This is probably the hardest thing for us to accept, that our furry friend has become old and it’s time for us to say goodbye to them. Even a whole life together wouldn’t be enough for us and it always feels too soon when the dreaded moment comes. As pet owners, we must all go through this tough time, at least once in our life. However, the news doesn’t have to come to as a surprise. There are some key symptoms and behaviour that will clearly tell us that our dog’s time has come to an end. Some of these symptoms would indicate that they are severely ill and considering their age, it may even mean that they are at the last stage of their life
Incontinence is the inability to control the muscles in the bladder or bowels leading to the involuntary loss of urine or feces. It’s a condition that affects senior dogs of all breeds. Pets WebMD lists urinary tract infections, hormonal imbalances, degenerative spinal conditions, diabetes, and kidney disease as possible causes. Constant dripping of urine or feces makes a mess, and it also irritates the skin. Senior dogs that start having frequent accidents indoors could be suffering from incontinence and be too weak to make it outside. Not every case of incontinence is related to an animal’s end of life, but it’s important to speak to a veterinarian.
2. Loss of Appetite
For most dogs, eating is their favorite thing to do. They enthusiastically chomp down dinner and accept every treat offered and left unguarded. When a dog suddenly or gradually stops showing an interest in meal time, it’s a sign something isn’t right. As organs shut down, the dog loses their sensation of hunger and thirst. Eating is suddenly more effort than it’s worth, and even the juiciest steak can’t tempt them into chewing. Health will continue to decline without a healthy diet. Temporary fasting could be caused by something as benign as a stomach ache, but if meals go untouched for several days in a row, it’s time to speak to a veterinarian.
3. Extreme Weight Loss
Gradual weight loss isn’t easy to spot. Most dogs step on a scale once a year at their annual vet check-up. If their owner isn’t picking them up on a regular basis, gradual weight loss can easily go unnoticed. It doesn’t happen all at once, but one day a dog owner might notice their pooch looking especially thin. It could be related to a lack of appetite or their body’s inability to process nutrients.
4. Loss of Interest
Veterinarian and VetStreet contributor Dr. Andy Roark suggests dog owners measure quality of life by making a list of their pet’s five favorite things to do. The list could include playing fetch, eating, or greeting their owner every time they come through the door. It’s important to make your list based on what your dog liked doing when you knew they were healthy and happy. Dr. Roark says,
“When he or she can no longer do three or more of [the items on the list], quality of life has been impacted to a level where many veterinarians would recommend euthanasia.”
5. Mood Changes
Along with loss of interest, ailing dogs might also show signs of mood changes. Affectionate dogs known for being good around children might gradually grow wary of the same behaviors they used to tolerate. Pain and a general low quality of life can cause them to be short-tempered and even aggressive. They might start responding to situations in unexpected ways and begin behaving differently around family members. They could also show signs of depression including sleeping more often and being generally inactive.
6. Social Withdrawal
Many aging dogs can sense when their time is coming and choose to withdraw from the family. Some canine behaviorists believe dogs isolate themselves at the time of their death as an instinct to not slow down the pack or cause unnecessary trauma for loved ones. Not everyone supports this theory, but social withdrawal often happens at the end of a dog’s life. They seek isolation to avoid contact, sometimes because being touched is too painful to bear. They hide in closed-off areas and spend more time by themselves than with family.
7. Chronic Pain
A dog can’t tell you when they don’t feel well, and that makes recognizing the signs of chronic pain especially challenging. The key is to pay close attention to the dog’s body language, movements, and behaviors. Sometimes pain can be managed with medication or regular physical therapy, and sometimes it can’t. Pain management strategies that used to work in the past can stop being effective. If your dog doesn’t seem to perk up after taking medication, or if their regular physical therapy routine no longer seems useful, their pain is negatively—and most likely permanently—affecting quality of life.
8. Breathing Problems
As the body shuts down, breathing becomes more difficult. End of life breathing problems could manifest as a chronic cough or the dog’s inability to take a deep breath. Their breathing might sound uneven or there could be uncomfortably long pauses between each exhale and inhale. Labored breathing drains a dog’s energy and usually leads to regular lethargy.
9. Loss of Coordination
A general decline in coordination and cognitive dysfunction is common in senior dogs. A dog near their time might seem especially clumsy and unsteady on their feet. They often give the appearance of being dizzy and might walk into furniture and have trouble getting from place to place. In some cases, the dog might choose to remain sedentary because they know standing will lead to loss of limb control and disorientation.
