Senior Dogs 101: How to deal with mobility loss, deafness, blindness, and dementia in senior dogs
Written by Small Door's medical experts
Your dog’s senior years can be difficult. They’ll often experience a number of changes, including loss of mobility, loss of certain senses and a decrease in their cognitive abilities. However, there are a number of things you can do to help them face these challenges, including making changes to their environment and routine to keep them comfortable and happy as a senior.
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Loss of mobility in senior dogs can manifest in a variety of ways. The most common cause is arthritis, which causes pain and inflammation of the joints, making it harder for them to get around. Dogs facing mobility loss may struggle to exercise and play as much as they used to, or to do things such as jumping up on couches and climbing stairs.
You will need to consider adapting your dog’s routine and environment to help them get around more easily, and maintain what mobility they do have.
Adapt exercise to their mobility and comfort level: It’s important that dogs with mobility issues still continue to get some form of exercise, even if they may no longer be able to run and jump about, as exercise helps to combat weight gain, boredom, and depression, amongst other things. Substitute more frequent, shorter walks, and go slowly – let your dog set the pace.
Consider a carrier, stroller or wagon: If your dog’s mobility declines to the extent that they cannot walk very far, consider these tools so they can still enjoy the sights and smells of a walk, exposure to sunlight and other enrichment that the outdoors provides. They can be particularly useful if you also have a younger dog who wants to continue the walk while you carry or push your older dog.
Consider animal rehabilitation to improve range of motion: Specialist animal rehabilitation centers can work with you and your veterinarian to set up a program of therapeutic exercises to improve or maintain your pet’s mobility. Alternative therapies, such as aqua-therapy, acupuncture, or LASER therapy, may also be suitable for your dog.
Provide ramps around the home: Senior pets often struggle with steps, jumping onto couches or into the car, so providing ramps can help them to maintain their independence while minimising stress on the joints.
Cover slippery surfaces: Slipping is not only stressful for dogs, but can also damage their joints. As dogs with mobility issues can struggle to balance on slippery surfaces, we recommend covering hard floors with mats or rugs to help improve grip levels. Another option is to use nail grips that will help provide stability on floors, such as these from Dr. Buzby.
Keep their nails trimmed: Long nails can be very uncomfortable for your pet, and they can impact mobility or contribute to issues with slipping. Keep them well-trimmed (they shouldn’t touch the floor when your dog is standing up) to help them stay comfortable.
Raise their feeding station: If your dog struggles to bend down, raise their food and water bowls by placing them on a platform.
Provide orthopedic bedding: Dogs with painful joints may benefit from a therapeutic pet bed, such as the Petfusion memory foam bed, to keep them comfortable while resting.
Consider supplements: Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin can help to protect the cartilage in your dog’s joints, and reduce inflammation, benefitting dogs with arthritis or other joint conditions.
While dogs’ hearing is far superior to that of humans, they are often quite unphased by hearing loss, unless it occurs suddenly. However, deafness does pose certain dangers and challenges for you and your dog, particularly when it comes to communication. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help minimize the impact of hearing loss for your pet:
Teach your dog hand signals: Ideally, begin teaching your dog hand signals for key commands such as ‘come’, ‘sit’, and ‘stay’ while they still have some level of hearing. Begin by making the hand signal whenever you say the command, and eventually progress to using the signal only.
Find another way to get your dog’s attention: Deaf dogs can still feel vibrations, so a strong stamp on the ground may get them to look round at you. Alternatively, you can wave in front of their face, or consider a vibration collar. This is not a shock collar, but one that provides a gentle vibration when you press a button on a remote, and you can train your dog to look round when they feel the vibration.
Approach with caution: Dogs with limited hearing may not always notice you approaching, and the natural reaction when a dog is startled is for them to snap. Take care when approaching them (try to walk with heavy footsteps!), especially if they’re asleep, and remind any visitors to do the same. Take particular care with young children.
Keep your dog safe outside: Never let your deaf dog off the leash when out for walks, and keep them well away from the edge of the sidewalk, as they may not be able to hear dangers such as traffic or cyclists.
Unlike humans, dogs don’t rely on sight as their primary sense; their sense of smell is most important. Consequently, they can actually adapt quite well to blindness, but there are nonetheless a number of ways you can help them to cope with a loss of vision:
Keep the layout of your home the same: It’s very important not to rearrange furniture or add new furniture if possible, as your dog is very likely to bump into any obstacles and may hurt themselves. Keep walkways clear and try not to move their food and water bowls or bed. If you do have to move things around, walk your dog through the new layout on a leash several times to help them familiarize themselves.
