Make Your Senior Dog Feel at Home

Elderly people often make changes in their homes, such as adding a grab bar in the shower for safety. Your senior dog can also benefit from minor household modifications. An orthopedic bed here or a ramp there will go a long way toward making your senior dog’s life at home pleasant and comfortable.

Older Dogs, New Problems
There’s no specific age when a dog becomes a senior; it varies from breed to breed. But sooner or later, most dogs start showing their age. When that happens, “many dog owners wonder if senior pets have any special needs regarding nutrition, exercise or grooming” says Dr. Amy Schein, a veterinarian at Coral Springs Pet Resort & Medical Center in Coral Springs, Fla. “There are no one-size-fits-all recommendations. However, older dogs are at risk for many of the same problems that affect older people. Many medical conditions can be managed with simple lifestyle or diet adjustments.”

Experts such as Schein say these items can help:

  • Raised food and water bowls make it easier for tall dogs to eat and drink, especially if they have arthritis in their neck or front limbs.

  • Steps or a ramp to help your dog get into the car or onto furniture.

  • Baby gates to keep pets from falling down stairs or entering rooms with slippery floors. This is especially helpful for dogs with neurological issues.
  • Body harnesses instead of neck collars for dogs with arthritic necks or intervertebral disk disease.
  • Skid-resistant throw rugs and rubber puzzle mats for hard floors. These add traction for unsteady legs and create a comfortable napping surface.
  • Orthopedic beds, especially for large-breed dogs that are prone to developing calluses on bony prominences. Some people swear by magnetic beds for dogs that have arthritis.

Look for Signs of Age-related Problems
Growing old isn’t an illness in itself, but it’s not uncommon for older dogs to develop age-related diseases. “Pet owners don’t always recognize early signs of age-related issues in these friends they’ve had for so many years,” says Dr. Corrina Parsons, a veterinarian at Longwood Veterinary Center in Kennett Square, Penn. “Any change in behavior, like a decreased willingness to play, climb stairs or jump on furniture, could be signs of joint pain in the hips, knees or back. Early signs of dementia could include late-night walking, barking or forgetting to go to the bathroom when outside. Many of these diseases can be managed by intensifying the relationship between you, your dog and your veterinarian.”

You can help your aging dog by following this advice:

  • Keep your pet’s weight at a healthy level. Obesity might worsen arthritic conditions and predispose your dog to developing diabetes or other metabolic diseases.
  • Stimulate circulation to its coat and skin with gentle grooming and massaging. This also helps discover new lumps or changes to the skin or coat.
  • Create a comfortable sleeping area on the ground floor if your pet has difficulty climbing stairs to or from your bedroom.
  • Visit your veterinarian for regular physical exams, blood work and urine tests to determine if your senior dog needs a special diet, medicine or treatment.

Jen and John’s Dog House
Lucky are the senior dogs that have devoted owners. Jen Holmquest and John Lawrence are the poster parents for how to care for geriatric dogs. They provide their 13-year-old Labrador Retriever, Merle, and their 11-year-old Golden Retriever, Clifton, with every necessity, from pet stairs to help them get on the couch to covering their orthopedic beds with waterproof comforters. They take both dogs to the vet twice yearly for senior exams and tests. “Clifton has become more sensitive to thunder and other scary sounds, so we sleep downstairs with him when there’s a storm coming,” says Holmquest. “Merle is neurologic in her hind end, so we use the garage one-step entrance instead of the porch stairs to go outside.”

Common sense and a lot of TLC can make all the difference for your dog’s golden years. “We deal with their aging issues because we love them,” says Holmquest.

Keep Your Dog Safe in the Snow

Last night’s snowstorm transformed your backyard into a winter wonderland, and you and your best friend can’t wait to get out there and play in the white stuff.

Most canines can’t resist rolling in fresh snow and refereeing a good snowball fight. But you need to be the parent when it comes to your dog’s snow play. Just like a kid, your dog might not know when it’s time to come in from the cold. And it’s up to you to manage the snowballs that form on your dog’s coat.

Ice Is Not Nice
Ice clusters are the bane of medium- to long-haired dog owners. Not only do these frozen orbs make a mess in your house as they melt, the hard balls that form between your dog’s toes can feel like rocks under his feet, making him very uncomfortable.

