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You and your dog will have many happy years ahead of you together. But eventually the years will take their toll, and your elderly dog will need special care. If you know what to expect, you'll be prepared to cater to his needs without becoming a nervous wreck.
When is a dog considered to be old? As a rule of thumb, when he enters the last third of his life expectancy. For example, a dog of a breed whose life expectancy is fifteen years is old at the age of ten. With cross-breed dogs it becomes difficult to tell. Usually, large dogs have a shorter life expectancy than small ones.
An old dog requires as much special care as a puppy. This is because old age brings ailments (commonly, arthritis, heart disease and kidney failure) and physical discomfort; food and exercise have to be tailored to your dog's age and health; changes in demeanour and habits are common in the old dog; he can no longer cope with certain situations that didn't trouble him when young; he loses eyesight and hearing.
Your old dog may prefer a warm and comfortable place to laze about most of the time. But he also needs exercise. Physical exercise keeps the blood flowing to the brain, which is important in helping the dog keep his mental faculties. Exercise will also help keep the muscles supple, the joints healthy, and the mind in a youthful state. Also, insufficient exercise and activity contribute to obesity - a condition where the dog has gained and carries too much weight - which may cause serious health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Exercise should be moderate or slightly strenuous, depending on your dog's health. Usually, a dog that has always been active - a regular participant in demanding dog sports, for example - will appreciate slightly strenuous exercise. A dog that has led a quiet life will appreciate moderate exercise. As a guideline, slightly strenuous exercise means the dog running, off-lead, for about ten to fifteen minutes once a day, and taking a couple of twenty-minute walks at a brisk pace. Moderate exercise means three fifteen-minute walks a day at a slow to brisk pace. Your vet knows your dog's physical condition better than anyone else, so ask him to recommend an exercise programme.
Mental exercise keeps the dog thinking, so he can still solve minor problems he encounters daily. For example, if he sends a ball rolling under the sofa, he'll still know how to retrieve it - provided it hasn't rolled out of reach. A dog that isn't used to thinking will probably look at the ball and bark, without trying to get it. Use the obedience exercises you learned to keep your dog mentally exercised - sit; down; stay; leave it, and drop it are good examples. His joints may be painful, and he may not be able to move as fast as he did when he was young. Be patient, and don't expect him to respond immediately. Serving one of his daily meals in a Kong toy also keeps him mentally exercised.
While there's no need to panic at the slightest change you see in your dog, because he's taken for regular check-ups, do play it safe and take him to the vet if:
Because your old dog spends most of the day sleeping, make sure his bed is warm and well-padded, and keep it out of draughts. An old dog has a hard time adjusting to changes in routine, so don't move his bed from place to place. Pick a spot where there are people most of the time so that he doesn't feel lonely and scared.
After you've bathed him, dry him thoroughly with a towel and hair dryer (if he's not fussed by the noise) and keep him indoors until his coat and skin are completely dry. He may shed more, so use a soft brush and brush him gently to avoid scratching his skin and hurting him.
Because eyesight and hearing deteriorate - other senses do too, but not as much - avoid rearranging furniture. If you have to move furniture around, be careful with pointy corners at your dog's eye level. Cover them with plastic or rubber-rounded corners you can buy from a hardware store and clip on to furniture. Take your dog, on the lead, for various walks around the house so that he can get used to the newly arranged surroundings. When he's alone at night, and likely to move around, leave some lights on - he can't see well in the dark anymore.