Caring For An Aging Australian Shepherd - Aussie University

Caring For An Aging Australian Shepherd

We love our Aussies so much that we never want to think about them aging, right? Unfortunately, time goes by and we have to do our best and make sure they age well.

How do we know when our puppies are becoming seniors? The answer to that question varies with the breed and size of your pet. We start calling our babies seniors on average after 8 years old.

This does not mean they are already old at that particular age. Most of them actually still have the same energy and the behaviors exhibited by younger dogs and even puppies. The 8-year mark is simply a roundabout time when usual signs of aging start to show.

More Frequent Check-ups from your Australian Shepherd’s Vet

The most important thing to ensure your Aussie lives a long and healthy life is to make sure you visit your veterinarian regularly and follow their recommendations regarding preventive care. A healthy, adult dog should visit a veterinarian once to twice yearly (ideally every 6 months under the assumption that we are not dealing with any chronic illness that might require more frequent visits). Puppies will require more frequent visits until they complete their full vaccination schedule.

Those visits are usually timed to keep your pet up to date on parasite prevention (heartworm/fleas/intestinal parasites) and also current on all core vaccines. However, it is essentially up to the pet parent to keep track of the vaccine schedule. The area you live in will vary between incidences of disease. Your veterinarian may recommend different vaccines depending on these lifestyle differences (ie.: Lyme vaccine if you live near woods or go camping in tick-infested areas, etc.).

Yearly Blood Work

Yearly blood work is usually recommended. This will allow your veterinarian to monitor how your pet is doing internally. The blood cell count (or CBC) will screen for infections, and the internal organ function (IOF/chemistry) will evaluate liver and kidney values, among other important parameters. A heartworm test will also be recommended once a year along with fecal exams twice yearly.

The good news is if you have been following your vet’s preventive care recommendations and yearly check-ups, you are already making sure you do your part to keep your puppy healthy and are ensuring a natural, proper aging process.

The yearly visits combined with a thorough physical exam and screening of blood work helps detect early abnormalities to act fast. Should any abnormality be detected, you can treat it promptly before it progresses to a more serious illness.

As your pet ages, additional tests may be added to the list of recommendations, such as an electrocardiogram to monitor the heart, and radiographs (x-rays). Detection of other abnormalities may require more tests for further diagnostic treatment and follow up.

What are some of the things you can do for your Aussie at home between vet visits?

Always make sure you pay attention to your Aussie so you can notice changes in behaviors such as defecation and urination habits, and water intake/appetite (increased or decreased). Also, make sure you always physically pet your dog and let your vet know if you feel any bumps on the skin. Aging dogs, just like humans, can have growths around the body, and they are not always benign. Yes, we are talking about cancer. The sooner they are detected and tested for malignancy, the better are the chances of successful treatment.

Brushing your pet’s teeth with soft finger toothbrushes and doggy toothpaste is also a great practice. (Make sure the toothpaste is not human toothpaste, but a specific paste that is safe for dogs.) That will reduce greatly the amount of plaque in their mouth and delay the onset of problems related to gingivitis and periodontal disease. It can be challenging if you have never brushed your aging pet’s teeth. That is why we advise starting young, preferably as a type of playtime, rewarding with treats.

Gradually, this will become part of your routine. You can find beef or chicken flavored toothpaste out there (and trust me, your Aussie will love it!). Some owners can brush daily, some 3 times a week. Whenever you can fit it in your schedule it will be greatly beneficial for the oral health of your puppy. Once-daily is the recommended brushing frequency. Dental diets are also available to owners who cannot keep up with regular brushing.

Recommended Dental Cleanings

Most veterinarians will recommend one dental cleaning a year to prevent severe periodontal disease. If periodontal disease is left unaddressed, internal diseases can develop (such as diminished organ function). In dogs, the proper scaling and polishing of the teeth require general anesthesia. Your veterinarian will ensure your Aussie is healthy enough before general anesthesia is performed.

When puppies start aging and become seniors almost all of them start showing symptoms of degenerative joint disease (DJD). Rear leg weakness, difficulty getting up after long periods of sleep, lameness, and soreness along the back can be some of the signs and could be related to osteoarthritis.

