Caring for your aging hunting dog

When my late black Lab turned 7 years old, he changed. It wasn’t super-noticeable, but I could see it in his every movement.   

His athleticism and stamina, once omnipresent, had begun to wane. His appetite, once ravenous, fluctuated. When my Lab was younger, he could have slept through the Battle of the Bulge. But when he turned 7, he started to get restless and occasionally paced at night as much as he slept. Even his coat, once as glossy as spit-shined charcoal, lost some of its luster.  

Concerned, I brought him into the vet. The results: He was perfectly healthy, except for “a touch of arthritis” in the “elbow” of his front left leg – a problem that got worse over time and required treatment and medication. 

“Your dog is just getting old,” said my vet, a Lab owner and bird hunter himself. “Enjoy his golden years while you can.”  

The question(s) you have to ask yourself is basic: How do I care for Fido as he gets older while also ensuring his quality of life? In addition, just how long should I hunt my favorite hunting companion, and what steps can I take to mitigate the aging process?  

How long you hunt your dog is a question only you can answer. I made the call when my Lab’s body language said he was ready to retire. It was obvious the joy he felt and demonstrated for 10 autumns was no longer there. I learned that quickly on a September prairie grouse hunt in his 11th hunting season. He was in good shape, but he hunted hard for only 10 or 15 minutes. He slowed down to what was effectively a walk. His mind seemed willing, but his body had nothing left to give. After that short hunt, it took him several days to recover. It was agonizing to watch. As a sort of celebratory coda to his hunting career, I hunted him one last time on the duck opener. He retrieved three drake blue-winged teal like a champ.

Following are some tips to consider as your hunting dog gets older:      

• Keep your dog at a healthy weight. Extra pounds on older dogs mean extra stress on their bodies, including their joints and internal organs, said Dr. Ann Spanish, a veterinarian at Shakopee Veterinarian Clinic. 

“For larger hunting breeds, you often see them start to slow down when they’re in that 7-year-old range, though every dog is a little bit different,” she said. “Keeping your dog lean is very important as they get older. Studies show far and away that maintaining a healthy weight is more important than using joint supplements and anti-inflammatory medication – and both of those have their uses.”  

She said keeping your dog at a healthy weight is important for overall cardiovascular stamina, too. If your dog already has joint pain, losing some weight will likely provide relief.

• Regular exercise is vital. Dogs gain weight as they get older because their metabolism slows down. Regular exercise can help offset that change. 

“Exercise can and often does keep dogs youthful and happy,” Spanish said. “How you exercise is an important consideration, too. Swimming is great because it limits the wear and tear on joints, while running on hard surfaces does not.” 

Keep in mind, too, that older dogs are more sensitive to extreme temperature changes as their metabolism changes. I had to stop hunting my Lab in hot and cold weather as he hit year nine. It took him several days, for example, to recover when making retrieves in late-season cold water – even when he was wearing a neoprene vest. Also, moderate exercise might be more beneficial than strenuous exercise, because when dogs get older, their heart and lung functions deteriorate. 

• Proper nutrition. Spanish said older dogs require proper nutrition as they get older, which may mean switching dog foods over a period of time. Feeding them nutritious food keeps them healthy, active, and happy. I switched to an all-natural dog food and my dog responded well to it. His energy level increased significantly. 

• Supplements and medication. Spanish recommends both. So, too, do I. When my Lab’s arthritis got worse, my vet recommended an anti-inflammatory medication and a joint supplement. In tandem, they worked wonders. In fact, he hunted nearly pain-free for two more hunting seasons. His mobility and mood greatly improved. His sleep improved, too. Overall, he was a much happier dog.

• Schedule regular checkups. The overall health of senior dogs can change dramatically and quickly. Most vets recommend checkups every six months, perhaps even quarterly. Numerous conditions – from thyroid problems to diabetes to kidney ailments – can reveal themselves in a short time period. The good news is most diseases and health issues, if caught quickly, can be successfully treated.

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