Common Ailments In Senior Dogs


As with humans, the aging process in dogs comes with many physical and mental changes and challenges. Your friend who once bounded with energy as a pup, now moves a bit slower and needs a lift onto the sofa. Or your loving, adopted senior dog appears to forget the route home on your daily walks.

Dogs officially become “senior canine citizens” at seven years old. But how an individual dog ages depends upon many variables. Big dogs generally have shorter lifespans than small dogs, so large breed dogs tend to enter their senior years earlier. Was your dog active or sedentary for most of his life? Mentally challenged or bored? Socialized or solitary? These factors will also affect how he ages. A 2016 study found that dogs with higher stress levels had more gray hair in their muzzles than dogs who were more laid back.

Though the rate of aging may vary from dog to dog, your dog will eventually reach his golden years. To help ensure they are long and healthy, familiarize yourself with the common illnesses that affect aging dogs, and the measures that will keep him in fine form as long as possible. Here are common ailments and symptoms to look for in your best friend as he gets older:

Behavioral Changes – A shift in your dog’s disposition is often the earliest sign he is entering his golden years. Your even-tempered dog suddenly growls and snaps when you pet a painful, arthritic hip. Your dog stops responding to verbal commands because he is losing his hearing. Or your once independent dog develops separation anxiety, which can be brought on by cognitive decline. Take note of any sudden behavior changes in your senior dog and bring them up with your veterinarian.

Arthritis – Osteoarthritis, a chronic, degenerative disease that breaks down the protective cartilage in joints, is common in older dogs. The single best thing you can do to delay or prevent canine osteoarthritis is to keep your dog at a healthy weight throughout his lifetime.

Watch for these signs of arthritis in dogs:

  1. limping
  2. difficulty rising
  3. fatigue
  4. swollen joints
  5. uncharacteristic irritability
  6. depression
  7. avoidance of physical activity

Your veterinarian will tell you to keep your dog moving despite his reluctance, as moderate exercise keeps his joints lubricated and limber. Your vet may also prescribe Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) and/or steroids to reduce pain and inflammation.

To keep your dog comfortable at home, a soft dog bed is important for sore joints. Your best friend may also appreciate dog ramps or stairs so he can still reach his favorite perches.

Obesity – Many people unintentionally allow senior dogs to pack on pounds because they don’t reduce their dog’s calories to match the reduced activity that comes with age. Obesity increases your dog’s risk of serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure and cancer. If your dog is slowing down, talk to your veterinarian about the right amount and type of food for his exercise routine and size. Reserve dog treats for special occasions and avoid sharing table scraps entirely.

Diabetes – Middle aged and senior dogs are at greater risk of developing diabetes. Keep your dog lean and active to prevent the onset of certain forms of canine diabetes. Keep an eye out for increased thirst and urination, both early warning signs of diabetes. Other symptoms include increased eating, weight loss despite more food intake, obesity, a noticeable increase in lethargy, depression, vomiting, and cloudy eyes caused by cataracts.

Gum Disease – Periodontal disease is completely preventable, yet is one of the most common conditions in adult and senior dogs. In addition to causing damage to the gums, loss of bone around the teeth and tooth loss, periodontal disease is associated with heart, kidney and liver problems.

Bad breath is the only symptom a dog owner is likely to notice before the condition is advanced; routine, lifelong dental care is the best defense. Your dog’s dental routine should include regular brushing at home, annual professional teeth cleanings, chew toys designed to clean your dog’s teeth and gums, and regular oral examinations by your veterinarian.

Hearing Loss – If your older dog isn’t responding when you call him from another room, he may be losing his hearing. This is as common in senior dogs as it is in older people. You can teach your dog sign language to replace the voice commands he no longer hears. These hand signal lessons give you a new way to communicate with your dog, while also providing important mental stimulation. 

Vision Loss – Deteriorating eyesight is another sign of aging dogs share with their human companions. Age-related cloudiness of your dog’s eye lenses is called lenticular sclerosis and usually appears when dogs are between six and eight years old. This condition is not painful and only causes minor vision loss. Cataracts, however, which are common in dogs with diabetes, cause cloudiness in the eye and partial or total blindness. Depending on the severity of the blindness, cataract surgery may restore some or all of his vision. If surgery is not an option, take heart that dogs are highly adaptable to vision loss. You can help your vision-impaired dog navigate the house by always keeping furniture in the same location.

Cancer – The leading cause of death in senior dogs, cancer afflicts half of all dogs over the age of ten. Signs of cancer in dogs include:

abnormal swellings or lumps that don’t go away or continue to grow

  • sores that won’t heal
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • difficulty eating
  • weakness
  • hesitation to exercise
  • an offensive odor
  • limping or stiffness

Early diagnosis and treatment of cancer are important, so take your dog to the veterinarian immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.

According to the Morris Animal Foundation, some cancers are hereditary, but most arise from damage to a dog’s DNA through environmental elements, such as tobacco smoke, pesticides and other carcinogens. To minimize your dog’s risk of cancer, feed him a healthy diet, avoid exposing him to known carcinogens, and provide regular exercise. Spaying and neutering may also reduce your dog’s risk of specific types of cancers.

Dementia – Some mild cognitive decline is inevitable as your dog ages. However, some senior dogs develop dementia, or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, which is characterized by more extreme changes in awareness, memory loss, and reduced responsiveness. About 50 percent of all dogs over age 11 exhibit some signs of dementia. Here’s what to watch for:

  • confusion
  • disorientation
  • difficulty learning new tasks
  • disinterest in play
  • seeming lost during familiar walks
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • excessive licking
  • disregard for training and house rules
  • incontinence
  • loss of appetite
  • sleep cycle changes

To help slow your dog’s loss of cognitive function, provide him with a healthy diet and keep him physically active. Expose him to regular mental stimulation through daily training sessions, play and exercise.

Your veterinarian may also suggest nutritional supplements to help improve your dog’s cognitive function.

Incontinence – The older your dog gets, the greater the risk he will start having accidents around the house. But take him to the vet if he becomes incontinent because it is a symptom of many possible health issues.

Age-related incontinence can be caused by a weakening of your dog’s bladder sphincter, a condition that is most common in spayed female dogs when their estrogen levels drop with age. Prescription hormone replacement therapy is very effective in treating these dogs.

Other risk factors for incontinence include obesity and severe cognitive decline, which causes your dog to forget his housetraining. Remember that incontinence is not a training issue: never punish your dog for having an accident.

Coping with age-related incontinence can be frustrating for both you and your dog. Try out the many doggie diapers on the market to find one that’s comfortable for your dog and contains the leaks. Additionally, make sure his dog bed is waterproof or has a washable cover and get waterproof furniture protectors for his favorite hang-outs.

Heart Disease – Serious heart ailments can occur in young dogs, and some dog breeds, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, are more prone to heart valve issues than others. But the risk of congestive heart failure in all dogs increases with age. Once again, the most important way to protect your dog from heart disease is to feed him a healthful diet and give him plenty of exercise. Obesity is linked to heart disease. Take good care of your dog’s teeth as well because periodontal disease is also linked to heart disease.

You can’t stop your dog from aging. But feeding him a healthy diet and keeping him active go a long way toward preventing or delaying many age-related illnesses. Annual exams with his veterinarian will help catch problems early. And don’t forget to take care of his choppers! These later years of your dog’s life can be among the most joyful and peaceful you spend together. Do all you can to make them last.

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