Problems of Aging

Your Lab may get the best care and diet available, but age-related disorders are inevitable. The problems your Lab may face as he ages include arthritis, cancer, cognitive dysfunction syndrome, diabetes, hearing loss, hypothyroidism, kidney disease, laryngeal paralysis, and vision loss. Fortunately, veterinary medicine has many ways of dealing with these problems, especially if they're diagnosed in the early stages.

Arthritis

This painful degenerative joint disease commonly affects older dogs. Over eight million dogs in the United States have been diagnosed with arthritis, and more than 80 percent of them are aged seven years or older. Signs of arthritis include a lowered activity level; lagging on walks; reluctance to run, jump, or climb stairs; stiffness when getting up or lying down; soreness when touched; and swollen joints that seem hot or painful. Arthritis pain can also cause dogs to behave abnormally. They may snarl or snap if touched in a painful area.

There's no cure for arthritis, but you can take a number of steps to help your Lab feel more comfortable. Weight loss relieves stress on joints, and anti-inflammatory medications reduce pain and inflammation.

To help deal with arthritis, your veterinarian may prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as carprofen or etodolac. While canine NSAIDs have provided excellent results for many dogs, they are not innocuous drugs and can have side effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, and liver or kidney damage. Be aware that some Labs are highly sensitive to these types of drugs, and some have even died suddenly after being given them. Be sure you understand the potential risks and side effects as explained by your veterinarian. It's a good idea to have liver and kidney values checked every three months if your Lab is taking a canine NSAID. In fact, your veterinarian will probably require it before renewing any prescription.

Supplements that contain glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) or glucosamine, chondroitin, and ester C are believed to support joint flexibility and mobility. These supplements, known as nutraceuticals, often help to relieve the pain of arthritic dogs, especially in mild cases. The advantage of nutraceuticals is that they rarely cause side effects. Occasionally, a dog given nutraceuticals will have vomiting or diarrhea, which is treated by slightly reducing the dose. Glucosamine can also cause a dog to drink more water than usual and sometimes prolongs bleeding time, which means the blood doesn't clot as well. These side effects are unusual, though. Be aware that nutraceuticals aren't a quick fix. It can take up to two months to see results.

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are great for relieving pain in people, but they can be toxic to dogs. Never give your Lab ibuprofen or any similar anti-inflammatory. Your veterinarian may prescribe aspirin in small doses to relieve pain, but you should never give it without checking with your vet first, so you don't give too much.

Cancer

Cancer occurs when cells grow uncontrollably on or inside the body. These uncontrolled growths may remain in a single area or spread to other parts of the body. Labs as a breed aren't particularly prone to cancer, but all dogs run a higher risk of developing cancer as they age. Common types of cancer seen in dogs are mamary (breast) cancer, skin tumors (see Chapter 18), testicular tumors (in dogs that haven't been neutered), cancers of the mouth or nose, and lymphoma.

The good news is that treatment for cancer is better than ever, especially if it's diagnosed in the early stages. Most forms of cancer are diagnosed through a biopsy, the removal and examination of a section of tissue. Blood tests, x-rays, and physical signs can also help in obtaining a diagnosis. Physical signs of cancer include the following:

  • Abnormal swellings that don't go away or that grow larger

  • Sores that don't heal

  • Unusual or excessive weight loss

  • Lack of appetite for any length of time

  • Bleeding or discharge from any body opening

  • Unusual and bad-smelling odors

  • Difficulty eating or swallowing

  • Loss of energy

  • Persistent lameness or stiffness

  • Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating

  • Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)

    More commonly referred to as senility, this newly recognized disorder in dogs is defined as any age-related mental decline that can't be attributed to another cause, such as hearing or vision loss, a tumor, or organ failure. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) may seem disoriented or confused. They sometimes wander aimlessly, stare into space, or appear lost in their own home. They interact less with family members or show changes in sleep and activity patterns. Sometimes they break housetraining. The acronym DISH can help you remember the signs of CDS:

  • Disorientation

  • Interaction changes

  • Sleep or activity changes

  • Housetraining is forgotten

  • Signs of CDS can occur as early as eight years of age. If your Lab shows signs of CDS, talk to your veterinarian. Certain health problems such as kidney, thyroid, or adrenal gland disease can resemble CDS, so a definite diagnosis is essential. If CDS is the problem, medication has been developed that can help. Possible side effects of the medication include vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, or restlessness.

    Choline supplements may help increase mental alertness. They're available from holistic veterinarians or pet supply stores.

    Diabetes

    This disorder of the pancreas gland is a common disease in older Labs. It's seen most often in female dogs that are six to nine years old. Contributing factors include obesity and genetic predisposition.

    What causes diabetes? The pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, which the body uses to drive glucose (blood sugar) into the cells. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or stops producing insulin altogether. Glucose levels build up in the bloodstream, causing high blood sugar.

