Managing the Geriatric Dog

by Anne Jones RN, BSNE

A member of the health committee recently reminded me that writing about older Bichons is the opposite version of puppy care. Ample provision has been made for educating puppy owners in their care but not so much about tending to our senior animals. The age of sixteen used to be the norm for Bichons, with a few surviving beyond to reach their seventeenth or eighteenth birthdays. These were the exceptions to a general rule. In an early survey, the average life expectancy was just over 14 years but most breeders would have said that a well bred Bichon could and should exceed that age by several years with good care. The purpose of this article is to help your Bichon reach that ripe old age and possibly to extend it to as much as twenty years if the dog has “good genes” as well as good care.

We do know that some Bichons live beyond age twenty from responses to our question on line “Have you owned a Bichon that lived 19 years or longer? “. We have heard of one that was age 23 but never received confirmation of date of birth. To successfully achieve long life begins very early and is the result of good care for a lifetime. As in humans, we can say that every dog has at least one fatal illness – stated another way, each one will eventually die if for no other reason than his body just gives out. Let’s talk about how to make that later rather than sooner.

Some personal experiences

This article will be about my personal experiences. You will have to take it or leave it on that basis but I have raised from birth (or shortly after) more than 20 Bichons. I have lost most of my Bichons at age 15 years to age 19 years but – sadly – there have been those that died earlier.

One had an aggressive breast cancer and she was a bitch who came in season close to three times a year. As with human mammary carcinoma, hormones fed her cancer and she did not get spayed as early as she should have been, to my regret. Another much loved little boy had a large lipoma that was scheduled for removal. Somehow the lipoma developed an infection that began to drain the week he was due for surgery. That infection apparently reached his heart muscle and he eventually died of heart disease. One young male living with my son’s family may have been poisoned. He died quickly of liver failure without a definitive diagnosis. These are the heart breakers and I still feel very sad when I think of losing them at such a young age.

There are the success stories, another bitch also had mammary cancer and had two surgeries about two years apart. The second cancer surgery was followed within two weeks by a third surgery to scrape away all remaining breast tissue to prevent recurrence of the cancer. That year we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the emergency veterinary clinic where I was told she must have metastatic liver cancer. She had back to back surgeries two weeks before and made a great recovery and now she had cancer? My own veterinarian and I disagreed with the diagnosis and we were correct. Our determination was that her liver was stressed from anesthesias, antibiotics and quite likely the final straw was the use of a pain medication that had just come on the market. I now forbid anyone with one of my dogs to use that medication. But my little girl had another two years of health and lived to age 16 ½ , eventually dying of liver failure that probably stemmed from that damaging illness.

The most unlikely “success” story was my bitch that began to show signs of cognitive dysfunction (senility in human terms) at age 15. My vet and I chose to try the new drug Anipryl (actually the old drug selegiline, assigned a new name by the drug company) when it came on the market when she was almost 18. It did improve her life for that remaining year. At age 19 years, one week, she had a grand mal seizure. At that age, her heart was beating strongly and efficiently but a seizure indicated a major problem and she was euthanized. I am happy to say that her son who is approaching age 19 is alert and has no signs of cognitive dysfunction, though he clearly looks like an old dog at this point in his life. He is active, eats well and has overcome an extended sinus infection in recent months. Those good have kept him going!

Foods and drugs

Now that I have done what writers are not supposed to do, that is to write about my own animals, I will share some of the things that I have learned from these and my other Bichons. You may be surprised to read that some of what I have NOT done may be more important than what I did.

My dogs are fed a high quality kibble, with the maximum amount of food given in a day limited to a total of one cup. That includes any bits of kibble that I may use for training. They rarely get treats and those treats that they receive are minimal in size. I would say less than a tablespoon in a day, if that much. Others feed homemade diets successfully and I will not disagree with them on using those diets but they require careful weighing and measuring and most pet owners are not willing to do food preparation that carefully. But I am adamant that the dogs receive little in the way of treats and will pitch a fit if any of the dogs I have sold comes to visit and is F-A-T!!! The dog should not be so thin that you can lay your fingers between his ribs nor should those ribs be covered in fat so that you cannot palpate them.

Overweight dogs will likely develop orthopedic problems, have pancreatic disease, may be more susceptible to diabetes – the list goes on. If your dog is fat, today is the time to start cutting back on his food intake, whether he is two years old or approaching twenty! One way to reduce the weight is exercise but my own adult dogs are rarely walked for any distance. They are all active (fat dogs will NOT be active) in the house. Anyone who has seen a Bichon blitz knows they make their own exercise. However a dog that is crated for hours needs some activity to make up for those restricted hours of his day.

