By Mary Beth Skylis

Aging is a messy business. As pet owners, we want to give our furry loved ones the most comfortable lives we can. But the loss of youth involves the rise in challenges such as dementia, incontinence and arthritis. Creating an idyllic environment for our fur babies requires new strategies. Luckily, there are many ways to help your senior dogs stay comfortable as they grow old. NOCO Style recently sat down with Northern Colorado veterinarians to discuss ways we can care for our pets as they enter their senior years. Dr. Felix Duerr, of Colorado State University, specializes in rehabilitation and sports medicine for small animals. He was recently involved with a study that evaluated the effectiveness of acupuncture on dogs. Dr. Bobby Cawthron owns Aspen Grove Veterinary Care in Fort Collins.


While looking for ways to care for your dog as he or she ages, one of the most important strategies is targeting prevention.

“The health of a senior pet can change a lot in six months,” says Cawthron. “Diseases can develop and spread a lot quicker in a mature dog. For senior pets, I recommend an exam and consultation every six months. I also recommend annual blood and urine tests for early detection of chronic diseases such as kidney disease, thyroid disease and diabetes.”

“It’s very important to think about prevention,” says Duerr. “That’s true for all things (not just for joints and arthritis). Routine vet visits and blood work help you to pick up on things early. Most older dogs tend to get overweight, and it’s hard for many owners to judge if they’re an appropriate weight, which can really affect mobility. Nutrition makes a big difference for when dogs age. Older dogs tend to be very sensitive. It’s a good idea to do routine vet exams.”

In the same way that humans tend to increase their doctor visits as they age, dogs should also increase vet visits to catch illnesses early. “When a dog gets to a certain age, it’s good to be proactive. Sometimes we find problems before we can even see them. Overall, the big recommendation is to focus more on prevention or an early catch,” says Duerr.

“Another good preventative measure for senior pets is to weigh them on the same scale, and record the results at least every two months,” recommends Cawthron. “Changes in weight can be an early indicator of disease.”


Another way you can increase the com-fort of your senior dog is by targeting the right problem. When it comes to treat-ment for dogs, Duerr notes that arthritis usually stems from another problem.

“One of the big differences between dogs and people is that dogs’ arthritis comes from another problem. In people, arthritis often arises from repetitive motion like running. In dogs, it comes from things like hip dysplasia.” By treating the underlying health issue, you’re much more likely to see effective results.

You don’t necessarily have to consider the most expensive form of treatment in order to create a pain-free environment for your furry friend. “We use a lot of non-surgical treatments—physical therapy, joint injections and pain medications,” says Duerr. “We use things like acupuncture, as well. We basically try to think of anything that might help. There are some things we can do with nerve stimulations. We try to look at all the options.”


Monitoring your senior dog’s dental health can tip you off to other ailments. Professionals suggest that dogs see a vet every six to twelve months, and each visit should include a dental exam. Cawthron recommends that in addition to semi-annual exams, pet owners practice home dental care and pets receive professional anesthetic dental cleaning and dental X-ray evaluations.

“Home dental care is extremely important to maintain your pet’s oral health,” says Cawthron. “This includes brushing with proper pet toothpaste and an appropriate-size toothbrush at least three times a week. As this can be a daunting task, alternatives to brushing can include enzymatic dental treats/chews and dental powders that you mix in kibble food.”

He continues, “Based on your veterinarian’s recommendations, your pet will periodically need anesthesia to complete a full oral exam and evaluation through periodontal probing and dental X-rays, along with professional dental scaling and polish as needed.”

Look out for mouth odor from your old pets. In the same way that changes in behavior can hint at a health issue, changes in your dog’s dental hygiene could tip you off to a health problem. Keep your eyes peeled for things like loose teeth, smelly breath, irritated or red gums and tartar buildup.



With growing interest in holistic treatments, veterinary programs are starting to investigate a variety of non-surgical ways to address pet health. Acupuncture is one that is gaining some traction.

Colorado State University recently conducted a research study on acupuncture for senior dogs. “We found that some dogs responded quite well to it. Some-times, there aren’t that many other things you can do. So, it is a good option to use as an additional modality,” says Duerr.

CSU’s veterinary program takes an unconventional approach to treatment. “We combine traditional medicine with additional strategies like acupuncture. Things like acupuncture are a little bit controversial, so I think what we do is try to find evidence and research it. We’re quite upfront with owners and tell them it might or might not help your dog, but it won’t do any harm. Owners can elect to go that route. And the studies are helping us to learn more,” says Duerr. His preferred approach to pet wellness is to provide each pet owner with all of the options rather than jumping into surgical fixes.

When asked if performing acupuncture on pets is a common practice, Duerr says, “We’re starting to do it more and more.” However, one important observation that was made through the course of the study was that the actual practice of acupuncture varies within programs.

“It seems like everyone takes a different approach to acupuncture so it’s not like surgery or joint injections,” he says. “What we did for our study was to survey a bunch of people who are doing acupuncture and we come up with the most common protocol—that was a little bit hard. But most people used specific points.”


Another avenue to treat pain in senior dogs might be available in many CBD shops. Jonathan Bicker, sales manager for Pet Releaf, a Littleton CBD shop for pets, shared the company’s motivation behind creating a line of CBD products for animals.

“It started in 2011 when Alina and Steve Smith’s dog, Mattie, was suffering from severe arthritis pain and the only option was opioids,” he says. “They knew there had to be a better option. They began researching and developing Pet Releaf. We officially launched our first products in 2013, being the first pet CBD company to come out on the market.”

Bicker notes that senior pet owners tend to gravitate towards products that can be administered through food. “Typically, for senior pets we recommend our Liposomes Hemp Oil so that it can be administered directly on top of food. Ease of use for the older pups is phenomenal. We also like to suggest our Soft Chew Edibites for a mid-day snack.”

Tinctures tend to show results the quickest for both pets and humans. Since dogs have the same endocannabinoid system that humans do, they receive many of the same benefits from CBD as humans, says Bicker.

There is a note of caution regarding the use of CBD for pets. Duerr states, “Unfortunately, there is a lack of knowl-edge regarding the safety and efficacy of CBD. In addition, the available products are so different that one really can’t make any general recommendations. Overall, I believe that there is a role for CBD in the veterinary world. However, we need to figure out exactly what the indications are and what the side effects/interactions with other drugs are. So, until then, I would caution against the use of CBD and rather rely on drugs and treatments that have been investigated more thoroughly.”


Another way to create optimal health for your senior dog is by providing the best nutrition. In the same way that poor nutrition can cause ailments like inflammation and digestive issues in humans, it causes these problems for pets. By providing the building blocks for proper pet health, you’ll alleviate ailments before they occur.

By investing in quality food from a young age, you’ll create a healthier foundation for your pet. Taking special care in your dog’s diet as they age also offers a good way to keep them healthy. Duerr notes, “The majority of dogs benefit from adjustment in their nutritional plan. Most important is to provide enough nutrients and protein while making sure that dogs are of an ideal body condition. The ideal diet varies from dog to dog and highly depends on comorbidities (i.e. other dis-eases that the pet may suffer from). What I recommend is that owners write down everything that their pet receives on a daily basis (this includes supplements, table scraps, etc.) and then this can be used to calculate whether the diet is ideal.”

Dogs are unconditional companions for the duration of their lives. They are considered man’s best friend because of their astute nature. One of the best ways we can return the love is by providing a comfortable and healthy environment even as they become senior dogs. Taking special care to treat them before their health issues become too big is a great start. You can also explore unconventional approaches to pain like acupuncture and CBD. Creating the perfect home for our pets starts with pet care.