Tips on caring for an elderly guide dog

For thousands of visually impaired people, their guide dog not only gives them independence and mobility but also companionship. The bond between a guide dog and its owner is usually far more profound than that of sighted owners and their dogs. It is one built on an intense working partnership in which the guide dog is a constant companion.

Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are the breeds most commonly trained as guide dogs, a process that takes upwards of two years. These breeds can be regarded as elderly from about the age of eight onwards. This means that after only six years as your companion, your guide dog may be too old to continue as a working dog.

The impact on the owner, when faced with having to say goodbye to their constant companion, can be devastating. Politician, David Blunkett has spoken publicly about his ‘heartbreak’ following the death of his guide dog, Cosby. When a guide dog has reached an age where it can no longer continue its work, the owner is faced with three choices:

  • put the dog up for adoption;
  • get family or friends to adopt the dog, would enables you to still maintain some contact with your guide dog;
  • or get a second guide dog and continue to look after your ageing companion.

If you chose to continue looking after your guide dog into old age, you need to be aware that you will have to adapt the way in which you care for your dog.

Retired guide dog health

Maintaining the good health of your older guide dog is of paramount importance. Just like humans, ageing dogs become more susceptible to a range of diseases. Protecting them with dog insurance is the best way to ensure that, should your dog develop a chronic illness, you will not be forced to choose between financial hardship and the wellbeing of your dog.

Age, breed and whether your dog is a pedigree will all affect the price of the insurance. Like with life insurance for humans, it will be more expensive the older your dog is as they’re more likely to need medical attention.

Genetics, environment and nutrition will all play a part in how quickly your dog ages. Arthritis or other degenerative diseases may mean that your dog can no longer walk far, that it tires easily and can no longer cope with stairs or getting in and out of a car.

Be aware of your dog’s difficulties, provide softer bedding if your dog is finding it difficult to get into a comfortable sleeping position and cover hard floors with rugs or carpet so that your dog can get traction more easily. Supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, can also help improve mobility.

Dental disease is also common in older dogs. As well as being painful, it can cause weight loss and act as a trigger for a number of other illnesses. You can help prevent dental disease by brushing your dog’s teeth regularly. Do not use human toothpaste because it is poisonous for dogs, instead use toothpaste formulated for dogs.

Older dogs can also either lose weight rapidly or become obese, it is important to keep your dog at its ideal body weight. Ask your vet to give your dog a ‘body condition evaluation’ and get them to show you how you can evaluate your dog’s body condition at home.

Exercise for your dog

Even though your ageing dog may experience mobility difficulties, it is very important to maintain regular exercise. This will help prevent deterioration of the muscles. Be aware of your dog’s limits ,but do not allow your dog to become a couch potato.

Diet for your dog

As mentioned before, maintaining your dog’s optimum body weight is a key factor in keeping them healthy and active into old age. As your dog ages, its dietary needs will change. Your vet can also help advise you on an appropriate diet for an older dog that will maintain your dog’s ideal body weight and provide the necessary nutrients.

Maintain good mental health

Guide dogs are intelligent animals and their working lives will have involved high levels of physical and mental stimulation. Just because your guide dog is no longer working it does not mean that it will be content just to sit around all day. Even though your dog’s mobility may be much reduced it is important that you devote time to playing with them. An entertained dog will be a much happier and consequently a much healthier animal.

Your dog’s routine

Maintaining established routines, even though you may need to modify them to accommodate your dog’s reduced physical abilities, will allow your dog to feel secure even though they are no longer able to work as a guide dog.

By Alex Chambers

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