Senior Dog Care: Our Guide for Caring for a Senior Dog

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If you’re a real dog lover then you may have already learned that the one bad thing about them is that we usually outlive them. Dogs don’t live nearly as long as we do. That adorable puppy you brought home just a few years ago will become a senior dog almost faster than you can believe.

There are a lot of things you can do to help your dog enjoy his senior years. You can even do some things to help him stay healthier and live longer. We have some tips to help you and your older dog so keep reading.

What Defines a Senior Dog?

“Senior” really depends on the dog. A dog’s size, breed, and even individual factors help determine when a dog moves from adult or mature to becoming a senior dog.

For example, many of the giant breeds such as Irish Wolfhounds are known to have a shorter lifespan. For one of these dogs, 10-years-old is considered to be an “old” dog. For dogs that have a shorter length of life, they can start showing signs of aging when they are just 6-7 years of age.

At the other extreme, many toy breeds and small dogs often live very long lives. Toy Poodles, Whippets, and some other breeds often live into their mid-teens. These dogs can continue to have an active adult life for a long time. They might not show signs of aging until they are past ten years of age.

Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle. They have an average life expectancy of 10-12 years. For these dogs, they can start t slow down when they are 7-8 years of age.

What Happens with a Dog Enters the Senior Stages

Regardless of the breed or size of your dog, when he becomes a senior you can expect certain signs. Your dog will usually:

  • Sleep more
  • Gain weight
  • Play less

Some dogs can have some additional issues:

  • Stiffness (especially when getting up after sleeping)
  • Dental disease that might produce bad breath
  • Gray hairs in his coat
  • Cloudy eyes or some loss of sight
  • Some deafness
  • Cognitive changes

Most dogs will experience some stiffness in their joints at some point. However, not all of the other signs occur in every dog. If they do occur, they might not show up until your dog is quite elderly.

My own 14 ½ year-old dog passed away recently. She remained very active until about six months prior to her death. She did develop some minor stiffness in her joints. She slept more. However, her hearing and eyesight remained good. She had no cognitive changes. Her teeth were still healthy and white. So, some of these changes depend on the individual dog.

What can you do to help your older dog?

There are a lot of things you can do to help your dog as he gets older:

Senior dog exams

One of the best things you can do for your older dog is to get in the habit of taking him for a regular senior dog exam. This kind of exam is a little different from a routine visit to get vaccinations.

During a senior dog exam your vet should give your dog a complete workup .

  • Talk to your vet about your dog’s medical history. Discuss any problems your dog is having.
  • Your dog should get a complete physical exam.
  • The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that your dog get the following tests:
    • Complete blood count
    • Chemistry screening – Blood tests to evaluate kidneys, liver, sugar, etc.
    • Urinalysis
    • Fecal flotation
    • Heartworm testing
    • Arthropod-borne disease testing — (e.g. Rickettsia, Lyme)
  • Get any vaccinations, parasite control, or dental care your dog needs.
  • Talk to your vet about age-related issues to expect with your dog.
  • Consider any appropriate breed-related testing for your dog, especially for any late-onset diseases.

This first exam will set up a baseline for your senior dog. Ideally, your dog should have this kind of exam every year. Your vet will then be able to compare his health from year to year to see how he is aging. This is a good way for your vet to spot any health problems before they become serious.

Alternative medicine

Some people also like to use alternative medicine treatments for their senior dogs. Acupuncture, reiki, Chinese medicine, chiropractic medicine, herbal medicine, and other forms of complementary medicine have helped many older dogs.

If you would like to try alternative medicine, get a referral to someone with a good reputation.

Helping a dog with joint stiffness

It’s estimated that about 80 percent of dogs over the age of 8 have some degree of joint stiffness.

If your older dog is experiencing joint stiffness, there are some things you can do to help.

Consider getting your dog an orthopedic bed. Orthopedic beds are made for dogs with joint problems. They relieve the pressure points when your dog is sleeping or lying down. Many of these beds have removable covers and/or are washable. That’s very helpful in case your older dog has an accident. Some beds are even heated to provide some warmth for your dog’s joints.

Dogs with joint stiffness can also benefit from supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin. You can also add fish oil to help even more. Green-lipped mussels (GLM) is another supplement recommended for joint problems. These supplements can help reduce inflammation and pain. They also help boost cartilage repair in your dog’s joints.

Dental disease/bad breath

It’s not uncommon for older dogs to have bad breath. Some older dogs will also stop eating. There is a connection between these two problems. Older dogs often have some form of dental disease. They can even have a rotten tooth that’s far back in their mouth where you can’t see it.

Instead of assuming that your old dog has simply lost interest in food, have your veterinarian take a good look at your dog’s teeth. It’s very possible that your vet will find a dental cause for the bad breath and loss of interest in food.

Once your vet has treated the dental problem (such as removing a bad tooth), your older dog will probably have normal breath again. He may show renewed interest in his food again, too.

Cloudy eyes 

Many people are afraid that their dogs have cataracts when they see some cloudiness in their eyes. However, cloudy eyes don’t always indicate cataracts in older dogs.