What is osteoarthritis in Aging Australian Shepherds?

It is a degenerative disease of the joints. With age, the cartilage that protects the bone in the joint area gets worn out. This causes bones to touch and elicits painful stimuli in your pet.

If you notice any of the signs above, contact your veterinarian. Dogs are very good at hiding signs of pain, so your role as the observer is vital. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease that worsens with age. Although there is no cure, there are many treatment options to improve the health of the joint and reduce pain your pet is experiencing. Your vet will recommend the best one for your specific case. Examples include:

Joint supplements with chondroitin – are usually needed for the long term and will help the body to heal the cartilage around the bones inside the joints and also improve joint lubrication.
Anti-inflammatory drugs – They are usually very effective in controlling pain but they have to be prescribed by your veterinarian. Your pet must get checked before using these drugs because they can lead to severe side effects, especially in elderly dogs. Your vet will know which option is safer for your case. NEVER use human anti-inflammatory drugs as they can cause gastric ulcers, kidney/liver diseases and can be lethal for your pet!
Analgesics – they are usually used in association with the previous medications to improve pain control. They are also known as “pain killers”. There are many kinds and your vet will recommend the best one according to his evaluation.

Of course, your Aussie has to play and burn all that energy. A wise man once said (or maybe every Aussie owner ever!): A tired Aussie is a good Aussie!

Always be mindful of where your Aging Aussie is playing (and how)

Aussies can be very athletic and perform acrobatic jumps. Make sure you monitor his/her activity, ensuring proper movement and mobility. Avoid sliding, hyperextension, over flexing, and abnormally high jumping. Play on a stable, non-slippery surface to decrease the chances of injuries.

If possible, try to avoid unnecessary traumas and impacts, such as going frequently up and down hard, slippery stairs in the home. Frequent impacts over life can lead to back problems such as disc herniation (yes, just like humans!). All these injuries through life can worsen osteoarthritis when they start to age.

Exercise is good and without a doubt should be present in your Aussie’s routine. It is just a matter of common sense and knowing when it becomes too much or too dangerous (again, just like humans!).

Fit vs. Fat Aussie’s

Your puppy’s weight is also a very important health factor. Make sure you follow the feeding recommendation from the food bag (the calorie amount varies from brand to brand). Keep in mind the recommendation is the total DAILY amount of food for the ideal weight. But what does it mean? It means that if your puppy is 55 lbs, but his ideal weight is 50 lbs you should follow the recommendation for 50 lbs and NOT for his/her current weight. That is the daily amount and should be divided into 2 meals.

Also, control the number of daily treats as they are incredibly high in calories. If you cannot cut treat load due to training, decrease an equivalent amount from the meals so you will not be giving too many extra calories. A dog’s metabolism differs greatly from a human. For example, one cube of cheese for a dog is equal to one extra hamburger for us a day!

Overweight Diagnosis

As your dog ages, an overweight diagnosis will worsen pain due to osteoarthritis as they will tend to have weaker joints and muscles. It will also be harder for them to exercise if they are too heavy, putting a severe strain on respiratory function. These are just a couple of the reasons why it is important to maintain a healthy weight for your pet through all stages of life.

Your veterinarian may also recommend specific diet changes according to your pet’s needs. Your pet may need a specific food to control weight or require a certain food for kidney/heart disease. There are many prescription diets available to cover those needs. If your pet is a healthy senior dog, there are also senior diets over the counter that can help delay the signs of aging. Discuss with your veterinarian what is the best option for you.

I know we covered a lot in this article. If you have any questions feel free to comment and also feel free to give us suggestions for more topics you might be interested in.

Dr. Tatiana da Silva, DVM

Dr Tatiana da Silva graduated from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2000. She practiced as a small animal surgeon in the University of Sao Paulo Teaching Hospital until she decided to move to Orlando, Florida in 2011. She has been working for Banfield Pet Hospital since validating her Veterinary degree in the USA. On her free time she loves to spend quality time with her wife and pets (3 dogs and 3 guinea pigs). She also enjoys working on her Australian Shepherd Zoe Marie Instagram’s page @zoemarietheaussie.

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