Check for hazards regularly: Do a weekly sweep of your home and yard if you have one to check for any hazards such as loose cables, clutter creating an obstacle, or low hanging branches that could hurt your dog.
Provide tactile markers: To help your dog avoid hazards, consider placing a uniquely textured mat at places such as the top and bottom step of stairs.
Use sound to alert your dog to your presence: Before you approach or pet your dog, speak to them so you don’t alert them. Warn visitors or people on the street to do the same, and let your dog sniff them before they touch your dog. You may wish to consider teaching your dog a command to let them know someone is going to approach them, such as ‘say hello’.
Get their eyes checked by your veterinarian: Many causes of blindness can be addressed by treatment, such as cataract surgery, so you should always take your dog for a physical exam if you notice any signs of vision loss.
Dementia in senior dogs, also known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), tends to progressively worsen over time and can become quite debilitating. While it can be distressing to see your best friend’s cognitive abilities decline, there are many ways you can lessen the effects of CCD and help your dog to enjoy their remaining time:
Develop and stick to a routine: The importance of a routine cannot be overstated for dogs with dementia. Doing the same activities and knowing they will be fed and walked at particular times of the day is very comforting for senior dogs, reducing stress they may feel from the other confusing aspects of CCD.
Provide mental stimulation: Scientific studies have proven that ‘brain teasers’ help to preserve cognitive function in dogs suffering from dementia. Items such as food puzzle toys, where your dog has to work out how to release the food, or other interactive toys and games are great choices. Make sure to work at your dog’s cognitive level, as they may become distressed if they cannot ‘solve’ the puzzle – and be mindful that this level may change over time, or even on a day-to-day basis.
Provide appropriate exercise: Dogs with CCD can often struggle with sleep, sometimes seeming to ‘mix up’ their days and nights. Providing plenty of exercise can help them to stay awake during the day and sleep better at night. Exercise and time outside also helps to stimulate their mind and senses.
Keep your dog safe outside: As their cognitive function decreases, your dog may no longer be conscious of certain dangers, such as traffic, or may wander off and be unable to find their way back to you. Keep them on a leash and never leave them unattended outside, even if you have an enclosed yard. Keep your contact details up to date on their ID tag and the microchip database, just in case they manage to escape.
Dementia-proof your home: Pet-proof your home as if you were baby-proofing. Consider all possible potential dangers, including wall sockets, cables, sharp edges on furniture, and breakable items. Secure garbage cans and keep food in dog-proof, airtight containers to ensure your dog isn’t tempted to scavenge for leftovers. No matter how well-trained they once were, as their cognition declines, they may not have the same levels of restraint. Use baby gates to block access to stairs, and lock away cleaning products, pesticides and medicines.
Minimize the impact of accidents: If your dog is struggling with continence issues, make sure you’re taking them outside to do their business more frequently. Consider setting up a dedicated area of the home for your dog with baby gates or playpens, and placing their food and water bowls, bed and toys in this area so you can keep a closer eye on them and minimize the location of potential accidents. Choose a non-carpeted area for easier cleanup, or use doggy pee pads.
Speak to your veterinarian about medications and supplements that could help: There are a number of different medications that can help to slow cognitive decline, which may be suitable for your dog. In addition, certain supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, SAME and milk thistle (found in Denamarin Advanced) can help to protect cell membranes in the brain, helping to slow the development of CCD.
Provide plenty of patience and love: Managing your dog’s dementia can be exhausting and frustrating at times, particularly as they may stop responding to commands as readily. Try to stay patient with your dog, and shower them with love and quality time. Remember that the experience of dementia can be confusing and frustrating for your dog too, but your love and care goes a very long way to helping them cope with the changes they’re experiencing.
Monitor their quality of life: While it’s often possible to keep your dog healthy, safe and enjoying life for some time while suffering from dementia, there may come a time where their cognition and bodily functions have deteriorated to the extent that they no longer have a good quality of life. Knowing when it’s time to say goodbye and offering your pet a dignified passing is one of the most loving things you can do for them. Keep in close contact with your veterinarian; they can help you to assess your pet’s quality of life and provide advice throughout this difficult time.
It can be difficult to watch your senior dog lose some of their abilities as they grow older, but thankfully there are many things you can do to help them cope. From making small changes to their environment to make it easier and safer for them to get around, adapting their routine to keep them comfortable and calm, and finding new ways to communicate, there are many things you can do to improve their quality of life. Read our other article for more tips on keeping your senior dog happy and healthy, and be sure to keep in close contact with your veterinarian if you notice any changes to your dog’s condition, as they will be able to advise on additional measures you may be able to take.