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Geriatric Dogs and End of Life Issues

When planning your mushing kennel it is important to recognize that, like humans, sled dogs grow old and eventually die. It is important that the musher have a plan for dealing with the special issues presented by geriatric dogs. As a dog matures beyond his or her physical prime you must decide whether to keep the dog for the remainder of his or her life, or find an appropriate new ‘retirement’ home for the dog.

Most sled dogs start showing physical signs of aging at around seven years of age, though there are plenty of exceptions to this rule of thumb. The first sign that many racing mushers see is that the dog is no longer able to run as fast or as far as his or her younger teammates. Competitive sled dog racers who do not want to support older, slower dogs should consider finding the dog a new home while it is still in good physical condition.

Gifts of older dogs in good physical condition are often greatly appreciated by junior mushers, beginners and mushers competing in less demanding disciplines or classes. You may also considering placing a retired dog into a home as a pet. Be sure the dog and the new owner are a good fit. Many sled dogs can be challenging pets; some have an instinct to roam or kill livestock and are often more independent than expected. Keep in mind that dogs that have been properly cared for and socialized have the best chances to be placed. Since a dog that is not good enough to keep is probably not good enough to breed, consider having the dog spayed or neutered before giving it away, or requiring that the new owner have the operation performed.

Many mushers prefer to keep their geriatric dogs and care for them until the end of their natural lives. Older dogs are especially valuable for helping train puppies and young dogs.

Housing Considerations for Geriatric Sled Dogs:

Older dogs often do not cope well with sudden changes in their environment. If you plan to keep your older dogs as house pets or change your confinement method, make the transition gradually, bringing the dog into the new environment for short visits and gradually increasing the amount of time until the dog becomes comfortable in his or her new setting.

Older dogs are often less tolerant of weather extremes than younger dogs. They may require additional bedding or even an insulated doghouse to be comfortable during cold weather. During warm weather, ensure that older dogs have easy access to shade and fresh, clean water.

Like younger dogs, geriatric dogs require adequate space and mental stimulation. (See the Dog Yard and Housing section.)

Feeding Considerations for Geriatric Sled Dogs:

As your aging dog’s metabolic rate and general activity levels decrease, he or she will require less food to maintain a healthy body. Most older dogs will do well on the same ration you feed your younger dogs during the offseason. Occasionally a dog will have trouble digesting all the fat in this ration or may become constipated on it. If this occurs, try feeding a diet lower in fat or higher in fiber, respectively. It is important that you not allow your geriatric dog to get too fat. Obesity is the most common cause of major health problems in dogs, including kidney and liver diseases, diabetes and arthritis.

Monitor older dogs’ weight just as you do younger dogs, and adjust the volume of feed accordingly. Consult a veterinarian if you have concerns or questions.

Health and Husbandry Issues of Geriatric Sled Dogs:

Geriatric dogs lose muscle mass and tone, long bones such as those in their legs become brittle, and arthritis frequently sets in. Providing your geriatric sled dogs opportunities for frequent short, slower runs with other older dogs or with puppy teams can help the geriatric dogs maintain a higher degree of flexibility, mobility and fun as they age.

Geriatric dogs are more prone to infectious and chronic diseases than young dogs. Work with your veterinarian to determine an appropriate vaccination schedule for your older dogs and consult with him or her if you notice any changes in the dog’s behavior, activity level or appearance. Be especially alert for any of the following signs of disease in geriatric sled dogs:

  • Sustained significant increase in water consumption or urination
  • Weight loss.
  • Significant decrease in appetite or failure to eat for more than two consecutive days.
  • Significant increase in appetite
  • Repeated vomiting
  • Diarrhea that persists more than two days.
  • Lameness that lasts for more than three or four days.
  • Lumps or masses in or under the skin,
  • Open sores or multiple scabs in the skin, especially if they seem to be getting larger or worse.
  • Hair loss, especially if accompanied by scratching.
  • Persistent coughing or gagging
  • Excessive panting
  • Sudden collapse or weakness
  • Inability to chew dry food
  • Seizures, convulsions or sudden changes in behavior

Many of the diseases associated with aging can be easily diagnosed and treated, providing comfort in the dog’s senior years.

End of Life Considerations for Sled Dogs:

Injuries and illnesses can threaten dogs quality of life. Whether your dog is injured during the prime of life or debilitated due to the diseases of old age you may have to decide whether or not to euthanize your dog.
Animal care experts agree that it is appropriate to humanely kill a dog rather than to prolong suffering. There are no hard and fast rules regarding when it is or is not appropriate to do so. Here are some considerations you can use to help make your own decision:

  • Is professional veterinary care available in your community?
  • Can you afford to pay for the necessary veterinary care?
  • How likely is your dog to recover from the problem?
  • Is your dog in pain? If so, can the pain be effectively controlled?
  • Is your dog able to eat and digest enough food to remain properly nourished?
  • Is your dog mobile enough to move around its housing area?
  • Is your dog able to breathe without difficulty?
  • Does your dog behave as though it still enjoys living?

Once you have considered the above, establish a euthanasia baseline condition. These are best established before the animal reaches the euthanasia threshold. It is much easier to establish these before human emotion becomes the deciding factor. It can be stated as simply as: When the dog is not longer able to…, then we will euthanize it. It is very easy to change this threshold as a dog approaches it. Experience has shown that as one “quality of life” measurement goes by, another threshold is established and so on. When this happens, it is only avoiding the inevitable.

Whenever possible, animal control shelters or veterinarians should be used to perform euthanasia as necessary. In isolated rural areas where such facilities are not available you must still make sure your dog is killed humanely, with no suffering. Consult a veterinarian or animal control officer for advice.

In some regions local or state/provincial laws or regulations regulate body disposal. Many veterinarians and animal control shelters can cremate the body for you at little or no cost. If the law permits and you wish to bury your dog’s body at your home or kennel it is recommended you place the body in a heavy duty plastic bag encased in a secure receptacle such as a wooden or metal box. You should bury the body under at least 3 ft of earth to prevent other animals from digging at the gravesite.

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