Most of us are only too aware of our own aging process. Almost as soon as we're past adolescence, we note tiny laugh lines around our eyes and other subtle hints that our beautiful bodies really are subject to the laws of gravity. Midlife brings significant changes. Our bodies thicken here, soften there, and don't respond quite as reliably as they once did. Eyesight and hearing start to fail. Our hair grays, and in some cases, falls out. We gain weight when we even look at food. And that cheerful, ready-for-anything attitude of youth tends to fade. We become more cautious about taking risks, maybe even a little crotchety and set in our ways. Although these changes can be difficult to detect in the early stages, they are all occurring in our faithful canine companions, too.
The older dog's coat becomes thinner and dryer. Hair on the muzzle and around the ears turns gray. Muscles shrink and the body gradually becomes weaker. Hearing deteriorates, resulting in deafness in some dogs. Eyesight weakens. Many middle-aged dogs develop cloudy lenses in the eyes that could be the beginnings of cataracts. Dogs put on weight eating the same diet that kept them trim as pups, or they lose interest in regular meals and are constantly begging for treats. The dog that couldn't wait to go out and run last year is slowing down, perhaps even whining in protest of a morning walk on cold days. He's taking the stairs one at a time instead of in leaps and bounds. And, he can be cranky, too, intolerant of toddlers who want to play with him and less responsive to your commands and your affection.
HOW AND WHY DOGS AGE
Scientists have developed many theories to explain aging in humans and other mammals, but no one really knows how and why it happens. According to one theory, the celIs of alI living beings contain a built-in genetic program, a DNA clock that sets the pace of aging and determines the outer limits of each being's life span from birth. It's as if each body contains a fixed amount of energy that slowly dissipates over time and is finally used up. Other scientists blame the aging process on the hardships of daily life -- celIs are damaged by toxins in the foods we eat and the air we breathe, and by the gradual, inevitable wear and tear on our bodies that is just a part of living. These scientists compare this wear and tear to the rusting out that happens to the bodies of old cars. Still other biologists believe that the fault lies with our immune systems. They contend that as time takes its toll, our immune systems gradually wear out, and our bodies become more susceptible to infection and disease.
Like people, dogs are individual in the way they age. Certain breeds, mixed breeds, and, in general, smaller dogs tend to live longer. According to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the most respected veterinary colleges in the United States, the point at which a dog enters the golden years varies, although age seven is about average. (This roughly corresponds to the 55-plus category in people.) Tufts University veterinarians generally consider small dogs to be senior citizens at about twelve years of age, while large dogs reach the senior stage at six to eight years of age. Therefore, a Chihuahua or a dachshund might not show serious signs of age until she is twelve or so, while a cocker spaniel or a fox terrier may not start to seem old until about age ten. But larger dogs, such as Great Danes or golden retrievers, usually begin to show their age soone -- by age eight or nine.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Start paying close attention to your dog's aging process as he reaches middle age. Some changes are preventable; others are not. As your dog gets older, two types of changes will occur: age-related changes and true illnesses. Age-related changes are more difficult to prevent. These changes, such as hearing and visual impairment, are normal and will eventually develop in most animals. But, with optimum care, they can be postponed for years and their effects can be minimized.
Illness is another story. Don't ignore the subtle signs of illness or dismiss them as normal aging. While there are many things you can do at home to help diagnose and treat the minor health problems of your older dog with preventive care, natural remedies, and first aid techniques -- which you will read about in later chapters -- there are times when only a professional veterinarian can diagnose and treat a disease. Never hesitate to take your older dog to the vet whenever he's not looking or feeling welI for more than a day or two. With recent advances in veterinary medicine, many of the diseases your aging dog faces can be prevented or successfully treated.
Keep a close eye on your older pet. Picking up on the subtle changes that take place in the earliest stages of a disease can help prevent serious problems from developing. Even if a problem can't be cured, it can often be managed in such a way that your dog enjoys many more years of active, pain-free living and you enjoy many more years of companionship.
Copyright © 2001 by Jean Callahan