Caring For Your Senior Dog
If your dog is beginning to enter its teens, then it's time to start looking at your dog's health and daily routine a little differently than you have in the past. Senior dogs have different needs in order to maintain their health. In this article, we'll cover the basics of what to expect in your dog's golden years and how to keep them healthy along the way.
When Is A Dog Considered Old?
How "old" a dog is will vary from dog to dog, determined by factors like their breed, size, and lifestyle. When it comes to small dogs, seven years of age is generally when they are considered old; for larger dogs, they are usually considered old around age six.
Being old doesn't mean that your pet is nearing the end of their life necessarily - it's not uncommon for well-cared-for pets to live into their mid-teens - but it does mean that they are going to start needing special attention and care.
In human years, a seven-year-old dog would be somewhere around 50 years old, a ten-year-old dog would be around 60, and a fifteen-year-old dog would be in their 80's. While it can be alarming to think of our pets this way, it's important to keep this in mind so that you can be prepared for the health challenges and life changes they will go through during this period of their life.
How Your Dog's Life Will Change As They Age
As your dog gets older, their life will change in ways similar to the ways that our lives as humans change with age. They will have less energy, have more trouble getting around, and will have a more challenging time dealing with sickness. Instead of wanting to play, your dog will spend a lot more time laying around, sleeping, and staying comfortable.
One of the biggest changes to an aging dog's lifestyle will be that they will need to visit the vet much more often than when they were younger. Not only will they develop health issues more often than younger dogs, but they will also need to visit the vet for regular check-ups to catch certain health issues early on.
Common Health Conditions In Older Dogs
Every dog is going to experience their senior years differently, though there are some health conditions that are exceedingly common in older dogs. One of these being arthritis. Arthritis is the result of damage to your dog's joints from sustained inflammation. Because it takes several years for this damage to become painful, your dog won't develop arthritis until later in life.
Hip dysplasia is another common issue in older dogs. Hip dysplasia is the result of your dog's hips not being properly aligned during hip formation, which can cause grinding and difficulty walking. Hip dysplasia is almost always genetic, so there's not much you can do to prevent it as an owner.
Various organ diseases are also common in aging dogs, just like they are in humans. Liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease - these are all relatively expected as your dog ages. These diseases are usually the result of long term damage (poor diet, lack of exercise, weight gain, etc.) finally taking its toll on your dog's organs.
Behavioral Changes In Older Dogs
The biggest behavioral change you'll notice in an aging dog is that they are much more lethargic. This can have several causes. One being that they simply don't have the same energy levels that they used to, so running around and playing fetch just doesn't have the same appeal.
Your dog might also be experiencing physical pain - like arthritis - that makes running and playing too painful for them. Older dogs might also start to develop memory issues, especially into their teens. They might not recognize family friends or family members who haven't visited in a while.
In some instances, your dog may even become more irritable with age. Similar to old people, aging can make your pet a little grumpy and impatient. Their body aches, they're sleepy, they're not too sure what's going on, and frankly, they're just getting too old for this! Don't take a grumpy older dog too personally, they're just worn out.
How To Keep Your Dog Happy And Healthy For As Long As Possible
Visit The Vet More Often
As we've mentioned already, one aspect of your dog's routine that's bound to change as they get older is going to the vet more often. Going to the vet is an important part of every dog's health, but it's especially important as your dog begins entering their senior years.
Just like people, the older your dog is, the more health issues you're going to noticing popping up. Your dog might go from never needing to visit the vet to suddenly having issues that require treatment and checkups on a regular basis. In order to minimize the negative effects of these health conditions, begin taking your dog to the vet regularly and unprompted.
Going to the vet preemptively - as opposed to only going when you need to - will reduce the chances that a major health crisis surfaces under your nose. Being proactive about vet visits and building up a rapport with your dog's vet will keep your dog's health in check and ensure that your dog lives a long and comfortable life.
Adjust Your Dog's Diet
The second big change to your dog's lifestyle is that they're going to have different dietary needs. Diet is one area that dog owners tend to neglect, and in your dog's youth, this might not seem like such a big deal. As they age, however, their diet is going to be one of the most critical aspects of their health. It can be the difference between an old dog that still loves to play or one that hardly wants to move.
The amount of food and the frequency of meals is going to change as your dog enters their golden years. Every dog is different, so for suggestions on what your dog should be eating, consult with your vet about dog food brands, portion sizes, and meal schedules.
Your dog's diet might also vary if they're dealing with certain health conditions. Liver disease, for example, might require that your dog be placed on a diet that controls their calcium, phosphorous, and electrolyte levels, while heart disease will require a diet that is low in sodium.
Control Your Dog's Weight
Tying in with your dog's diet is their weight. It's normal for dogs to put on extra weight as they get older, but not so much so that it begins to become an issue. Keeping your aging dog's weight in check is important, as it's one of the leading health issues in older dogs.
In fact, a survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) found that 53% of adult dogs are considered obese. The older your dog is, the more severe the damage of dog obesity is going to be and the harder it's going to be to bring them back down to a healthy weight.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that older dogs tend to be less active than younger dogs, so on top of being predisposed to gaining weight, they aren't getting their usual amount of exercise to offset the pounds they're gaining. Fortunately, a regulated diet coupled with close monitoring of your dog's weight can quickly resolve the issue.