An issue that cannot be ignored is the importance of life long dental hygiene. Dirty teeth, infected gums and poor dental care will leave your dog susceptible to systemic infections that may settle in the muscles of the heart, the kidney, the liver or in the blood stream to be transported throughout the body.

My experience has taught me that steroids can be killers. Don’t misunderstand me because I have given prednisone to some of my dogs as per veterinary prescription when they have needed it for a specific reason. The major use of prednisone is to treat allergies but I prefer to manage any mild allergies in other ways. For the dog that is severely allergic, consultation with specialists may be the answer but your dog will have a better life if you can maintain him or her without excessive steroid use. It can be wonderful used correctly but can destroy the immune system if used without regard to long term effects. Through our interactive work with pet owners around the world, we read too often of problems that may have started with using quick fix medications

And that topic leads to discussion of preventives. If you read any other article on this web site, then read The Wise Use of Preventive Medications. I have avoided most of these products though I do consider heartworm preventive to be essential in virtually the entire USA now. In some parts of the country, it may still be possible to stop it during winter months but that is not so in most states. As to preventing fleas and ticks, a properly groomed Bichon will not have a flea in residence long enough to produce more fleas and using preventives is both the lazy way and the harmful way. I acknowledge that there are places where fleas are so bad that milder forms of preventives may have to be used but not the products that include everything but a vitamin compound!

As to heartworm preventive, I stop those at age 15 on the theory that most Bichons have only another one or two years anyway and it would probably take that long for the heartworm to kill them. I do this also with the knowledge that my older dogs are only outside – and briefly – for bathroom purposes. This is one of those topics you must discuss with your own veterinarian and make your own decision. But remember that most of my dogs live to between 17 ½ and 19 years now that I have stopped the preventive at age 15. If any have had heartworm, it has not been apparent and annual heartworm testing will answer that question for you. Again I stress that in the tropical parts of our country, it may be necessary to continue this particular preventive because of year round presence of mosquitoes.


Now we need to talk about vaccines, which can be a sticky topic. Vaccines work by stimulating antibody formation. You might say they create a “mini-version” of the disease in the body and thus act as a stress on the immune system. We now realize that the body needs a rest between boosters and that immunity does not simply fade away in a year. Research is ongoing to determine the frequency of booster shots but the current recommendation says that you can safely wait three years between boosters. Blood titers can be run to ascertain the level of immunity before giving unwarranted booster shots. Your vet will explain how they work.

State laws make rabies boosters a legal requirement, with frequency dependant on the state you live in. Rabies is considered the most damaging vaccine by both breeders and veterinarians but it is also the one canine disease that can kill humans if contracted. There is good news in that current research may help establish a better time frame for rabies boosters. Support for that research is important to anyone who has or intends to have a pet dog because we need to know just how long the current vaccines are effective in preventing disease. While there is a titer test for rabies, it is considered to be unreliable.

So what do I do with my dogs in terms of vaccines? I am not necessarily following current regulations but I do talk to my veterinarians about each dog and the likelihood that the vaccine in question will be good or will be damaging to him/her. I have stopped boosters by age 15, just as I stop the heartworm preventive, after consulting with my vet and based on research. And I keep my dogs at home or close to me when I (rarely) take them to visit family or friends. In other words, they are not likely to be exposed to the diseases that vaccines cover. You will need to have a long talk with your own vet to decide when you had best stop any boosters and you must also be sure that you understand how to protect your pet from exposure to disease. Boarding kennels may have requirements that will make you think carefully about in home care as opposed to boarding when you have to be away. Any dog with potentially fatal disease near end of life would certainly not benefit from boosters that may lessen his ability to recover.

Old age and when to expect it

When does old age begin and what conditions should you be on the lookout for in your older Bichons? Bichons are probably middle aged around 10 years. According to some experienced dog breeders and owners, there seems to be a time around age 10 when metabolic disease may be diagnosed or heart murmurs found. This is a period when laboratories suggest having “a geriatric panel” run on your dog. These panels will usually include blood chemistry, possibly thyroid panel and certainly a complete urinalysis. The idea is to get a baseline record of blood and urine values and to catch as early as possible the signs of approaching disease of old age. If the panel proves to be within normal limits, you may not need to repeat it for a couple of years. If signs of disease appear, you then have a base line for comparison. Money well spent and costing possibly as low as $60 but may be higher in more expensive communities.