So what’s the best way to cope with your abominable snowdog? “Use a warm, moist towel to help melt the balls and then use a dry towel, or even a hair dryer, if your dog will let you, to warm and dry your dog’s coat,” says Anne-Marie Forde, owner of The Sudsy Dog, Inc., an award-winning grooming facility in Erdenheim, Penn. “Many dogs with ‘advanced self-help skills’ will try to pull the ice balls out themselves using their teeth. Before you let your dog do that, be sure he didn’t play anywhere where he could have come in contact with de-icer chemicals.”

Be gentle as you remove ice balls, cautions Dr. Jeffrey Berman, co-owner of Fort Washington Veterinary Hospital in Fort Washington, Penn. “You shouldn’t try to pull the ice balls out of your dog’s fur, because it can cause pain and some dogs will nip in defense,” says Berman. “Instead of tugging away, I recommend you speed up the melting process using a washcloth soaked in warm water and lightly massage the ice away. Pay particular attention to paws and pads and check them for lacerations.”

Ice-prevention Strategies
Although there are several techniques to get rid of ice matted into fur, preventing ice from forming in the first place is a good strategy. Before venturing into the snow:

  • Apply petroleum jelly between the toes and on pads.
  • Use products specifically made to protect dog feet, such as Musher’s Secret paw wax. You can find a dealer at www.musherssecret.net.
  • Use clippers (not scissors) to trim excess fur on medium- to long-haired dogs (e.g., Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, Salukis). Pay particular attention to fur between the toes.
  • Periodically brush snow off your dog’s fur while playing to prevent the formation of ice balls.

Have Fun, Play Safe
You and your buddy enjoy playing in the snow, but you also need to keep safety in mind. Consider these potential risks:

  • Running in deep snow is hard work -- especially for small breeds or overweight dogs, which can lead to exhaustion or heart failure in a dog that has heart disease.
  • Although you might be snug as a bug in your “Michelin Man” attire, remember that damp air and cold snow can be painful for a dog with arthritis.
  • Extreme cold poses a frostbite threat to your dog’s nose and ears.
  • “Ice is more dangerous than snow, because a dog slipping on an icy surface can rupture a cruciate ligament or hyperextend and sprain a limb,” says Berman.

While any dog worth his salt wants to investigate his frozen terrain, pay attention to your pet’s explorations. Some antifreeze products are deadly if ingested, and road salts can irritate his sensitive skin.  

Most dogs love snow, but if your pet starts to shiver from the cold, tires or is hesitant to continue playing, or if you notice the conditions are too icy, it’s time to call it quits and huddle by the fire indoors.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/RCerruti

Avoiding Winter Health Hazards

As cold weather approaches, you winter-proof your car and your house. But it’s also important to think about your dog: Only you can protect him from winter hazards when the temperature drops.

Your Dog’s Special Winter Needs
Any time you take your dog for walks in icy conditions, take special care to check his paws for ice balls and cuts. Wipe his paws dry with a cloth after he treks on salt or chemical snow-removers.

Also be particularly attentive to your dog’s daily needs as winter arrives. His caloric needs might change if he’s either less active (and needs fewer calories) or exercising in the cold (and requires more). And regular grooming also helps your dog’s coat do its job better in protecting him from the cold, advises the American Kennel Club.

Treating Frostbite
Frostbite is caused by exposure to extremely cold weather. The symptoms, which don’t develop until 48 hours after exposure, include pain and swelling. If the blood flow to the extremity is entirely interrupted, the tissue will turn black and fall off. To treat suspected frostbite:

  • Hug your dog to you so that your body heat can warm him.
  • Never rub him, as this could damage tissue.
  • Place him in a bath of warm (never hot) water. Test the water’s temperature by dipping your elbow in it -- a much more accurate analysis than using your hand.
  • Take your pet to the veterinarian immediately if he is severely chilled or unresponsive.

Beware of Hazards in the Garage
If your dog spends time in the garage during the winter, be aware of these potential hazards:

  • Licking up only a few teaspoons of antifreeze -- which tastes sweet to a pet -- can kill a dog. Be sure to check your car to make sure the radiator isn’t leaking.
  • Never leave your pet in the garage while you start the car, as carbon monoxide (which escapes from the tailpipe) can kill him.
  • Rat and mouse poisons are used more frequently in the winter months, says the American Humane Society. Make sure your dog can’t access them.

