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The fear free approach to senior pet care

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Is your furry family member getting some adorable grey hairs? Maybe they don’t walk as far as they used to, or you’ve noticed them sleeping more than they did as a young dog. Growing old comes with many changes for our canine companions, but there are many ways for you to help your aging companion enjoy their golden years.



The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is give my beautiful 8 year old German Shepherd Dog her pain medication. If I don’t, she can’t go on her morning walk an hour later because she’s in too much pain and she gets very reactive when she’s cranky (look out for a future post on the link between pain and aggression in dogs). She needs her pain medication twice more during the day, as well as multiple veterinarian prescribed supplements, one of which I make for her myself because she doesn’t like the commercial versions. I drive her to physical therapy once a week, and we do her exercises every day.


Two years ago, she didn’t need any of this. No pain meds, no special diet, no extra vet appointments. So what happened? Did she get severely injured?


No. She just got old. She showed more and more signs of pain over the course of several months until she could no longer walk more than 5 minutes at a time, couldn’t climb up or down stairs, and seemed to lose interest in her favorite activities.


It is common knowledge that dogs age significantly faster than humans, but that doesn’t make it any easier to see the dog who less than a decade ago was a young, spritely puppy slowing down and developing age related medical conditions. While my large breed dog developed arthritis, your dog may show signs of deafness, chronic pain, or even canine cognitive dysfunction, a condition similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. But just as with older humans, life isn’t over for older dogs.


Adjusting to the new normal


Not only has your dog changed, so have their needs. Your now blind dog may need a halo to prevent them from bumping into things, and might require you to move and keep obstacles in your home out of their way. Your dog with joint pain may need you to add treads to your stairs to prevent tripping. Your dog with canine cognitive dysfunction may need a different diet and frequent, varied interactions with family members to properly stimulate their brain. It may be difficult to make these changes in your life, but keep in mind that your pet needs you now more than ever. Make whatever changes you can, and be forgiving to yourself and your pet as you learn to manage their new needs together.


When to bring your dog to the vet


My answer, as always, is as soon as you notice anything concerning. A dog displaying sudden behavioral changes is often a sign of injury or illness, and many behavior changes you may be tempted to brush off as your dog being “bad” or “lazy” may be due to an underlying issue. Your dog cannot speak up and tell you they are in pain, so you need to listen to their behavior.


Old fears and new fears


To your aging dog, the world is changing too. Maybe they aren’t scared of fireworks anymore because they are losing their hearing, but they could also be more startled by you approaching them from behind. Don’t assume that because your dog was okay with going to the groomer before developing his skin condition that he will be now, or that the pup that used to want to play with every dog she met still does. It’s okay to take things slow with your older dog and change your routines to fit their new needs.


Grooming


Getting prettied up was probably never your pup’s favorite activity, but maybe the last time you took out their brush they showed you their teeth or snapped at you. Grooming can be a tough task for aging dogs as they develop conditions affecting their joints, bones, skin, and even their brain. Luckily, for many dogs the answer to making the grooming process easier is simple: add food! Food can create positive feelings in your dog, which will help both in the short and long term with grooming tasks that they may struggle with. There are many products on the market that can help with giving your dog food while grooming, but one of the easiest ones to use is a lickmat with suction cups on the back to hold it in place while your dog eats. These can be purchased both online and in person from many different brands, and can be filled with whatever liquid treat your pup prefers.


New friends


Many puppies are “dog social”, meaning that they want to be friends with nearly every dog they meet. As dogs grow older, they commonly grow out of their dog social phase and become either “dog tolerant” (neutral or friendly) or “dog selective” (okay with some dogs but not others). Some dogs, however, will become “dog reactive” (uncomfortable with most stranger dogs and requiring close supervision and management) as they age. Most of these changes occur as dogs exit adolescence, but dogs can switch between these categories at a later age as well. Sometimes there is a discernible cause, such as a negative experience with another dog, while other times your dog may appear to change for no reason. No matter how your dog is with others as a puppy, it is important to be aware of their level of tolerance over time when interacting with unfamiliar dogs to ensure their comfort and safety.


Senior dogs may not be as adorable and happy go lucky as puppies, but they are still wonderful companions. They usually sleep through the night, aren’t moody like teenage dogs, and don’t want to bite everything in sight. They might need some extra care, but it’s worth it.


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