Regular, Gentle Exercise
Exercise might not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking about your senior dog's health - and it's likely one of the last things on your dog's mind - but it's vital to keeping them comfortable and happy in their later years. Exercising an older dog is a little more complicated than exercising a younger dog, however.
Not only is your dog likely to be less enthusiastic about exercise, but they are also more prone to having health issues that make exercise difficult. Arthritis, for example, is common in older pets, and it can make even the smallest amount of exercise painful for your pet. Hip dysplasia and weight gain can also impair your dog's ability to exercise.
For small dogs, short walks around your block are likely all the exercise they need. For bigger dogs, walking around your neighborhood or city once a day or so should keep your dog covered. If your dog isn't used to exercise, be sure to start out easy, and keep in mind as well that too much exercise can actually create more problems for senior dogs. Keep their exercise gentle, short, and regular.
Take Care Of Your Dog's Teeth
Something that the vast majority of dog owners never think about is their dog's dental hygiene. Since dogs can't brush their teeth, we tend to overlook this aspect of their health entirely. Fortunately, younger dogs' immune systems are strong enough that they aren't likely to experience any issues with their health as a result of poor hygiene.
Older dogs, however, do not have the same immunity, and unkempt teeth can actually pose a significant health risk. Not only does poor oral hygiene lead to your dog losing their teeth, but it can also cause them to be more prone to gum infections as well. And since their immune system is already weak, these infections can be increasingly difficult for them to fight off.
The reason this is so important in dogs - as it is in humans - is that your dog's teeth are in the same region as their brain. While uncommon, gum infections and dental diseases can occasionally make their way into your dog's brain, which can create far more severe health problems. Fortunately, this is fixable by cleaning your dog's teeth daily or by purchasing dental treats if your dog isn't fond of having their teeth brushed.
Groom Your Dog Regularly
A less serious - but still important - aspect of a senior dog's health is grooming. This includes things like keeping their hair and nails trimmed as well as keeping them bathed and clean. Keeping these three factors in check will keep your dog feeling comfortable, happy, and well cared for.
If your dog is a long-haired breed, you've likely dealt with trimming their hair before - either on your own or by visiting a professional groomer. Keeping a long-haired dog's hair trimmed properly will prevent the hair from matting. Hair matting is more common in older dogs as they spend more time lying down.
Likewise, keeping your dog bathed and their nails trimmed will help prevent unexpected infections and pain points. Keeping up with your dog's grooming will not only reduce the chances of hair matting and infection, but it will also give you an up-close perspective on your dog's skin, weight, and general health on a regular basis.
Keep Your Dog's Environment Consistent And Positive
For most - if not all - of your dog's life, they are simply along for the ride. What they eat, where they go, where they live and who they live with - all of these factors are generally decided by you. And this is the way it should be! You're their owner, and dogs need and want to be cared for.
Now that your dog is getting older, however, consistency is going to be an extremely important part of their life. Moving to a new house or apartment, introducing new pets, these kinds of things can stress your dog out more so than they would have when your dog is younger. Partially because your dog's threshold for stress isn't what it used to be, but also because they've now lived a long life with the same family in the same place.
Make sure that the environment that your dog lives in is a positive one as well. Bickering, fights, shouting - all of these can add extra stress and discomfort to your pet's daily routine.
Show Your Dog Lots Of Love
This is one is less of a medical prescription and more so encouraging advice. Your dog being older and less energetic doesn't mean that they need any less support and affection. If anything, they need more! At this stage of their life, they're more likely to be in physical pain and won't always be so naturally happy-go-lucky.
As a result, it's important for you to brighten their day wherever possible and shower them with love at every opportunity. You'll need to be more patient with an older dog as well, as their vision and hearing might be going, they might have less control over their bladder, and sometimes they might just not have the energy to walk over when you call their name.
But above all of that, your dog's senior years are also their final ones, as sad as it is to admit. You have the ability to make them as wonderful as possible, so be sure to do so as often as you can. Treasure the time you have with your dog, and make as many memories as you can.
Acknowledging that your dog is growing old can be tough to do, but it's an important part of recognizing their needs and keeping their health in the best shape possible. Visit the vet regularly, feed them a nutritious diet, and above all else, show them all the love in the world.
Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, University of Belgrade
Ivana Vukasinovic grew up in Serbia and attended the University of Belgrade where she received a degree in Veterinary medicine in 2012 and later completed surgical residency working mostly with livestock. Her first year of practice was split between busy small animal practice and emergency clinic, and after two more years of treating many different species of animals, she opened her own veterinary pharmacy where an interest in canine and feline nutrition emerged with an accent on fighting animal obesity. In her free time, she acts as a foster parent for stray animals before their adoption, likes to read SF books and making salted caramel cookies.
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The Innovet Team
Please do not ask for emergency or specific medical questions about your pets in the comments. Innovet Pet Products is unable to provide you with specific medical advice or counseling. A detailed physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinarian are required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet requires emergency attention or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic health conditions, please contact or visit your local/preferred veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.
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