dog deaths on Rimadyl have basically been ignored. As with any drug, this is one that may be fine for short-term use, but proceed with caution otherwise.

For now, when he has a mild relapse and yelps a little with back pain, we’ve discovered his prescribed muscle relaxers seem to work very well. Usually a 24-hour dose of two pills is enough for relief without a recurrence of several weeks or more. Our vet approves of this practice and it is well worth asking about if you think your pet might benefit.

Zuke's Hip Action Dog Treats with Glucosamine and Chondroitin

Zuke's Hip Action Beef Recipe Dog Treats - 16 oz. Pouch (package may vary)
Zuke's Hip Action Beef Recipe Dog Treats - 16 oz. Pouch (package may vary)

Soft treats with glucosamine and chondroitin, as our vet said, won’t hurt. And, if they help a little in the long run, we’re all for it. For awhile we purchased Dasuquin, but it was an expensive choice and even pricier at the vet’s office. Shop around; there are plenty of products on the market. Before buying from a vet, ask about less expensive alternatives, too.


Laser Therapy is a Viable Arthritis Treatment

When and if Hans experiences any further joint or arthritis pain, we’ll be jumping on the laser therapy bandwagon. Through online research and talking with our vet, we’re convinced it’s a wonderful alternative to drugs that cause side effects. Using a cool infrared light wand, trained technicians pinpoint the painful area, which causes increased blood circulation and helps repair damaged cells.

The treatment scheduled usually includes six sessions: three the first week every other day, then two the following week and then a final visit. It’s best to schedule sequentially over three weeks rather than spreading out further. We had one comp session, which took about 10 minutes. Everyone in the room wore protective eyewear and Hans nearly feel asleep - it was that soothing. They did warn that after the first treatment, pets might experience a surge in pain and Hans did yelp loudly once on the way home.

Why didn’t we go with the full course of treatments? Two reasons. Right now, the temeril-P for short-term use works wonders. Over the last few months, if there have been any signs of pain, we give him muscle relaxers over 24 hours and that works well. We sometimes go months without any issues. The second reason is distance and time. With our vet 40 miles away, we’ll take on that commitment without hesitation when we’re sure we know exactly where the pain is (neck, back or rear legs).

The bottom line: We would heartily recommend laser therapy as a treatment.

Making Adjustments Around the House for a Senior Dog

As Hans began to show some continued weakness in back leg control, he began doing a “scatter” across our tile floors. Just as many people make changes around the house for older humans, we decided to do the same for Hans. That meant adding runners along his favorite routes, winding through our “tiny” great room and toward the back deck. They’re unsightly and we hope no one shows up unannounced, but they give him confidence to move around. We also added a larger area rug in the kitchen to keep him from sliding.

Not long ago, we were downstairs and heard a “thump, thump.” Running up, we could see that Hans was clearly frightened and I scooped him up. Everything seemed to be in working order. We believe he might have attempted to jump up on the sofa and failed. Now, we relegate him to his oversized kennel when we’re outdoors, just to keep from worrying. He’s always loved his kennel, as that’s where he slept at night for many years and is where he feels more secure when we leave the house. For the last few months, we’ve set up a pillow by my nightstand in the bedroom, which he now prefers for sleeping. Because he’s so small and his legs are fragile, we never wanted to worry about stumbling over him in the night. Now, he’s happier just staying in one place; so far, so good.

We had already tried steps up to the sofa, but he would leap past them. Then we tried a riser of sorts, with plywood that ran the length of the sofa, covered up with a runner. Another unsightly thing. That simply didn’t work for us, as we were the ones tripping across it. Leaving the runner and removing the boards has worked best for all of us. And we’re right there in the evenings, settled in on each end, to catch Hans if he doesn’t quite make it.

We'd Choose a Pet Ramp If...

Ramps may very well work better than steps when it comes to use and safety. Most steps are too narrow when trying to re-train a jumping dog. For an older pet, only time will tell. Getting them to go down the ramp or steps is more important that training them to go up. For Hans, it may be a lost cause until he becomes more feeble.

Weight Gain and a Diet Switch

At about the age of eight, Hans began putting on weight. We had always given him dry dog food: Nature’s Recipe Easy-to-Digest Lamb and Rice. Fortunately, there was a Senior version with fewer calories and fats that made the switch easier. That seemed to do the trick. He still gets a lunch bone and his after-dinner treats. We do keep an eye on his weight and can tell if he’s beefing up a bit or needs a little extra something.

