New dog, old tricks
Things to do after you adopt a senior dog
You’ve been to the shelter, lost your heart to a lovely senior dog and are about to take them home, having just signed on the adoption forms. Sounds lovely, right? It really is!
At that moment, though, you should hit pause and pay attention to a few things that you should do once you adopt them (in addition to what you would usually do when you bring home a dog). Senior dogs are fantastic to have around, but we do not have room for error in their care. This is primarily because of their age and circumstances (most senior rescues are either found abandoned or are puppy mill/breeder discards).
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating — every senior dog will have their unique set of requirements. The things mentioned in this post will at least help you figure those out, even if they’re not enough to help you deal with them.
First day/ week:
Get a thorough health check
As soon as possible, get a thorough check-up of your dog done at a reliable veterinary clinic. It’s good if you already have a vet you can trust. If not, ask the shelter to suggest someone. For seniors, it is essential to get a Kidney and Liver function test, at least at the first vet visit. For accurate results, ensure the dog has been fasted for at least 8–10 hours before the sample is collected. If the vet does not require/ suggest it, you can skip scans but make sure you get a physical examination done. Do not skip a dental check — dental diseases can cause trouble if left unchecked, especially for your dog’s kidney. Don’t panic if something is off in the reports — take their medical history and current state (fresh out of a shelter; probably scared and adjusting) into consideration.
The shelter should provide you with a copy/ photos of your dog’s medical records (from the time they’ve been there). They should tell you approximately how old the dog is. Remember that getting an accurate history of dogs that have been abandoned is not possible. They should also let you know if the dog has any recurring health or behavioural issues known to them, and if they need special care or assistance, plus anything to watch out for in their health check-up.
Many rescued dogs suffer from tick fever at least once. Whether we assume they’ve been abandoned or that they’re breeder discards, it doesn’t paint a great picture regarding their nutrition and immunity. Dogs with malnutrition and poor immunity that are left on the street are highly susceptible to tick and flea infestations, and consequently, tick fever. The effects of tick fever take a long time to go away, especially in the blood reports. So, elevated values indicative of tick fever may simply be remnants of the previous one that was probably treated at the shelter. However, that does not mean that you can take this lightly. Tick fever ravages a dog’s body. You need to build your dog’s immunity and follow up with the vet to ensure the values eventually return to normal, and that your dog is not suffering from a fresh infection.
Buy them what they need
I mentioned in an earlier blog that your dog does not need every product made available to dog parents. With senior dogs, that’s even more important. Take your dog’s health and activity into consideration and buy them what they need. Some dogs may require an orthopaedic bed, some may need absorbent sheets, some may not be able to use a raised bed, while some may just be fine on any bed your get. Similarly, some senior dogs may love squeaky toys, while others may be scared or find toys painful to hold.
Make sure you get a name tag for them — every dog should have one. You can get a martingale collar if you feel your dog does not require a harness. Some senior dogs don’t like harnesses and find them restrictive, especially if they’re not used to them. Ask your vet if your dog needs a raised bowl and get one if recommended. Some old dogs make a mess while drinking water, so you can get a mat to soak up the water so that they (or you) don’t slip.
You can get age and health-appropriate chews for your dog. These will help keep your dog engaged and keep their teeth clean. Don’t go overboard — see which ones your dog likes and get more later. My suggestion: buy all-natural chews over the plastic-ey processed ones (they really don’t clean anything!).
You can also buy special equipment like a wheelchair or a ramp at this point. If you know you’re adopting a senior dog with limited mobility, talk to the shelter before the adoption day so that you have these while picking up your dog. Do invest in a good car seat cover so that your senior can travel with you comfortably, even in rented/ hired cars.
Allow them to settle in
Rescue dogs take up to 3 months to settle in their new homes. You can expect your senior dog to take a little longer. Imagine you’re old, maybe partially blind, and have suddenly been moved to a new place with seemingly pleasant people but lots of new stimuli. You’d take time too, right?