Are You Prepared for Dog Emergencies?

We take CPR lessons before our first child is born, and water safety classes before we learn to sail. We know preparation makes all the difference in an emergency. That’s true when it comes to your dog too.

Knowing what to do in common dog emergencies can determine whether or not a dog survives. Increasingly, dog owners are educating themselves through dog-oriented first-aid classes, such as those sponsored by the American Red Cross, which also sells a dog first-aid manual. Visit RedCross.org to order the manual or to find a class in your area.

Pet Tech -- a Carlsbad, Calif., company -- also offers pet first-aid classes around the country. “We teach you how to be proactive in your pet’s health,” explains owner Thom Somes. Visit PetTech.net for more information about Pet Tech classes and the Pet Tech smartphone app, which offers first-aid information.

A Guide to Common Scenarios
More often than not, our dogs get into trouble in predictable ways. Here’s a look at some common difficulties -- and tips to produce the best possible outcome.

Scenario No. 1: Your dog storms through the baby gate and into your bathroom. Before you can even move a slippered foot, he jumps on the countertop and scarfs down the ibuprofen you were about to swallow to ease your back pain. Should you be worried?
What You Should Do: A single dose of ibuprofen (often packaged as Advil or Motrin), tranquilizers, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or even a birth control pill won’t hurt your curious friend. Multiple doses, however, could be problematic. Call a veterinarian immediately if he chews more than one pill. The ASPCA also operates a 24/7 animal poison-related emergency hotline at 888-426-4435. (You might be charged a $65 consultation fee.)

Scenario No. 2: Lucky, your Border Collie, couldn’t help himself: He had to chase the neighbor’s Volvo. But he got hit this time. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to be hurt. Is veterinary assistance required?
What You Should Do: Your dog needs to be checked by a veterinarian, as many injuries aren’t immediately obvious. Of course, breathing difficulties are especially critical. So if your dog appears to be having any trouble inhaling, go to your vet or an emergency clinic ASAP.

Scenario No. 3: You’re camping and you take your dog on a romp. He loses his ball and goes to search for it in the thick brush, returning to you with a deep gash on his leg. Is it important to head back to the lodge?
What You Should Do: If the cut continues to bleed after a half hour or if his gums are pale (pale gums indicate excessive blood loss), you’ll need to seek medical attention.

Scenario No. 4: Your dog was so interested in the new dog next door that he tried to jump your privacy fence to get to her. Now, he’s limping. Do you allow him to learn a love lesson, or take him in to be checked?
What You Should Do: If his limp goes away immediately or soon after the incident, he’s probably fine. But if he refuses to put pressure on it or if the leg looks like it is bent out of shape, contact your dog’s health care provider.

Scenario No. 5: Your aunt Georgia says your Miniature Pinscher looks skinny and gives her several pieces of Godiva chocolate. Are they a threat to his health? 
What You Should Do: That depends on what kind of chocolate your aunt gave your dog and how much your dog ate. The darker it is, the more dangerous for canines. Only 1 ounce of baking chocolate is toxic to a 10-pound dog, though he can get away with consuming 10 ounces of milk chocolate. (He still might suffer from severe tummy troubles.) You shouldn’t guess. Always call your vet and report what you’ve seen.

Scenario No. 6: You’re playing catch with your dog and he keeps missing the ball, despite your detailed tutelage. Then he finally catches it -- but it goes down his throat. Does he need to see the vet?
What You Should Do: Most dogs yak up anything that gets stuck in their mouths, but on occasion their airways can become obstructed. If he doesn’t seem to be able to breathe, or if his breathing is labored, take him immediately to an emergency clinic. Never try to yank out the object, as it might get pushed further down the airway.

Emergencies are never planned. But since they do happen, it is important that you know how to handle them. Furthermore, you can prepare for the worst dog emergencies by programming your vet’s number into your cell phone and printing out directions to his office -- as well as a map to the after-hours clinic -- and keeping them in the glove compartment of your car. After all, you never know when a squirrel will fight back.