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How to Care for a Senior Gun Dog

The days are short, so make them count.

How to Care for a Senior Gun Dog
Photo Credit: Mark Brendenmuehl

We all want our dogs to be functional hunters and live as long as reasonably possible. With that in mind there are things we can do to benefit our senior hunting dogs. The most important thing I can think of is maintaining them at their ideal weight with a high quality food.

Usually the error is letting them get too fat. Being overweight leads to problems with the musculoskeletal system (arthritis), endocrine system (insulin resistance), cardiopulmonary system (heart disease and lack of endurance) and many other systems to a lesser degree.

Obesity is very fixable in dogs. Just feed the appropriate amount of calories. It’s not hard to put a dog on a diet like it is to get people to diet. Dogs quickly adjust to limited feeding if done predictably and consistently. Dogs can’t usually open the fridge by themselves. Yes, family members can mess this up, but we should be able to educate and communicate the plan to them.

Overweight dogs need their calories decreased by reducing the total calories fed or switching to a diet food, which could just be a senior food. It is important to maintain the right micronutrients, so just reducing the amount fed of an average or below-average food may lead to deficiencies.

Dogs that are truly limit-fed but still carry extra weight should be tested for hypothyroidism. If they are found to be hypothyroid the treatment is a simple supplement given every 12 hours. The results are often very dramatic. Other endocrine or hormonal disorders may need to be tested for also if they pass the initial thyroid test.

On the flip side of the coin, occasionally our senior hunting dogs are too thin. This can be from lack of proper diet or protein loss from an organic disease process like kidney insufficiency/failure. Depending on what is found on exam and diagnostic testing, the diet may be adjusted to help improve or slow the loss of muscle mass and possibly add some fat reserves. Diets with higher fat and the highest quality protein are an option.

Our older hunting dogs commonly have joints with pain from arthritis. To deal with this we need the weight reduced to an ideal level as mentioned. We can also feed foods that have added omega fatty acids at levels that will hopefully decrease inflammation.

We can also incorporate non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) under the direction of a veterinarian. Bloodwork should be done sometime early in the process to check for problems with the red and white blood cell counts or liver and kidney values.

There are four or five commonly used NSAIDs. Just as with people, one may work while another may not. If the first drug does not give the relief we want, then we should have a five-day “washout” period and then try a second drug from that same family.

Side effects to the drugs are also dependent on the individual, so if vomiting or diarrhea are seen with one it is okay to cautiously try another under the guidance of your veterinarian. If severe reactions were seen previously it would be best to avoid this class of drugs for this dog.

Joint supplements can also benefit some arthritic conditions. If joint supplements are used please purchase only brand name products like Dasuquin from Nutramax. It is tested by the USP, United States Pharmacopeia, to contain the actual levels listed on the label. Many others haven’t been verified by an independent auditor.

Nutriceuticals do not have to be tested for purity and safety and many generic brands have limited value. Omega fatty acids in the form of fish oil capsules can have anti-inflammatory actions on the joints; again look for brands that have the USP on the label. Adequan is an injectable product that can help joint lubrication and it probably has more solid evidence of working than all other types of joint supplements.

Remember, weight loss and mild to moderate exercise are more valuable than all the drugs and supplements you can purchase. But sometimes we need the drugs to get the recovery or exercise program started.

Our older dogs may lose mental focus and function. They can have Alzheimer-like changes in their brain similar to people that cause cognitive dysfunction. Also, the decline of their senses makes things additionally bad. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that sight declines first, then hearing and loss of smell comes last.

This order is from a human perspective of what a dog is doing. The dog may notice changes in a different order. Senior dogs need more attention in many ways. They may need their teeth cleaned more often or for the first time. Ear problems will need more care if there is chronic scarring in the canal.

Long-haired breeds seem to be more likely to get mats in their coat. All older dogs seem to need their nails trimmed more often, usually due to decreased activity.

So what warning signs do we need to watch for in our senior dogs? Be alert for all of them, but especially changes in weight, activity, and mental and sensory function. Also, changes in appetite, drinking and urination can suggest internal organ diseases.

Activity changes can include being slow to get up, resistance to going up stairs or jumping into a truck, and obvious limping. Signs of cognitive loss would be getting lost within their normal environment, staring into space, and not recognizing family members.

If any of these warning signs are noted, please have your dog examined by your veterinarian and follow the protocol he or she advises. Our dogs provide us with many years of service in the field and we want them to be comfortable, healthy and pain-free in their declining years.

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