Our latest in a series of columns on the growth cycle of dogs with a look at the senior years.

If you own a dog who is entering the final chapters of her life, you are responsible for helping her age with dignity in a healthy, comfortable manner. Think of all the unconditional love you’ve received over the years from your always-affectionate, never-judgmental pet. Sure, you’ve already provided her with shelter, safety and food, but providing life’s basics, as well as a few extra comforts, were part of the deal when you took ownership of her years ago. You’re still required to provide life’s basics but it’s your responsibility to adjust accordingly to make sure your older dog is getting everything she needs—and a lot of what she wants.

As your dog enters her senior years, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Visit the vet

Just because your dog seems healthy doesn’t mean you should stretch out those visits to the vet. Some older dogs suffer vision or hearing loss while others require increased medical care from you and your veterinarian. Continue bringing your dog to the doctor on a regular basis and be sure to fill your vet in on any sudden or subtle changes in diet or demeanor. If you’ve had the same vet for years, he’ll be tuned into your dog’s overall well-being. Even if your vet is relatively new, she’ll have notes on your dog’s health as well as a library of knowledge on canine health. That small lump on the back of your dog’s neck may feel like nothing to you but your vet may have larger concerns after he checks it out. Likewise, those “this-is-it” reactions you have after noticing a change in your dog’s behavior may be based on the normal ebb and flow of a dog’s life, and not the life-ending disease you’re convinced your dog picked up at the dog park.

Be careful about relying on the web for the answers to all those new questions about your dog’s health. Websites can provide information but they can’t reach out and examine your dog for specific answers. You know who can? Your vet.

Creature comforts

Most senior dogs can live a happy, peaceful life, despite their place on the far end of the dog-years timeline. Like aging adults who need a second handrail on the stairs, senior dogs can benefit from a few small changes around the house to keep them comfortable. Before you go out and replace all your stairs with ramps, observe your dog for a few days and make appropriate changes. For example:

  • If she no longer sleeps upstairs in your room and instead opts for the carpet in the living room, make her new resting place as comfortable as possible by bringing down her favorite blanket and toys. If you fall asleep to music or the TV each night, your dog does, too. Recreate the upstairs atmosphere in her new sleeping quarters.
  • Remember when your grandpa drove you to Wisconsin Dells when you were a kid and he seemed to stop every 15 minutes to go to the bathroom? Well, guess who could be a grandpa now? Your dog—yes, the dog who seems to making the occasional accident in the basement a weekly occurrence. Help him out by taking him on more frequent walks or increasing the number of times you let him out into the yard.  
  • Your dog’s teeth may bother her more as she gets older. If he’s leaving half a bowl of his dinner each night, consider switching to a softer form of dog food so eating doesn’t become a painful experience.

Keeping appearances

That once shiny coat may be a little matted from a lack of attention so it may require more brushing than usual. Likewise, if an older dog is taking fewer walks, there’s a good chance they’re no longer getting that daily pedicure from the rough sidewalks around your house. You may need to trim those nails more often. Longer claws can get stuck in carpet or bedding and may become detached if your dog gets a little too anxious. Be proactive and brush and bathe him more often or bring him to a groomer. He’ll look better, of course, but he’ll also avoid some of those unfortunate accidents that can cause pain and cost money.

A peaceful existence

As your dogs ages, you’ll have to reassess some of what you’ve done together in the past. If you’ve been running together, your dog may no longer be up to the task. Accept it. Run on your own and take him for a short walk later in the day. Maybe you take Fido with you on those late-night trips to Jewel. He used to run to the car as soon as he heard you grab your wallet but today? Not so much. He may not feel like getting up for that 1 a.m. ride to the store and subsequent wait in the parking lot. That’s OK. You can take the trip yourself. Your dog will understand.

The bottom line is that like you, your dog knows he’s getting old. At time’s he’s confused by his, well, confusion and frustrated by his inability to do the things that were once part of his normal routine. Show a little patience and return that unconditional love as he—OK, both of you—move along in life.

It’s important to remember that while your dog’s daily needs may change as she gets older, your responsibility to fill those needs has not. And while you may find you have to spend some more time caring for your aging dog than in the past, you’ll also learn that that the unconditional loves she’s given to you and your family for the past decade or more won’t diminish. In fact, it may only increase.

Jill Showalter owns Yuppie Puppy and Doggie Day Play in Oak Park. She has personally tended to more than 100,000 dogs since 2007 and has shared stories and advice with numerous dog owners.

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