Hold off a bit on inviting the whole world to come over and see your dog. Say no to the well-meaning but annoyingly-insistent people who want to meet your dog on walks. Have your dog’s back when they seem unsure about new places and people. Let them open up to all of that at their own pace.
Your dog may not want to eat a lot on their first day home (it did not happen with me, but it is possible), and they may not become immediate cuddle buddies with you. That’s fine! As long as they eat something, don’t show signs of illness, and don’t go without eating for more than 2 days (and are having water at least), let them be and give them their space. It’s okay to bribe new dogs a little but don’t go overboard; they still need proper meals. Allow them to approach you and slowly ease them into their routine with you — walks, talks, meals, etc.
A massive chunk of getting it right with a rescue dog is how well and deep you build their trust. In my experience, senior dogs are the most generous with their love and trust. We still owe them the comfort of being able to take their time, though.
Optimise their diet
Do not go about overhauling your dog’s diet on their very first day home! Firstly, if you do not have their reports, you do not have an aim with their diet. Secondly, it’s going to mess their digestion up.
Dogs in the shelter do not have the luxury of getting tailor-made, all meat diets. Most of them eat the same food, which has grain and, in some places, has kibble. This is not to shame shelters. With so many dogs under their care, and more being added due to irresponsible and unscrupulous people, they provide the best possible diet to all the dogs there.
On the other hand, you have the luxury of getting a diet chart made once you have your dog’s reports. Even if you choose not to, you can still pay attention to their dietary requirements and modify their diet accordingly. Remember to take this slow. Transition your dog to their new diet or ingredients over 10–14 days by slowly increasing the percentage of the new components in their food. This will also allow you to see if something doesn’t suit them.
I can say from experience that having your dog on a fresh, balanced diet (made by a nutritionist) with meat, fish, organs, veggies, and other beneficial ingredients has a tremendous impact on their health, both internally, as well as externally.
Pay attention to their activity and health
Just because your dog is considered a senior does not mean that they can’t do any activities. Continue keeping the dog active and engaged as long as they are comfortable. Ageing is not only physical; it’s mental too — mental stimulation will keep your dog sharp. It is, however, necessary to look for cues of pain and fatigue (always necessary, but more so with senior dogs). If you feel your dog cannot do as much as they used to, see a vet and rule out more extensive issues. If they chalk it up to ageing, let your dog exert as much as they comfortably can and do not push them to get an extra walk in or play more and sleep less. As discussed in our blog on dog sleep, senior dogs need to sleep more than younger ones.
If you have a young senior, you can visit the clinic once a year to ensure your dog is doing well. Do this unless your vet catches something on your first visit/ you sense that something is off with your dog. In your annual vet visit, get an in-depth check-up done, focusing on all aspects of health from external to internal. As your dog gets older, increase the frequency of your vet visits to once every 6 months. If your vet catches something or your dog is going through a bout of illness, increase the frequency of your visits as required.
Spend time with them
There are few things more heartbreaking than realising that your time with your dog is finite. This realisation comes home when your senior dog does, and it should spur you into action. As your dog begins trusting you, they will need more time and lean more heavily on you. And they should — you’re the one constant they know!
Your senior dog won’t take up all of your time, though; they’ll just look forward to spending all of their waking hours with you, and these won’t be too many hours either. Senior dogs sleep a lot and need much more rest than younger dogs. The way you spend your time together will also change. Long walks in the park may turn to a short walk and a picnic spotting squirrels, hours of tug may become lounging on the sofa watching your favourite show together, and so on. Allow your dog the contentment of knowing you’re there, even when they can’t see or hear you.
Being a parent to a senior dog is a unique experience. Some may say it’s scary with such a small margin of error. However, I believe that if you prepare well for them and are proactive in their care, especially for health and diet, you’ll be fine. When you get a senior dog home, you get a finite time with them. And they pack a lifetime of love in this limited time. It can be scary, but it is so, so rewarding!
If you’re considering adopting a senior dog, please do so; they really are the best! In my next post, I’ll talk about some ways in which you can support senior rescues.