Many dogs over the age of 7 will have some cloudiness over their eyes. This is a normal sign of aging. It’s called nuclear sclerosis. Cells keep growing in layers over the lens. It will look cloudy over time but it has little effect on your dog’s vision.

Nuclear sclerosis is easily mistaken for cataracts. If your older dog does have nuclear sclerosis, it is similar to the aging that occurs in human eyes. Your dog won’t see things up close as well. Walking down stairs or catching a treat tossed to him can be a little harder.

If you are worried about your older dog’s vision, talk to your veterinarian.

Deafness

If your dog has always had good hearing and you notice a change as he gets older, it can be due to some degenerative changes in the nerves in the ear. This is very much like the hearing loss experienced by people as they age. The change usually occurs slowly so you may not even notice that your dog has any hearing loss at first.

If your dog isn’t responding to you as he once did, he’s probably not ignoring you. He may seem to sleep more soundly and not hear you when you try to wake him. If these things are happening, you can have your vet check him for hearing loss.

Most dogs will only have some small loss of hearing so it’s often not a major problem. If your dog loses all of his hearing, you can still communicate with him by teaching him hand signals. Many people own dogs that are deaf in one or both ears from birth. Hand signals provide a good way for your dog to understand you.

You can also use a vibrating collar on your dog if he loses his hearing. A remote device allows you to make the collar vibrate to get the dog’s attention.

If your senior dog has lost most or all of his hearing, you will need to take extra care with him when he is outside the home. He won’t be able to hear oncoming cars, for example. You will need to keep him on a leash and watch out for him so he doesn’t become lost or confused.

Cognitive changes

Age-related cognitive changes in dogs are sometimes compared to dementia in humans or Alzheimer’s disease. In dogs, the term used is canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS). Not all dogs experience these changes but some do.

We do seem to see more dogs with cognitive dysfunction now because many dogs are living longer due to good veterinary care. Many dogs don’t usually show symptoms of this illness until they are 12-15 years of age, though it does occur in dogs at earlier ages.

There are some specific signs that can indicate cognitive dysfunction in older dogs (though some of them can also be symptoms of other problems):

  • Disorientation: May include staring blankly at walls or floors, getting trapped in corners or behind furniture, going to the wrong side of the door, etc.
  • Interactions: May include abnormal interactions with familiar people or pets. This could be witnessed as aggression, irritability, or a change in frequency of social interaction.
  • Sleep-wake cycle changes: May include increased sleeping during the day and/or increased difficulty sleeping through the night.
  • House soiling: May include urinating or defecating in areas previously kept clean, decreased signaling to the owner when they need to go out, or eliminating inside directly after coming in from outside.
  • Activity changes: May include decreased activity, increased time spent resting, and increased repetitive activity such as pacing, wandering aimlessly, and walking in circles. Changes in activity may be triggered by anxiety associated with certain people, places, or situations.
  • Learning difficulties/memory loss: May include being slow to or unable to learn new tasks or tricks or difficulty performing previously learned tasks or tricks.

From the Texas A&M University Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences web site

If you suspect that your dog is showing any of these symptoms, you should bring it to the attention of your veterinarian. CCDS is a progressive disease so you can’t undo the problem. However, there are ways to slow it and manage it.

Your veterinarian can treat any underlying medical conditions that could be causing one of these problems. Maintaining a consistent routine helps some dogs. Reducing any stress factors in your home also helps some dogs.

Some dogs benefit from enrichment activities such as puzzle games. Changing the diet can help some dogs. Purina One SmartBlend Vibrant Maturity 7+ Formula and Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d Canine Healthy Aging & Alertness both have studies to back up their success in helping dogs with cognitive dysfunction.

Purina ProPlan also has a line of foods called Bright Minds that is recommended to promote alertness and mental sharpness in older dogs. Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are said to be the key to the success of these foods.

There are also some supplements and medications that help some dogs. Anipryl has been the drug of choice for some time but new drugs are being developed.

Spend time with your dog 

One of the best things you can do for your older dog is to spend time with him. Take walks together. Snuggle. Feed him his special food alone together. If you have other pets, make clear to them that they need to respect the old dog.

Take time to groom your senior dog. You don’t have to force him to have a lot of baths if he hates them. And, you don’t have to make him spend a lot of time being groomed. But you should take the trouble to keep him looking respectable. Show him that you care about him in every possible way.

Your senior dog won’t be with you forever so enjoy every second that you have together.

Conclusion

Dogs never seem to live long enough. As your dog gets older and starts to slow down, there are a lot of things you can do to help him be comfortable and healthy. Take him to the vet annually for a checkup. Provide supplements and a good bed for his stiff joints. See about his teeth so he can eat well. Give him food that will help him stay alert. Spend lots of time with your old dog. Cherish every moment you have together. You’ll be glad you did.

Carlotta Cooper

Author & Pet Expert

Carlotta Cooper is a vice president of the Sportsmen’s and Animal Owners’ Voting Alliance (SAOVA) and an AKC Legislative Liaison. She writes for multiple pet blogs and she’s a breed columnist for the AKC Gazette. She’s also a contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine Dog News. She is the author of several books about dogs and other animals.

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