10. Trouble Standing
If coordination problems aren’t what’s keeping a dog from moving around, it could be pain and muscle weakness. Muscles gradually deteriorate due to advanced age and poor nutrition. A dog that used to be able to leap over the fence might start having trouble walking and even standing. This inability to move around can be both frustrating and depressing to the dog. Some try their hardest to get up only to collapse due to weakness.
Watching your dog’s health decline is the most painful part of being a pet owner. Above everything else, you don’t want them to suffer. Making an end of life decision for your dog won’t be easy, but it’s important to put your dog’s needs above your own emotions. Think of the situation objectively and talk to as many people as you can. Discuss with friends who made similar decisions and talk it over with other adults in the family. Your veterinarian will give you their recommendation, but the decision is solely yours to make. Palliative care can help ease your dog’s suffering and keep them comfortable as you consider options.
Keeping Your Adult and Senior Dog Healthy
WHERE HAS YOUR PUPPY GONE? Once a dog has reached the one- year mark, the pace of physical changes slows dramatically. You may miss that rambunctious baby but look at the bright side. If you continue to focus on preventive health measures such as good nutrition, exercise, safety, and home dental care, you may now be able to limit your vet visits to once a year. The senior years—beginning anywhere from age 8 in an extra-large dog to 12 in a small dog—often bring an increase in medical concerns, but your continued good care will have an enormous impact on your older dog’s health and well-being.
CHOOSING A VET
Start by listing the qualities you find most important in a veterinarian. These can include anything from personality traits to the location to office hours to philosophies on such things as diet and vaccines.
Then ask dog-owning friends and acquaintances which vets they recommend. Seek referrals especially from people whose dogs are at a similar life stage (such as a puppy or senior), have similar medical issues (such as hip dysplasia, skin problems, or seizures), or have similar temperaments (very nervous, very dominant, and so on) as your dog. Remember that no vet is loved by every client all the time—we’re just like the rest of humanity that way—so don’t expect any vet to get straight As across the board. Focus on the issues that are the most important to you.
Once you have some recommendations, drop by the more promising practices during office hours and see if they seem like the kind of place you’d feel comfortable bringing your dog. Note whether the office is clean and whether the staff (receptionist, technicians, assistants) seems friendly, efficient, and well-trained.
If you have a clear favorite, schedule an office visit for your dog. Tell the veterinarian that you’re “auditioning” to find a permanent vet. Ask for the vet’s opinion about your dog’s medical issues and any other care issues you feel strongly about. Observe how you, the vet, and your dog all interact. Are you a good match? If so, great. If not, better to keep looking.
While you’re looking for a long-term veterinary relationship, remember that unexpected illnesses and emergencies do crop up, so be sure you have a backup plan of a vet or a veterinary emergency clinic to call if your dog should suddenly become ill. Also, if you find your veterinary soul mate at a large practice, remember that he or she may not be the vet who will care for your dog during an emergency: someone else may be on call that day.
THE VACCINE CONTROVERSY
Giving dogs yearly vaccine boosters against the Big 3 viral diseases—dis-temper, parvo, and infectious hepatitis—was accepted veterinary practice until the late 1990s. Why? Because exactly how long the vaccines protected dogs against those diseases was unclear. Vaccine manufacturers typically tested their products’ effectiveness under laboratory conditions to a year or two post-vaccination, and then stopped testing. Veterinarians wanted to be certain dogs remained protected, and the vaccines themselves were considered perfectly safe, so we adopted a practice of giving boosters every year.
Then our conviction that dog and cat vaccines were absolutely safe was rocked. In the late 1990s, it was discovered that vaccinations had caused malignant tumors at the injection sites in a small number of cats (estimated at 1 or 2 per 10,000 vaccinated cats). Although this vaccine/cancer connection was seen only in cats, not in dogs,
veterinarians and animal owners alike began to question the more-is-better philosophy of vaccine boosters.
Researchers started compiling statistics on the long-term effects of vaccines. The data came mainly from vaccine manufacturers’ tests, measurements of antibody titers in vaccinated dogs, and natural disease outbreaks, rather than new “challenge” studies in which vaccinated dogs were deliberately exposed to viruses to see whether they would become ill. One influential report by veterinary researcher R. D. Schultz, published in 2000, stated that the currently available vaccines against parvo, distemper, and infectious hepatitis remained effective for at least seven years in more than 90 percent of dogs.
Rabies is a separate issue. Schultz’s data indicated that the rabies vaccine is effective for at least three years (not seven years) in 85 percent of dogs (rather than 90 percent). In addition, rabies is a public- health issue for people as well as for animals and states regulate how often cats and dogs must receive a rabies booster. The frequency ranges from every year to every three years, depending on how prevalent rabies is among the wildlife in that state.