Life in the Old Dog...
Many people think that an old dog should be content to sleep all day and just potter out into the garden when nature calls. They do not realise that elderly dogs need mental stimulation just as much as elderly people do. Old age can be associated with arthritis, heart disease and all sorts of mobility problems which arise when the body is past its prime. However it is essential that the dog enjoys his/her life and has something to live for. The type of activity will depend on the dog’s own limitations and the situation in which the dog lives. They cannot read a book or watch television, but they may be able to go out for little rides in the car or enjoy short leisurely strolls outside the confines of the family home and garden.
Secure gardens are ideal for dogs to wander around in safety, but they do not usually provide much stimulation (unless they are exceptionally large), as the sights and scents are very familiar. Dogs, (even those with limited or no sight) really enjoy new smells provided by unfamiliar territory. There may be fields and hedges nearby to provide a change of scene, though even pavement walks are much more exciting than their own garden. (Do remember to pick up any deposits though and not give ammunition to the “anti-dog brigade”.) Very elderly dogs or those with severe mobility problems may have to be restricted to the confines of a garden.
Greyhounds and thin coated older dogs should have a warm walking-out coat for cold winter days. They cannot run around to get warm, and arthritic dogs need protection from the harsher elements enabling them to still enjoy their daily constitutional.
Most dogs suffer from the summer heat and would appreciate a cool place to lie during the fierce midday temperatures. Old dogs are often affected more than their younger fitter companions. Some will be grateful for a paddle in a cool stream or paddling pool. Avoid exercising your dog when it is very hot. Early morning or late evening are times when the heat is less severe and safe gentle exercise can be taken. Naturally you should never take your dog out in a car during hot weather unless it is a real emergency such as a visit to the vet. Always carry water and a bowl along with a bag of clean towels in the car. The dog should never, under any circumstances, be left alone in a hot car, even with windows and sunroof open. The car will turn into a roasting oven in moments!
Give some thought to where you situate your elderly dog’s bed. Is there somewhere suitable for it to go where the dog can see/hear what is going on? Sometimes the bed can be safely placed near Patio doors or French windows so that the dog can watch the activities in the garden. They can get so much pleasure from watching the birds or other wildlife. They may also be able to watch children playing or someone putting out the washing etc. The use of a radio can also be used to help stimulate the dog – especially those with poor sight. Experiment to find out what your dog enjoys best. Some respond to the human voice (Radio 4), while others like to listen to music. Old dogs do not often want to play with toys but may enjoy chewing on a hide bone or slipper. Examine your dog’s teeth regularly. They may need dental treatment at the vet or you might be able to keep them in good condition by regular brushing with veterinary toothpaste. Disease in the mouth and gums can result in infection being transferred to other areas of the body via the blood stream causing a more serious problem or even permanent damage to organs such as the kidneys or liver.
Older dogs can benefit from vitamin supplements and herbal remedies. Good quality appetising food is also important to stimulate their appetite. It is good to vary their meals slightly to give more variety. They can sometimes get bored with the same thing day in day out and become reluctant to eat. There are some good rice and vegetable prepared foods available now to give variation. They may enjoy left-overs from your meal but never give them rich or spicy food. Meat, fish, vegetables, rice and pasta are all fine. Never give bones – not even large ones. Small splinters can break off (even from so-called safe marrow bones) and result in agony for your dog and possibly the need for surgery.
It is normally the case that elderly dogs will sleep more than a youngster but when they are awake they do need to keep alert and avoid boredom. A happy stimulated dog is far more likely to cope with the problems of old age. A young dog can run around, get tired and sleep. It requires just a little more thought to keep an older dog fulfilled and happy.
I believe that quality of life is the most important single factor in the welfare of any animal – human or otherwise. A dog will often fight (and sometimes even conquer) a disease and extend his life just because he/she is happy and contented. Sometimes, however hard he tries; disease and/or old age will require that you help him to a peaceful end. Most people find it extremely difficult to know exactly when the moment comes. Your vet will advise on the health of the dog but remember they only see a snapshot of the animal while you see the situation at home 24 hours a day. It nearly always has to be your decision and it must be the right thing for your dog. I have found it helpful to consider the following criteria when confronted with that heartbreaking situation:
Is the dog suffering from a terminal disease e.g. cancer ?
Is the dog in severe pain and can it be relieved ?
Is the dog still enjoying his food or is he reluctant to eat ?
Is the dog able to enjoy any quality of life ?
Is the dog able to walk or do they need lifting outside to relieve themselves?
Is the dog incontinent and distressed ? Dogs like humans do need their dignity ?
Can you cope with looking after the dog - lifting him/her when necessary and providing the necessary level of care etc. ?
The kindest thing you can do is to help your companion have a peaceful painless end when the time comes, accompanied by the person he/she cares for most and trusts completely to do the right thing. The needs of the dog have to be paramount - no matter how hard it is to lose a beloved friend. Do not let the dog see that you are upset or he will worry. Reassure him/her, and let him know that you are there for him until he loses consciousness. Remember the happy times you have shared with your companion and also the legacy which I am sure he would have left if he were able.