Senior dogs need extra care to stay healthy and happy

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I never had a dog growing up, and I thought I didn't want one, especially years ago when I had a harried household of three young sons and a husband. However, the guys outnumbered me during the debate about the "free" Lab/chow puppy from my brother 15 years ago.

My husband claims I am now a dog person; I just know I am fiercely loyal to our beloved Cookie. She has contracted several ailments as she ages (and let me say I can relate to her pains). I'm realizing how similar the aging process is for people and dogs.

As there are in aging individuals, there are variables involved in the aging process of dogs. Average-size dogs are considered seniors at 7 years, very large dogs are seniors at age 5, and small dogs not until 10. Here are some ways to maintain the health and happiness of your dog:

Basic care: Dr. Nancy Bader at the Jason-Little Road Animal Clinic in Arlington, Texas, says owners need to be diligent with regular care. Clipping toe nails, brushing fur, basic hygiene, heartworm prevention and flea/tick control can alert you to any changes in the dog. A change in the quantity of water being consumed can indicate a need to check for conditions such as diabetes and kidney and liver diseases.

Regular exercise: Playing with your dog can lessen the deterioration of physical and even mental abilities — just be sure it's not too strenuous. Dr. Larry Gumfory at the Westcreek Animal Clinic says that keeping your dog moving helps him and helps you care for him. A sedentary dog that cannot stand up easily or walk around outside for potty breaks is much more difficult to care for and not as happy.

Track your dog's weight: That chubby dachshund waddling to the car may look adorable, but he is not healthy and will probably cost his owner a lot more money. According to Pet Talk experts with the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, 40 percent of older dogs are overweight, a fact that contributes to many health conditions and affects quality of life. Gumfory says he usually advises switching to senior dog food as the dog ages. Seniors need more easily digested nutrition and have different caloric needs.

Notice changes in behavior: Some things, such as sleeping more and running around less, are to be expected. Other changes, such licking fur constantly, can indicate a problem. Some dogs may turn cranky, Bader says, a change that is often due to the presence of pain or loss of senses such as hearing or sight.

Be aware of cognitive degeneration and disorientation: Is your dog getting senile? Last summer, Cookie started walking in circles around the coffee table, pacing for hours in the middle of the night and randomly barking at the bathroom door. Gumfory prescribed an Alzheimer's medication. One strategy for evaluating your dog's mental condition is to analyze the DISH:

D — disorientation

I — interactions with family change

S — sleep-wake cycle and activity level changes

H — house soiling

Look in your dog's mouth: OK, I know peering at 42 teeth and smelling your dog's breath isn't fun, but periodontal diseases are common in dogs. Bacteria hiding around the teeth can be released into the blood stream, potentially leading to heart disease and other problems. Dental problems can affect a dog's eating habits, such as not being able to chew. Dental chew treats and regular brushing with a dog tooth brush can help, but never use human tooth paste.