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Taking Care of Mamie
by Kate Bressler

I’ve had a geriatric dog for about two and a half years now. Actually, I adopted one. Shannon had just turned eleven when I chose her over approximately forty other Greyhounds. Mamie came to my home as a foster dog who was eleven years nine months old. Lucky for me, no one ever showed any interest in adopting her and I got to keep her. Shannon could pass for seven or eight years old, easily. But, Mamie ... well, earlier this year I toyed with the idea of changing her name to “Money Pitt”! Mamie, you see, is my reason for learning so much about older dogs. She has cataracts, emphysema, arthritis, bursitis and a slight heart murmur. Because of her medications, she’s somewhat incontinent and suffers from insomnia. She has an enlarged heart, her liver is about half its normal size, and her kidneys are invisible on her x-rays.

Both girls have had multiple surgeries for mammary tumors which are very common, but serious problems for retired brood bitches. Mammary cancer accounts for about half of all cancer in bitches. The average age of affected bitches is nine to twelve years of age. Most females are predisposed to mammary tumors unless they are spayed before their first season. If they go unspayed after their fourth season the benefit of spaying to reduce mammary tumors is all but lost. A monthly check for tumors is good preventative medicine.

What I do for my girls

The girls get a geriatric exam once a year (twice a year for Mamie) and a few tests in betweens. They get good nutrition, adequate exercise and a few dietary supplements. I feed a lamb and rice kibble and vet-approved supplements. Mamie takes two daily medications for her emphysema plus prednisone. Since old Greyhounds can lose weight quickly, a couple extra pounds is a good cushion. To accomplish this, I add many things to their kibble including pumpkin, plain non-fat yogurt, non-fat cottage cheese, mackerel, mustard greens and low-sodium V-8™ juice. Sometimes all I have to do is sprinkle a little powdered milk or non-fat parmesan cheese on their food.

About a year ago I changed to a kibble that contains 2% more protein. Both girls had had bloodwork done, and I knew there were no problems. Mamie absolutely blossomed with this added protein. It was as if she were two years younger, she had so much more energy, and she was happier. There are two sides to the protein issue. Feed less protein if there is any kidney deficiency or disease. If there are no problems, feed more protein to counteract the muscle loss of aging. Your dog must have a CBC (Complete Blood Count) and a Blood Chemistry Panel (Profile) to determine whether or not there is a problem. Do not guess. It is too important.

Geriatric Profiles

There are three levels of geriatric profiles (exams). Your pet’s first geriatric profile should be taken at seven years of age. A Level I will provide a good initial baseline for comparison in subsequent years. My vet, Dr. Ward Brown in Kansas City, Missouri offers three levels of geriatric exams.

The Level I exam is the most comprehensive exam. It includes a CBC, a Profile, a Urinalysis (U/A), x-rays (one view each of chest and abdomen), an electrocardiogram, a physical examination and a consultation. Unless conditions indicate a need, a Level II will probably suffice.

A Level II exam includes everything except an EKG. Since the girls have no serious heart problems we normally do this one.

The Level III exam is just a CBC and U/A, but this one tells a lot, too. (Please see page 18 for test explanations— Ed.)

Mamie’s Emphysema

Earlier this year, Mamie began panting laboriously after very short (one or two block) walks. I immediately thought of a heart problem because she has a Grade 1 (very benign) heart murmur. I immediately called Dr. Brown to make an appointment. When he listened to her breathing, he noted that it was only labored on the exhale — not the inhale! He was confident that she had emphysema. He confirmed it with a chest x-ray.

Emphysema! We don’t know what caused it. Dr. Brown explained it with the analogy that a healthy lung is like a sponge, having tiny spaces to hold air. Emphysema changes a lung to look like someone cut out a bunch of the little spaces and made one big space. It shows up on an x-ray as a big black hole instead of little white membranes (blood/oxygen vessels). Since there is a big hole, the lung can’t squeeze tight enough to expel all the carbon dioxide.

Supplements and Medications

Grape seed extract and Vitamin E are both given for their antioxidant effect. GSE is a very powerful supplement and Mamie gets it every other morning with her 20mg of prednisone. Vitamin E (400iu) is given on the alternate mornings. Shannon also gets a Vitamin E tablet every other day. When this bottle is finished, I am going to cut back to 100iu of Vitamin E.

The label on the bottle of glucosamine reads “helps repair cartilage and promotes healthy joint function.” Mamie hasn’t been taking it long enough for it to live up to that claim and I’m going to give it at least two months before I give up and go on to something else. I haven’t chosen what the next supplement would be, if it comes to that: maybe Glyco-Flex®, bovine cartilage or shark cartilage. But right now I’m giving the glucosamine every opportunity to work.

Some articles state that as many as 40% of the pet dogs are considered geriatric. This is probably why the canine drug companies are beginning to offer more and more medications specifically for our old friends.

Mamie has gone through a couple refills of Rimadyl® for the pain of arthritis. Rimadyl® is an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) and its effects on Mamie were very encouraging. When Rimadyl® becomes ineffective, we’ll probably go with Adequan®, an injectible arthritis drug. In addition to reducing inflammation, Adequan® promotes repair of the damaged cartilage itself.

Mamie has also become somewhat incontinent possibly due to the prednisone. But a percentage of spayed females develop “leaking” problems for many other reasons. The drug of choice is usually Phenylpropanolamine, an antihistamine which tightens smooth muscle tone.

One of the most exciting breakthroughs is a drug called Anipryl®. It has actually long been used in the treatment of Cushing’s Disease, but was recently approved for the treatment of Canine Cognitive Disorder (sort of Alzheimer’s for dogs). Canadian vets have been using Anipryl® for some time to treat CCD with good results. It is encouraging to know that we might be able to give these old dogs a better quality of life if their minds begin to fail.

So, what’s wrong with Shannon?

Not a thing. She’s a little thunder phobic, but that’s a different story. When you have a dog like Mamie, it’s easy to entirely overlook the wonders of a dog like Shannon. This amazing dog knows sit, down and stay. She shakes hands, catches treats in midair and she loves strawberries. She barks when I’m on the phone or if I’ve been at the computer too long. Shannon is the type of dog that always needs to be learning something. She doesn’t bore easily, but when she’s bored: look out! (See photo at left.)

When I think of my girls, I always think, “Mamie’s my old dog.” But the truth is they were born about six weeks apart. A common condition for old dogs is muscle loss. This hasn’t happened to Shannon. At thirteen and a half she still jumps with ease into the back of the Jeep Cherokee I bought for her. This summer she took to the agility course like a champ. She took all three hurdles, begrudgingly did the A-frame and dogwalk and absolutely loved the tunnels. She’s my girl: my “Perfect Shannon.”

Stacking the decks

While your dog is still young there are a few things you can do to stack the deck in their favor. Have regular checkups; give proper dental care; maintain proper weight and provide good, balanced nutrition. No one can guarantee that your hound will live to be sixteen, but I’m envious of each of you who may have ten years or more with your beloved hound. I pray I’ll have four to five years and I will do everything possible to provide them with continued health.