pain management

Good health and quality of life will ensure your dog lives well into his golden years. A look at pain management, safety and immune system health.

Our dogs are living longer than they used to. What steps can we take to keep them happy and healthy through their senior years? In this two-part article, we’ll look at the top ways to keep old dogs young by maintaining optimal health and quality of life. Part 1 will cover pain management, making changes at home to ensure his safety and comfort, and the importance of avoiding over-vaccination. Part 2, to appear in the Oct-Nov issue, will focus on diet, supplements and exercise.

1. Assess and manage his pain

The first thing I look at is the role pain might be playing in an older dog’s life. Pain stops healing, limits daily activities, and erodes quality of life, so it’s important to assess and manage it.

Dogs typically do not vocalize pain, so you need to recognize the body language and behavioral cues they use to indicate discomfort. A dog in pain may have an abnormal sit, or avoid sitting altogether. His body may be shifted to one side. One leg might be tucked under — many times the sore leg is the one he’ll lie on. See the sidebar for other signs of pain to watch for.

The next step is to locate the source of the pain and treat it. Have your dog examined by your veterinarian, with routine blood work, a cardiac evaluation and a thorough lameness exam with a good look at the joints, including range of motion tests and radiographs.

There are many ways to treat chronic pain, depending on its cause. Acupuncture, Chinese herbs, massage, laser and physical therapy are all effective. These alternative treatments often have synergistic results – they can amplify the effectiveness of medications, and sometimes allow the dosage of these medications to be reduced.

2. Enhance his safety and comfort at home

  • Falling on floors or struggling unsuccessfully to get up from smooth surfaces only causes more pain and places abuse on already stressed joints. Skid-proof, rubber-backed rugs and runners provide traction and often improve confidence in dogs that worry about sliding and falling.
  • Stairs present a major problem for all breeds, and high rise stair steps are torture for small dogs. Making the steps skid-proof with runners can help, but in some cases a ramp will be a better solution.

Always have good lighting at the top and bottom of the stairs, because the older dog’s eyesight is compromised. The hardest times of day for a vision-impaired dog are dawn and dusk. The thought of going down a dark staircase can be very fearsome, and can lead to accidents and elimination problems.

In some instances, it may be best to block off stairs with child gates to prevent access and potential injury. For a dog that simply cannot make it up or down stairs on his own, support slings can be used to aid him.

  • Many older dogs have some decreased range of motion in the neck area, and may also sink in the rear when standing for more than a few seconds. Preparing an area for raised food and water bowls on skid-proof footing is a simple consideration your geriatric dog will appreciate.
  • One of the main reasons older dogs are brought to the clinic is inappropriate elimination. There are many reasons why a dog seems to lose his house training — sometimes not even seeming aware of it. There is a kind of incontinence that causes urine to leak when the animal is sleeping. The sphincter in the urethra is relaxed and the urine will flow through it. This is known as spay incontinence and is common in females.

Fecal incontinence occurs when feces exit the body through a relaxed anal sphincter. These animals may defecate in their sleep, or while lying down when awake but relaxed.

I also see the occasional dog who is suddenly eliminating in an inappropriate area. One older patient of mine, a rescue poodle, started urinating on the deck instead of in the yard. On exam, her pelvis was very tender; a radiograph revealed an old healed fracture. The weather was cold and the deck stairs were very slick and scary for her in her painful state. With a little environmental modification – being let out the front door where there were fewer steps – along with some Chinese herbs and acupuncture for the pain, she returned to normal elimination patterns.

3. Protect his immune system by avoiding over-vaccination

The antibodies that dogs acquire earlier in their lives from vaccines are not erased as they age. We have antibodies in our systems that have been present from the time we had our childhood vaccines. Animals are no different.

An older dog’s immune system needs to be treated with respect. It’s working hard to keep things in balance and when we give it more challenges than it can handle – e.g. too many vaccines — it may start to break down. I have seen health problems arise in a geriatric dog after he was given multiple vaccines.

Rather than use a cookie cutter approach to vaccines, I use the phrase “lifestyle vaccines”, which means creating a health program to protect the animal from the diseases he may encounter given his particular lifestyle. For example, many geriatric dogs are not as exposed to diseases because they are not going to dog parks and kennels.

Titer tests can be run to see if the older dog is protected against common diseases — most notably parvo and distemper. Titer testing is available from most veterinary labs, and a simple blood sample is all that’s needed to check for antibodies against the disease(s) in question.

If vaccines are absolutely necessary, they should be administered one at a time — for example, just distemper/parvo instead of the multi-way vaccines that contain five, seven or even more disease antigens in one vaccine. The rabies vaccine is arguably the hardest on the immune system, so it should never be given within three weeks of any other vaccine.

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll see how a quality diet, the right supplements, and physical activity can also help maintain your dog’s health through his golden years.

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Veterinarian Dr. Michelle Tilghman has been practicing since 1982 and is a graduate of the University of Georgia. She focuses on complementary modalities, is certified as an acupuncturist through IVAS, and received certification as a canine rehabilitation practitioner at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Tilghman was past president of the AHVMA and is an adjunct professor at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.