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Seniors are Super! Embracing the changes in our elderly dogs

When does a dog enter the “senior years”?

o Small breeds 9-11 years, large and giant from 4-5 years, medium e.g. Border Collies, Labradors 8-10 years BUT it all depends on individual genes and circumstances e.g. a dachshund may not be aging until they’re 11 years old, but chances are that due to their conformation (posture and functionality of this posture) and breed-specific diseases they may age a lot earlier and die from a certain condition rather than old age or e.g. a wolfhound that may have been fed a perfect raw diet all his life, never had to chase balls, had a good fitness program and beneficial home environment may live longer than expected

o Signs for entering the senior stages are grey hair, difficulty getting up, needing more sleep, nails growing quicker and need more attention, skin may look flaky, hair shabby, eyesight / hearing decreasing or is limited or just getting a little slower

We can influence our dog’s longevity and quality of their senior years. There are factors (that are in our hands) that greatly improve the chance of them living longer and happier e.g. nutrition, home environment, veterinary care, fitness (mentally and physically) and also as “prevention” or slowing the aging process down. Aging is a biological process that cannot be avoided but just like with humans, we can counteract the progress.

Mobility is a must in old age as it prevents from diseases of the musculoskeletal apparatus plus reduces the time the body needs for healing in case of injury. A “fit” and well-maintained body ensures that the “aging process” is delayed. When aging does happen, it progresses at a slower rate in a dog that was fit and conditioned throughout their life and is being kept mobile and engaged in their senior years.

Can an already old and unfit dog benefit from physical enrichment?

Yes, with appropriate and targeted movement tasks they can re-learn simple exercises that will enhance their posture, movements, joint rotation, balance, muscle tone and restore overall bodily functions. This is also training and fitness for the brain – the two must go hand in hand if we want success.

What happens in the body?

As we age, the cell division decreases which results in less “functioning” cells and more “non-functioning” = dead cells. Dead cells are being replaced by fascia = connective tissue cells and in later stages by fat cells. This means that the overall amount of fluid in the body decreases. In humans this is evident in wrinkles but is happening in the entire body e.g. organs, bone matter, ligaments, brain. Because the provision of fluid is decreased throughout the body, nothing “heals” or restores like it used to e.g. you cannot fix wrinkles. This “dryness” influences the muscles, bones, ligaments, joint capsules and they all “shrink” (like the skin in wrinkles) and therefore mobility becomes limited.

  • Immune system and Metabolism: due to this reduced metabolic function, the immune system is not “nourished” like it used to be and therefore older dogs are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and infections and the recovery period takes longer. This also affects the thermoregulatory function (body temperature) and needs to be considered e.g. old dogs get cold and cannot warm themselves as much as in younger years.

  • Muscles: decrease and become flat which results in less functioning movements (decreased muscles tone / strength). Therefore, ligaments and bones carry more of the load but become porous as well due to the limited fluid retention in the body. Dead muscle cells are replaced by fat cells at advanced stage. The longer we keep the muscles fit and toned, the longer the cells stay active and are not replaced by fat. (prevention!)

  • Skeletal function: joint fluid reduces and becomes thicker (due to fluid loss in body), ligaments lose their elasticity, dogs walk stiffly, joint capsules shrink, bone fragments rub against each other as the soft tissues around them don’t “cushion” anymore, cartilage pieces get dry, porous and break off, these float in joint cavities and rub against other substances e.g. bones. This can lead to arthritis, inflammation, pain, disturbed neural function etc. The less the skeleton (and joints!) is being moved, the more “bridging” material is produced as bone tissue to fill the gaps. This causes more stiffness and pain. Often seen in spondylosis where vertebrae grow new tissue for protection against rubbing and these then compress the spinal cord.

  • Brain and neural responses: nerves loose their ability to communicate and transmit responses from the brain to certain body parts, as the body moves less, these nerve receptors are being “trained” less and loose more of their ability. Other factors for decrease of neural function comes from physically being impaired e.g. bone fragments pressing into spinal cord. Dragging of hind feet symbolises that nerves cannot transmit where and how exactly to place the feet while walking. Brain functions such as orientation, memory, concentration span, focus are also decreasing and can lead to confusion and forgetfulness or not fulfilling needs e.g. old dogs may drink less.

  • Sensory organ function decreases in line with other limitations: hearing and eyesight may change and can lead to altered behaviour such as increased reactivity/ confusion / scared or on the contrary to more relaxed demeanour. May not complete tasks / obedience that may be seen as being stubborn but may need support or instead of verbal commands need to learn hand signals (which is a great brain stimulator).

  • Circulatory system / heart / respiratory functions: organs suffer from loss of fluid as well and may not function properly, many dogs develop heart disease. Movement and activity in moderation is important to bring more oxygen into the lungs as well as increase circulation a few times a day to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the muscles and all other body parts including organs. Movement is important to pump blood (which is full of oxygen) to the brain. If brain has less oxygen, dogs tire and cannot think. E.g. may need to walk around house before starting a puzzle.

Dogs’ behaviour, likes and dislikes change just like old people. We need to respect this and not class them as disobedient or stubborn. It is time to adjust and change our life with our senior dog to support them in a meaningful way:

Mental stimulation:

When less walking, playing, receiving stimulation from outings is happening, it’s important to stimulate brain cells to counteract aging. Insufficient challenges, boredom, feeling of loneliness create stress hormones that add to aging and increase feelings of pain.

Did you know that puzzling can decrease your dog’s pain? Slowing down mental aging also slows down the physical aging. Happiness creates Serotonin and Dopamine which suppress pain and stress hormones.

Sniffy games/ walks, puzzles, social interaction with likewise dogs, outings with just sitting on a blanket, driving around in the car with windows down, scent work, man trailing, degility (as opposed to agility), simple trick / clicker training, Hoopers, treat toys, physio exercises etc. all help towards good quality of life so owners must put effort in to offer these to their dogs to reduce pain and provide the ability to function.

Physical stimulation:

Any movement that the body performs requires mental commands and “wiring” - we just do not notice it as most movements are automated. These “automated” commands can only be successful if they are being practised continuously so that the “brain – muscle telephone line” is working e.g. if you haven’t done a certain yoga pose in a long time, you may not be able to do it physically even though your brain remembers how to do it.

“Active mobility” training used as prevention is easier to learn by a body that is able to fulfil exercises and then nerve synapses can stay active for longer. However, challenging the brain and body with new movements, movement patterns and postures is a great stimulator. We just need to adjust the exercises so that we set our elderly dog up for success (not failure by expecting too much from them).

Physical activity is just as important to the musculoskeletal system as it is to the mental / emotional wellbeing and health. This is quality of life and we are responsible to offer this to our dogs.

Mobility training fosters brain and body

Brain games foster brain and body

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