Keeping Your Geriatric IW Healthy, Happy and Pain-Free

The Irish Wolfhound Foundation and the Irish Wolfhound Association of the Delaware Valley presented a seminar on Saturday, October 3, 2009 as part of IWADV’s 2009 specialty pre-show events.The presenter was Dr. Melanie Mercer, DVM, and was entitled “Keeping Your Geriatric IW Healthy, Happy and Pain Free.”

The focus of the seminar was on keeping our Wolfhounds fit and healthy throughout their lives, recognizing and diagnosing orthopedic problems as early as possible, and managing problems once they arise.

In smaller breeds of dogs “going down in the rear,” whether due to a spinal or hip problem or some other reason, can sometimes be managed by the owner as a last resort by using a sling or cart to support the dog’s rear and controlling pain. For Wolfhounds, that is not often feasible.

There are things owners can do to forestall rear end weakness, though.  These are in addition to regular vet and dental care.

First and foremost is to make sure your dog is not overweight. Dr. Mercer showed the group a diagram found online at that shows how to assess your dog’s body condition. As I’m sure many of us have been told, you should be able to easily feel but not see your dog’s ribs, you should see a waist when looking at the dog from above (and most of us are tall enough to do that), and the dog should have a tuck up when viewed from the side. If we are going to err it is better for the dog to be a little too thin than a little too fat, for a whole variety of health reasons. Just like in people.

Secondly your dog should be in good condition. Some dogs build muscle more easily than others, but any dog will benefit from being in better condition. (Note that you should always have your vet check your dog before beginning a conditioning program, start slowly, and make it fun.) It is far easier to start conditioning a dog before problems arise than it is to try and fix those problems. Learn to measure your dog’s heart rate (you can feel a pulse inside the hind leg where it attaches to the body), and track the resting heart rate as you follow your conditioning program. The rate should go down over time as the dog becomes more fit; aim for a resting heart rate of about 50 beats per minute and then strive to maintain that condition.

Some conditioning exercises are simple and appropriate for all ages, like going for walks on different kinds of terrain, while others focus on strengthening core muscles so the spine is better supported. One of the most surprising of those exercises was one little practiced in the IW world: having your dog sit up and beg. It makes sense when you think about the muscles required to balance in that position, but a lot of people in the audience were amused at the mental image, and knowing how often our puppies seem to be clueless about where various body parts are it might be something better tried with a mature, coordinated dog. Swimming is a great exercise for those dogs who will indulge in it. A lot of agility obstacles (or IW-sized variations) also turn out to be good for core muscles, and help a dog be more conscious of where he’s placing his feet. And my dogs were particularly happy to hear that among other things, digging is very good for strengthening front leg muscles! Many of the recommended exercises are demonstrated on a DVD by sports medicine veterinarian Dr. Christine Zink, DVM, Ph.D., DAVCP called Building the Canine Athlete, and Dr. Mercer’s handout, which suggests quite a few exercises, will be made available on the IWF website soon for the benefit of those who were unable to attend the seminar.

Dr. Mercer also discussed various nutritional supplements which can make a positive difference in orthopedic health. Again, it is best to start these before problems arise, as many are meant to strengthen cartilage, and if you wait till degeneration has started there will be less cartilage to strengthen. Glucosamine chondroitin has shown effectiveness in studies; as with all supplements you need to choose your source carefully to make sure you get the active ingredients as labeled (for more information see Consumer Reports magazine’s rather eye-opening investigation into supplements in 2006; you can also look for the USP seal on products which meet the pharmaceutical guidelines of the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), a non-profit group,and are subject to random off-the-shelf testing). If you are looking to save money, rather than buy a cheap brand you should look for a product from a respected brand (Cosequin and Synovi were mentioned) that is labeled for horses, as it tends to be more cost-effective per dose than products labeled for dogs. Some of the supplements may also be beneficial for other health conditions, such as the Omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil, and DHA. With any nutritional supplement it will probably be about 3-4 weeks before you see any effect.

Chiropractic treatment and acupuncture can also be helpful to symptomatic dogs, if you can find a reputable practioner who is licensed to treat animals.

Lastly, there are a few simple things you can do to try and find orthopedic problems before your dog shows obvious symptoms, so appropriate treatment can start before too much damage has occurred. Doing them once a week or so will help you not only to spot possible problems but also to know what is normal for your dog. Dr. Mercer demonstrated a couple of these techniques for the group. One involved starting at the neck on your standing dog and working your hand down the spine, essentially massaging around the spine, watching for any pain response or odd reflex reaction. Another is to gently stretch each leg out to full extension, one at a time, again watching for a pain response or unusual resistance. Also watch to see that your dog puts his foot back down normally (not knuckled under). Anything out of the ordinary should be followed up with your vet.

Many thanks to Dr. Mercer for introducing us to some simple ideas for helping our dogs stay fit and functional through their golden years.