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How to Care for Your Senior Dog

Yuki, our first West Highland White Terrier, crossed the rainbow bridge in Jan 2022 at the grand age of 16 years & 10 months. Right up until his last week on earth with us, he enjoyed walks in the park every day, chasing a toy indoors, barking at the neighbour’s cat and regular massage to keep his joints in good shape.

Westies are a great long-term canine companion with an average life expectancy of 12-16 years. Yuki, named after the pretty Japanese word for snow, was one of the legion of dogs of all breeds now living longer, healthier lives due to a vastly improved quality of life. A global study revealed the average life expectancy of dogs has increased from 10.5 years to 11.8 years between 2002 and 2016 due to societal change in treating our dogs as family members, not just pets (Fleming, 2019).

You’ve no doubt heard the expression “you’re as old as you feel”. Well, turns out this is equally true for our dogs. With the right senior care you can help your dog feel their best for longer, and possibly even extend their years. Massage is an integral part of supporting senior dog wellness. In this article we’ll discuss this and other ways to optimise senior dog quality of life.

What is a Senior Dog?

Firstly, let’s clarify what we mean by a senior dog. The age at which your dog falls into this category is largely determined by breed genetics. Smaller breeds are considered seniors when they reach around 11 years of age and may live to 14 or more, while larger-sized breeds may reach senior status by the time they’re 7 or 8. Breeds with the shortest lifespans like the Irish Wolfhound and Bernese Mountain Dog (7 years) would be considered a senior dog at 5 or 6 years of age.

Thriving as a Senior Dog

Senior dogs are more susceptible to arthritis, reduced energy levels, loss of muscle tone, stiff joints and slower circulation and blood oxygenation. To help your senior dog thrive in his golden years, the simplest thing you can do is spend time with him, communicate with him and stimulate his personality through games and touch. The more medical and physical changes you can make to support him are:

1. Diet & Weight Management

With up to 60% of dogs in the UK classified as overweight or obese, the most important choice you can make for a senior dog is to manage their weight down through a healthy, high quality diet specially designed for senior dogs. Obesity reduces canine lifespan and places additional stress and pressure on ageing joints. Older dogs should be kept leaner and fed fewer calories of a higher-quality food. Yuki was always on the small side at 8.4kg as an adult dog, but we reduced his weight down to 7.2kg as a senior dog.

2. Supplements

Senior dogs are less able to digest and absorb nutrients from food and the use of supplements may improve health & wellness.

· Glucosamine and Chondroitin may protect cartilage in the joints

· Antioxidants can improve memory and cognitive function in senior dogs

· Omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric may help reduce inflammation

My personal star supplement of choice is CBD which is cannabidiol extracted from the cannabis plant, minus the psychoactive THC compound. At the right dose, CBD is an excellent natural pain modulator in arthritis. In studies at Colorado State University (USA) researchers are evaluating CBD in the treatment of canine epilepsy, canine osteoarthritis, and certain types of cancers.

3. Bedding

As a senior dog develops stiffer joints, they should have more supportive bedding to cushion the body. After all those dog beds destroyed in the puppy years, this is the time to invest in a good quality orthopaedic memory foam mattress that is large enough to stretch out and provide bolster support for the back.

4. Mobility and support aids in the home

It’s time to prevent jump injuries to older joints so train your dog to use steps to the sofa or bed and a car ramp. Look at flooring in the home and add more rugs and mats over tiled or wooden flooring to reduce slipping which can tear muscles and lead to broken bones.

The Value of Canine Massage

One of the most dramatic physiological impacts you can have on a senior dog is through canine massage. This therapy offers a whole host of benefits including:

· Improving joint flexibility to support regular movement and help reduce stiffness

· Extending range of movement of the limbs

· Releasing areas of muscle tension and fatigue to offer pain relief and improve sleep

· Enhances circulation to draw more oxygenated blood into the muscles and tissues

· Accelerates the removal of toxins and waste fluids flushed from the tissues to help prevent oedema (swelling) in less active senior dogs

Canine massage also elevates oxygen levels, helps calm and relax dogs suffering cognitive dysfunction, helps manage any inflammation, strengthens the immune system, accelerates healing and helps with pain management.

In addition to the numerous and well documented beneficial physical impacts of massage, touch through massage stimulates the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter and is often nicknamed the “happy hormone”. This feel-good hormone induces anti-stress effects due to decreased cortisol levels and blood pressure, improved gastrointestinal tract function and an increased pain threshold.

A trained clinical canine massage therapist will likely interrogate veterinary assessment forms more thoroughly prior to conducting their own detailed assessment of a senior dog’s gait (walk and run pattern) and muscle condition. It’s important they understand what medications the senior dog is on – such as Metacam for osteoarthritis - and their impact and any pre-existing physical changes due to age such as fatty lumps and previous surgical scars. This helps the massage therapist to plan around the senior dog’s needs better.

Yuki loved massage though he needed a toilet break halfway through a massage session to allow for his senior dog bladder.

Palliative Care for Senior Dogs

When the decision is made to withdraw curative treatments for terminally ill senior dogs in declining health, palliative care may be adopted with the aim of improving comfort and quality of life. The palliative care journey includes trying to alleviate suffering from a typically terminal illness like some types of cancer or where a cure is not possible and helping an ageing dog stay happy and comfortable while nature takes its course or until euthanasia is the most humane choice. The objective in palliative care is to optimise quality of life so the dog experiences more pleasure than pain.

Palliative care planning must be developed with a vet who can guide the owner on life expectancy, pain levels, pain management options (including anaesthetics, steroids, opioids, anti-inflammatory NSAIDs) and the range of non-drug therapies that could aid the dog’s condition. Clinical canine massage can alleviate some of the pain, oedema, poor circulation and muscle wastage associated with terminal illness, assuming the dog is not suffering from excessive touch sensitivity due to nerve damage. Other care options can include:

· Acupuncture – for pain perception management and reducing abnormal nervous system activity

· Laser therapy - to stimulate circulation and reduce inflammation

· Tellington TTouch – to promote parasympathetic activation and provide comfort

Dogs live in the moment so they don’t lie there reflecting on their better days or what tomorrow will bring. They do know how they feel today and remembering this perspective helps us understand the benefit of massage to them in palliative care. While palliative care can sometimes lead to partial or short term recovery, it should not be pursued only to prolong suffering until the owner is ready to let go of their beloved dog.

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