My beloved pup, Pinch, turned eight years old recently and is now officially considered a senior. I thought it wouldn’t bother me as much as it has. I mean, I know dogs get older and inevitably pass on, but this is happening to my dog. The one whose happiness I’ve often put before my own, the one who has been my faithful sidekick ever since I became an expat in France almost a decade ago.
His recent birthday combined with more comments about his greying face have me considering my fears about his aging. From constant worrying about what I can do to make him as comfortable as possible as his mind and body begin to slow down, to scary, selfish thoughts of “How could I possibly live without him,” I know I’m not handling his transition to the last phase of life very well.
I think what is most difficult for me to wrap my head around is that besides the white hairs that have sprung up on his face and paws, I haven’t noticed any other signs of aging. I decided to check in with Dogster resident vet Dr. Eric Barchas to see if there were any indicators I might be overlooking. I may be struggling with the idea of Pinch getting older, but being in denial or uninformed about the aging process will not help him.
Dr. Barchas confirmed my suspicion that one of the earliest signs of aging in dogs is often the appearance of white or grey hairs, which is nothing to worry about. If anything, Pinch is looking more distinguished than ever. I may zealously pluck my own grey hairs out, but he can keep his.
What I didn’t know is that a dog’s pupils can also start greying with age. And while dog owners may be quick to assume that their pet is developing cataracts, hazy or dull pupils can also indicate lenticular nuclear sclerosis — a change in the lens due to ocular fibres becoming denser over time — which sets in with age but does not cause significant changes in vision. Lenticular nuclear sclerosis is a normal part of aging, but it’s always a good idea to bring your dog to a vet if you notice any changes in his eyes or vision.
Pinch’s eyes are still as bright as ever, and he’s still just as active as he’s always been. Dr. Barchas says that owners may notice decreased activity and exercise tolerance in aging dogs, but for the moment, my dog has no trouble keeping up with his daily walks and frequent hikes here in the Alps. At his annual checkup a few months ago, the vet even squeezed his meaty little hind legs and told me he has great muscle tone for a small, older dog. And while I know all the exercise Pinch gets is helping to keep him in great shape as he ages, I wouldn’t hesitate to cut back if I noticed he was slowing down and not able to keep up as well.
Since Pinch is a mixed breed (Miniature Pinscher and Dachshund), I wondered if there was any truth behind the old adage that mixed breeds are generally healthier and live longer than purebreds. I’ll admit that I was looking for some information to make me feel better, that eight years old for a mutt is hardly a drop in the proverbial bucket of life. A quick online search revealed that a majority of the record holders for longevity in dogs were, in fact, mixed breeds, with many living more than 20 years. Unfortunately, there are way too many variables involved in order to confirm if these dogs lived as long as they did simply because of their genetic makeup. And, according to Dr. Barchas, “individual variations generally dwarf breed-specific issues” when it comes to aging.
But Pinch does have his small stature on his side, as Dr. Barchas explains that larger breeds tend to show their age earlier than smaller ones. Still, it usually comes down to the dog’s particular lifestyle and, just like in humans, some dogs age more gracefully than others.
I also wondered if there were behavioral signs to look out for as Pinch gets on in years. He’s always been somewhat of an anxious dog with separation anxiety and barking issues, but in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed he has calmed down a bit and has become less reactive in formerly stressful situations. His environment and my interaction with him haven’t changed, so I chalked up his “mellowing out” to advancing age. But I wanted to ask expert Dogster resident trainer Annie Phenix what behavioral changes I should be aware of as Pinch gets older.
“Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is something dog owners of elderly dogs should be on the lookout for,” she says. “Some symptoms include irritability, anxiety, restlessness, inability to follow familiar routines, and more. Although, just because a dog is aging does not mean the mind will start to go.” She goes on to explain that keeping a dog’s mind and body well-exercised and stimulated are crucial to keeping dogs happy as they age. “The worst thing owners can do is believe that all older dogs just want to sleep all day.” I don’t think eight-year-old Pinch would prefer to sleep all day, but I do have some doubts about my 32-year-old husband.
I know that Pinch is happy and healthy despite the eight candles on his recent birthday cake. I’ve adapted his food to his new senior status, and he gets yearly checkups and teeth cleaning, as well as lots of attention and exercise (and a prized spot on my pillow at night). I now know what I need to be on the lookout for as he gets on in years and what preventative measures I can take.
But for now, besides the grizzled face, he’s still the same dog I’ve always known. And when and if the day comes that he is no longer the same, I’ll be there for him, too. Despite the heartbreaking and infuriating stories we often hear about people dumping their sick and elderly pets off at shelters, there are still a lot more owners like myself who plan on accompanying our dogs to the very end. If his stubby legs grow sore from arthritis or back pain makes it hard for him to walk, I will be that woman pushing her dog along the sidewalk in a stroller so that he can get some fresh air. If he goes blind or his mind gets fuzzy from dementia, I’ll be there to guide him through any obstacles and comfort him through it all.
As much as I hate to think that he’s getting older and will not be by my side forever, I’m trying to tell myself that when the day comes that he does pass over the Rainbow Bridge, he’ll have lived his life to the fullest, and that I will have given him the best possible life I could. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to push aside the sad, scary thoughts of a life without Pinch and focus on the life that I have with him now. A life where he brings me joy, companionship, and a whole lot of love every single day.
Let’s hear from you, readers. Do you worry about your aging dog? Or do you focus on the now. Tell us in the comments and show us your senior pups!
Read more about caring for aging dogs on Dogster:
About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix and a needy Sphynx cat. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found as @PinchMom over on Twitter.