Geriatric Canine Care

".......Today nearly 40 percent of our dogs can be considered geriatric, said Steven Hannah, Ph.D. a nutrition scientist with Ralston Purina in St. Louis. No wonder veterinarians and researchers have made the care and study of geriatric dogs a priority.

With preventative health maintenance programs escorting more dogs into old age, the latest canine research focuses on geriatric nutrition, dental care and cancer.

What qualifies a dog as old?  That depends on its size. "Small dogs tend, metabolically, to age more slowly," Hannah said. "For a small dog, the geriatric stage begins at about 9 to 13 years.  For a large dog, about 6 to 9 years.  A good rule of thumb is to start looking for changes in your dog that might be due to aging at about age 7."

If your dog is approaching its geriatric years, start paying close attention to behavior, habits and other signs of possible declining health.

"A rule of nature is survival of the fittest," Dr. Hilsenroth said. "You don't want to look like the straggler or you'll get eaten.  Dogs hide their illnesses from you until the problem is so advanced that they can't hide it anymore." Translation: take your aging dog to the veterinarian every year.

Every year? Isn't that excessive? "Absolutely not," said Paul King, DVM. "If you think yearly exams are a lot, you have to realize that one year for a dog is equivalent to about five years for a human.  Once you hit 50 or so, you wouldn't go five years without getting yourself checked out.  In the long run, annual exams are less expensive because you are able to address diseases before they get too advanced and require expensive treatment."

Robert Dietl, DVM of Minneapolis, recommends an annual physical exam including a geriatric profile for all animals more than 6 years of age as part of the regular vaccination visit. "We test kidney function, liver function, blood sugar, hematocrit (ratio of red cells to whole blood) and total protein.  We're picking up diseases early on, which means a better prognosis and quality of life, as well as longer survival of the patient. It's extremely important to diagnose diabetes, liver disease and kidney disease early because elevated blood sugars or abnormal kidney function tests can occur before the dog shows any symptoms at all.  The body is a marvelous thing. It has a great capacity to compensate for its shortcomings," he said, explaining why dogs often don't show symptoms when their health first starts to fail.  What ails most older dogs? Dr. Dietl calls them "The Big Five:" kidney disease, liver disease, cancer and heart disease.  The first three can be detected via a blood test.  Vets can detect cancer by palpating the dog for lumps.  They can discover heart disease via a stethoscope, X-rays or an electrocardiogram, if warranted...."

{this is not the article in its entirety}

SIGNS OF OLD-AGE RELATED DISEASE by Eve Adamson (pg. 39)[a summary]
coughing, panting, and shortness of breath. This could mean dog is overweight but can also signal a heart condition. Fainting is another sign of heart disease.
weight loss or any change in weight. 
Most weight gain is caused by overfeeding which leads to obesity and can predispose your dog to diabetes.  Weight loss for no apparent reason can be a sign of a number of serious problems.
increased water consumption. Could be sign of diabetes.
increased frequency of urination.  May be a sign of diabetes; could signal urinary or neurological problems.
changes in appetite.
Diabetic dogs often have an increased appetite but also lose weight because they can't burn sugar for energy. A declining appetite can also signal liver or kidney disease.
vomiting and diarrhea. 
Obvious signs of illness. You should periodically look at your dog's stools. Firm, brown stools are healthy. Soft stools or those with blood or mucous can indicate many problems, including digestive disorders.
sudden behavioral changes - increased or decreased activity or interaction with the family disorientation, lethargy, disturbed sleeping or waking cycles, wandering, withdrawal, losing house training...all can be symptoms of Cognitive Disorder, a condition similar to Alzheimer's Disease in humans.
decreased vision or hearing
sudden onset of bad breath indicates dental problems
lack of mobility arthritis or age-related changes in muscle tone
changes in skin and coat 
fatigue while exercising

[end summary]

As always, the List advises checking with your veterinarian before making any changes (recommended by this list membership or otherwise) in your dog's lifestyle, diet, or medications.
ASPCA on Geriatric Care of Dogs