What are the diseases of old age? Certainly the metabolic conditions are present in a percentage of Bichons. Based on reports coming in to our health committee, diabetes and Cushings are both on the rise. Pancreatitis can be either acute or chronic and you should learn the signs. Heart disease will begin in middle age and any of these may start at a younger age. Kidney diseases and liver diseases can begin in younger dogs but are often a cause of death in an older dog. In order to diagnose a problem early, you will want to run the blood and urine tests because early treatment is the way to keep your beloved pet with you for a long time! You will find articles on all of these in the index because we want you to become familiar with the signs and the ways to treat any that are diagnosed. The research has been done for you but only you can watch your pet to know if the signs of disease are present. And then you MUST see your veterinarian to obtain his or her help in restoring or at least maintaining quality of life for as long as possible.

How will my old dog behave?

Inevitably your dog will start to show his or her age. You will see less activity, longer periods of sleep, possibly patterned pacing that will be a sign of early cognitive dysfunction. Appetite may change but Bichons are more likely to overeat than to undereat unless they are sick. Weight gain or weight loss can always be a sign of some change in the body. The hair coat may be less thick or have a dull cast as your Bichon approaches old age. Unless the diet has changed, this may not be an issue until the last year or two but it is certainly a sign of a less healthy dog. We have not talked about vision but there is a need to always monitor your Bichon for changes in vision. The slightly bluish change in color may be a normal change but cloudiness, discharge and other changes are not normal and are addressed in articles on eye diseases. Hearing loss is fairly common in older dogs but total deafness is not. Both the blind and the deaf dog are able to live contented lives with proper maintenance.

It is important to avoid dramatic changes in furniture arrangement when you have an older dog around though a move to a new house is not necessarily going to disturb a contented dog all that much. It is just easier on them if they have things as they normally have been. A good bed is essential, one that is not high and that has good support so now is the time to toss out the old beds and invest in a new one that is comfy, supportive and close to the floor because stiff old bones are not wanting to climb to find rest. In cold climates, a warm sweater or coat may help if you keep the temperature down or for trips outside. My dogs don’t wear them but they don’t stay outside very long either. And I keep a couple of soft towels on their beds so that they kind of hunker down when they want to. I like the beds with sides that help cut off any drafts.

Stiffness is common but limping is not! Moaning may be an indication of discomfort unless you have one that is a moaner all her life, as one of mine was. Snoring may or may not indicate a problem, again depending on whether this has been a normal occurrence. In other words, don’t worry about those things that have always happened but watch for any change in habit, whatever it may be. I see some of my dogs become “jumpy”, as if being touched is annoying or maybe even uncomfortable. Every Bichon we ever owned liked to sleep under the furniture but I would worry about one that wanted to hide. A nervous reaction to sudden light can mean an eye problem, such as glaucoma or iritis.

The obvious signs of serious illness at any age are seizures, bleeding, pain, (vocalizing in any way that is not usual may indicate pain), discharge, difficulty in urinating or bowel elimination, excessive drinking or urination, vomiting, diarrhea, change in color of urine or stool; all of these are things to watch for. If you wonder if something is wrong, don’t contact us and ask our opinion – SEE YOUR VETERINARIAN! It will be worth the cost of the visit to know for certain, whether you get a good report or a bad one! But we have made every effort to educate you so that you do understand and maybe these words about how life is for older dogs will be of some help as well.

On a final note, there does come a time when you have to make a decision in continuing to support a life that is painful or to kindly release your beloved pet from that final illness. I have had some dogs live to the end and die in my arms. I have more often known when there has been enough sickness and that it was best to hold him or her close and to allow a kindly veterinarian to end the suffering. Neither is a good way to say goodbye. I recently lost a 17 ½ year old to kidney failure after only two days of illness. She slipped into a semi-comatose state so I held her most of the afternoon and then we went to the clinic. While I mourn her loss, I also know that she had 17 years and 6 months of a happy life and was smiling at me just two days before I said goodbye. That was a wonderful gift to both of us because I know she had not suffered. I still expect to hear her little sing song moan in the middle of the night – as I had been hearing it for the past 17 years! And I know she is romping somewhere with all those others that went before her and who have taught me so much about Bichons and their health. Maybe their stories will help you in caring for your Bichon(s).