    Dogs with diabetes drink unusually large amounts of water, which in turn causes them to urinate frequently. They may even start having accidents in the house because they have to go so often. They also eat ravenously, yet still lose weight. Sudden blindness is another sign of the disease. If your Lab develops any of these signs, take him to the veterinarian. A urinalysis and blood tests are needed to diagnose diabetes.

    There's no cure for diabetes, but it can be managed successfully. Your Lab will need insulin injections once or twice a day. Your veterinarian will show you how to administer the injection. Once you've had a little practice, it's quite easy, even if you're needle-phobic. Most dogs don't seem to mind the insulin injection, especially if they're given a treat or a meal immediately afterward. Weight loss through exercise and dietary control is another factor in successfully managing diabetes.

    Hearing Loss

    Just as with people, a dog's hearing tends to become less acute as he ages. This is usually caused by degenerative changes in the dog's inner ear. Your Lab may be able to hear only certain sounds, or he may suffer total hearing loss.

    Fortunately, dogs can get along well even with diminished hearing. They simply make better use of their other senses, such as sight and smell. To let your hearing-impaired Lab know you're in the vicinity, make it a habit to stomp your foot when you're behind him, so he can feel the vibrations and know where you are.

    Teaching a dog hand signals when he's young makes it easier to communicate with him later on if he loses his hearing.

    Hypothyroidism

    Hypothyroidism, the most common hormonal disease in dogs, is a failure of the thyroid gland. When the level of thyroid hormones falls below normal, many different body systems are affected. Signs of the disease include rough, scaly skin; hair loss, and unexplained weight gain. Dogs with hypothyroidism may also develop skin infections, allergies, and chronic ear infections. Hypothyroidism is common in middle-aged and older dogs, and Labs are among the breeds in which it is seen most frequently.

    Hypothyroidism is managed with a daily dose of thyroid hormone replacement. The amount given is determined by the dog's weight. Your veterinarian will recommend blood testing every six months to ensure that the amount of medication being given is still appropriate.

    Kidney Disease

    The kidneys remove waste products from the body. They also help the body maintain appropriate levels of water, minerals, and vitamin B. As dogs age, however, kidney function can begin to deteriorate. A sign of this is increased water consumption and urination.

    As part of caring for your older Lab, your veterinarian will recommend routine screening tests (bloodwork) to make sure the kidneys are functioning adequately. In the past, kidney dysfunction didn't show up in blood tests until 75 percent of the kidney's function was destroyed. Now, however, a new early renal disease (ERD) test detects microscopic levels of albumen (a type of protein) in the urine, a clear indication of damage to the kidney's filtration unit.

    While the ERD test doesn't tell veterinarians how much of the kidney is still functional, it is known that significantly more of it is still functional when the ERD test becomes positive than when a blood test becomes positive. This allows your veterinarian to put your Lab on a special low-protein diet much earlier in the disease's progression, which can greatly lengthen his life.

    Laryngeal Paralysis

    This dysfunction of the larynx (voicebox) is common in older Labradors. The larynx fails to open properly as the dog inhales, causing obstruction of the airway. Usually the cause is unknown, although the condition sometimes develops as a result of injury to the larynx or laryngeal nerves. Signs of laryngeal paralysis include gagging or coughing during eating or drinking, noisy breathing, difficulty breathing, bluish gums, lack of energy, and fainting. Take your Lab to the vet right away if he shows any of these signs.

    Laryngeal paralysis is diagnosed through a physical exam, chest x-rays, and examination of the larynx while the dog is lightly anesthetized. The veterinarian may also run thyroid gland function tests to rule out hypothyroidism. Mild cases can be treated by controlling the dog's weight, limiting activity (especially on hot days), and avoiding stressful situations. Sedatives or tranquilizers can sometimes help by keeping the dog calm, as can walking the dog with a harness instead of a neck collar. More severe cases require surgery to remove the part of the larynx that's obstructing the airway or to suture part of the larynx in an open position out of the flow of the airway.

    Vision Loss

    One of the most visible signs of aging in dogs is nuclear sclerosis, a condition in which the nucleus, or center, of the eye's lens becomes hazy and gray. This is caused when new fibers form at the edge of the lens and push inward toward the center, a normal aging process of the lens. It does not significantly affect the dog's vision, although it can cause some difficulty with close-up focus on objects.

    Labs can also acquire cataracts as they age. These acquired cataracts are not the same as the juvenile cataracts that can affect younger Labs. They can occur as early as six years of age, and are a consequence of aging, or, in some cases, a side effect of diabetes. They begin at the center of the lens and spread outward toward the edge. Eventually, the lens becomes entirely opaque and the dog can no longer see.

    Most dogs get along well without their sight, using their senses of smell and hearing to navigate familiar areas. As long as you don't move the furniture around, your Lab with cataracts should do just fine. If necessary, however, cataracts can be removed surgically.

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