Helping Our Senior Dogs Age Gracefully

Senior dogs make wonderful companions but often require more care than their younger counterparts.

Is my dog old?

The old saying that a dog’s year is worth 7 human years is not very accurate. It is difficult to exactly determine a dog’s age in human years, as breed size and lifespans vary greatly. The general guidelines suggest that dogs are considered ‘mature’ when they have reached 50% of their lifespan (middle-aged), ‘senior’ when they have reached 75% of their lifespan, and ‘geriatric’ when they have passed their life expectancy. Large dogs such as Labrador Retrievers are considered to be a senior dog at age 7 or 8 whereas small dogs, such as Shih Tzus, are not considered to be a senior dog until they are around 10.  

Why do older dogs need special care and attention?

Age is not a disease, but many changes happen as dogs age, which can result in different diseases or disabilities.

  • Vision and hearing can be impaired causing anxiety or reactive behaviors if your dog does not realize he is being approached.
  • Older dogs have reduced energy requirements and can easily become obese.
  • Obesity and age can both lead to arthritic pain and stiffness getting around.
  • Cognitive function can decline, and dogs can experience similar symptoms to people with dementia causing many behavioral changes.
  • Immune function declines reducing the ability to fight infections including urinary tract, skin, and other infections.

Isn’t my dog just getting older?

Yes, but while the aging process cannot be stopped, it is important to recognize and manage the illnesses that can occur as dogs age:

  • Dental disease is one of the most common diseases affecting all dogs. It is a painful condition that if left untreated can cause organ dysfunction, possibly thromboembolic events (strokes), and may contribute to a poor appetite.
  • Osteoarthritis pain affects the majority of senior dogs causing reduced activity, less playing, and reduced quality of life.
  • Kidney disease results in increased drinking and urination and can cause urinary tract infections, hypertension, as well as urination in the house.
  • Thyroid disease can cause weight gain despite a decreased appetite and generally low levels of energy.
  • Heart disease is common, especially in small breed dogs and can lead to heart failure.
  • Liver disease can cause vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite, and weight loss.
  • Vision changes can result from cataracts or retinal changes caused by hypertension.
  • Cognitive dysfunction can cause behavior changes including:
    • loss of housetraining.
    • aimless wandering/pacing, staring, and vocalizing.
    • altered sleep-wake cycles such as night time waking or increased anxiety, irritability, or restlessness.

What can I do to help my senior dog have the best quality of life?

Dogs are much more stoic than humans and usually do not clearly show signs of disease or pain, so close observation is key. The earlier a problem is detected and identified, the more successful treatment is likely to be.

Keep track of your dog’s energy levels, especially how long they are able to walk. If you notice significant declines, it could be a sign of pain, heart disease, or other illness. Regular walks are important for a dog’s quality of life, not only for mental stimulation but they also provide extra one-on-one time with their human.

Brush your dog’s coat or massage him regularly to help evaluate his coat quality – how soft is it? Are there any knots or mats of hair? Are there any fleas or lesions on the skin? Brushing your dog’s coat daily can help him with his own grooming, especially in places he may have difficulty reaching due to arthritis. It also helps stimulate blood circulation to the skin which further increases skin health. Nails should be checked regularly, as long claws can contribute to pain while walking or can curl into and cut his pads. Claws should not be heard clicking on the floor.

“The earlier a problem is detected and identified, the more successful treatment is likely to be.”

Hopefully, you are already brushing your dog’s teeth, but even if teeth brushing is not part of your daily routine, you can still look at his teeth by gently lifting his lips while he is relaxed. While having a look at your dog’s teeth, you can also assess the color of his gums, as well as his hydration – a dog that is well hydrated will have pink, moist gums, but a dehydrated dog will have gums that feel sticky and they may be pale.

If teeth brushing is not part of your daily routine, gradually introduce pet toothpaste, then a toothbrush into the routine until he will let you brush the outsides of his teeth without becoming upset. This process can take several weeks or more. Your veterinary healthcare team can help you develop a training plan for your dog.

Yes, old dogs can learn new tricks! Just as there has been a huge upswing in ‘brain games’ for the elderly, your dog needs to exercise his/her brain as well. If your dog’s vision is still good, teach hand signals. These will help if his hearing fails. Hand signals are actually a more natural language for dogs than words!

Make time every day to play with your dog. Bring out special toys to encourage brain involvement. If your dog is food motivated, use treat puzzle toys to engage his problem-solving skills. Play hide and seek by working with a friend or another family member. Stand at opposite ends of your home and take turns calling your dog. Reward your dog with a treat when he finds you, then change positions in the house while your friend calls your dog back.

Does my senior dog need a special diet?

Talk to your veterinary care team about best nutrition for your dog. Every dog has different nutritional requirements based on their age, energy level, and any medical conditions, so your veterinarian’s input is important. Some older dogs need help losing weight, while others have medical conditions such as kidney disease or diabetes which need to be managed with special diets. You and your veterinary healthcare team should work together to find the best diet for your dog.

How can my veterinarian help?

Regular veterinary examinations and discussions about your dog’s behaviors at home (your dog’s history) will allow your veterinarian to provide recommendations on how to keep your senior dog healthy. These visits are often recommended more frequently than once a year as problems occur more quickly in older dogs, especially if they have a chronic disease such as kidney disease or arthritis.

“Laboratory tests including blood, urine, and fecal tests are recommended at least once yearly.”

Laboratory tests including blood, urine, and fecal tests are recommended at least once yearly to detect changes in organ function before dogs show signs of disease or to monitor the progression of organ dysfunction.

Weight, as well as body and muscle condition, will be evaluated as part of a complete physical examination. Working closely with your veterinarian will help detect disease earlier, enabling more effective management and treatment, which will ensure the best quality of life for your dog.

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