He also goes nuts over cornbread in the oven, so that’s an occasional treat. If he’s feeling a little off, cooked hamburger and mashed potatoes are all part of our arsenal.

In late December 2011, Hans had a stress event when we left him for a big part of the day and then he ate too much when we got home. That was our fault and he paid for it. Over the next two days, he vomited, had diarrhea and refused to eat. At the vet’s (once again), they gave him a rehydration shot and sent us home with canned Gastrointestinal Diet. Soon, he was back to normal and we switched him back to dry food without any problem.

Photo: A little porky here, Hans loves to deliver cards to us on holidays. After a begrudging handover, he gets the envelopes to destroy.

Too Old For Dental Work & An Abscessed Tooth

Just after turning 14, Hans developed an abscessed tooth on one side. The swelling grew larger, but he was in no pain and was eating normally. Our vets no longer wanted to put him under for any type of dental work, even cleaning. Anesthesia can compromise an older dog’s system and it is simply not worth the risk.

After giving an antibiotic shot, they sent us home with an anti-bacterial water additive, C.E.T. Aquadent. It has worked well for us, even though there are warnings about it containing xylitol. The company’s owners have refuted those accusations, stating that it would require massive quantities consumed in a short period of time to have ill effects. In this case, we believe the limited consumption won’t be a problem. The bad breath is gone and there have been no further complications with the abscessed tooth.

VBiotene Veterinarian Drinking Water Additive

V-Oratene Drinking Water Additive 4 oz
V-Oratene Drinking Water Additive 4 oz

This is a pricey alternative to C.E.T. AguaDent (which we currently use), but it does not contain xylitol. A tasteless anti-bacterial additive can cut down on plaque buildup and reduces bad breath (although bad breath should require a trip to the vet first). Always check with your own vet before using any product.


The Beginnings of Kidney Failure & Another Diet Switch

At our last Senior Wellness exam, the vets determined that Hans was in the early stages of kidney failure. While it's a common sign of aging, it's not yet a death sentence. In fact, a couple of years ago, they had started taking urine samples to see if he'd need an additional drug on top of his diuretic.

They want us to make the switch to canned food to get more liquid in his diet. So far, we have not found a canned diet he can tolerate without vomiting. We make homemade salt-free chicken broth, which we'll trying for the next three months (before a follow-up check).

Canned dog food is so expensive and we decided to work with his current dry food. We add hot water, let the nuggets soak until they're soft and then top with chicken broth for flavor. Unfortunately, with this method, he seems to be consuming less regular fresh water. We're keeping an eye on that.

While traveling, we're going to try VitaGravy Roasted Chicken with Chondroitin added to water as an alternative.

Update: We no longer have a choice, and our vets have switched Hans to Hill's Prescription Kidney (k/d) diet. Early on, he loved it, but he now seems to be eating less. At almost the six-month point on k/d, we try to supplement with salt-free green beans mashed in. We're researching other foods (such as sweet potatoes and natural canned pumpkin) that might "beef" up the flavor some.

Keeping Active - Within Reason

Overweight dogs at any age are at a greater health risk. No matter how much they beg (and they shouldn't be begging), it's up to us to keep that weight under control. Hans gets two "treats" after breakfast and dinner, only if he finishes his meal. Those treats get stuffed into rubber toys so he has to really work to get them out. He also goes on a morning walk and, if he chooses, a shorter evening walk. Now, it's up to him, as he seems to know how far to go and when it's time to head home.

Interactive Pet Treat Toys are Terrific!

KONG Classic Dog Toy, Small, Red
KONG Classic Dog Toy, Small, Red

The best price for the small (have to click on the size) red Kong is at Amazon (so far). Stuffed with Pupcorn, it helps strengthen jaws and is a great activity. For Hans, we give it as a treat after he finishes breakfast and dinner (IF he finishes).


Stress and Behavioral Changes in Older Dogs

Hans is showing more signs of stress over loud noises, which never used to bother him. When it thunders, he tucks tail and heads for the security of one of us. He’s also a little grumpier these days and perhaps a little belligerent. If we make him get up from a comfy pillow to go outside for a pit stop, he gets a little growly. Picking him up also results in a little “grrrrrrrr.” We tend to be a little more indulgent, within limits. No aggressiveness will be allowed.

Also, with the advent of mild cataracts, Hans tends to dodge when someone swoops in from above or to the side. We think his hearing is starting to deteriorate, but it’s barely noticeable right now.

OK, senior cat families are welcome, too.

Is there a senior dog in your life?

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