What is the best way to help dogs as they age?

John Berg, a professor at Cummings School’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals, responds

One of the biggest mistakes pet owners make is to attribute changes in their older dog or cat’s behavior or activity level to aging, instead of seeking help.

Owners also occasionally assume that weight loss or decreased appetite is caused by aging, when these too can indicate a health problem. Because many of the diseases we encounter in aging animals are quite treatable, it’s important that older pets see a veterinarian twice a year to detect diseases or ailments early.

Your dog’s reduced energy could indeed be caused by aging. But it also could be caused by a variety of diseases, many of which can be ruled out by an office visit, some simple blood tests and X-rays.

For example, arthritis is very common in dogs, but many times owners don’t take them to the vet because the signs of pain in dogs are a lot less obvious than in people. A dog can’t say, “My knee hurts.” And he won’t show his suffering on his face. Your dog can be experiencing severe joint pain, but it may seem like he is just “slowing down” a little.

Other symptoms of arthritis may include a waddling or shuffling gait, limping, difficulty rising, reluctance to go on walks or an unwillingness to walk as far as in the past.

The good news is that a veterinarian can easily diagnosis arthritis—often based just on a physical exam, and if not, certainly after taking some X-rays. We’ve also made tremendous progress in managing arthritis pain. New drugs stop inflammation and pain with fewer side effects. And a combination of physical therapy, weight loss through diet and moderate daily exercise can all vastly improve your dog’s quality of life.

John Berg and other faculty members at Cummings School have written a new book, Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy and Comfortable (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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