Tips for Caring for Your Senior Dog

A spotted black and white english pointer standing in the woods.

Dogs are living longer than ever before thanks to improved nutrition and veterinary care. But dogs experience many of the same health-related challenges as humans when they transition into their senior years. Your older dog may sport a few gray whiskers these days, and he probably does not possess the same bouncy spring in his step he once did. Still, there’s plenty of life in your beloved companion dog, and plenty you can do to help ease him comfortably into his golden years.

Is My Dog Old? Dog-To-Human Age Equivalencies

Cats and small dogs are considered geriatric by age 7, larger dog breeds at age 6.

Human Years to Dog Years

  • 7 human years for small to medium dogs = 44-47, large to very large dogs = 50-56
  • 10 human years for small to medium dogs = 56-60, large to very large dogs = 66-68
  • 15 human years for small to medium dogs = 76-83, large to very large dogs = 93-115
  • 20 human years for small to medium dogs = 96-105, large to very large dogs = 120

KEY: Small = 0-20 lbs., Medium = 21-50 lbs., Large = 51-90 lbs., Very Large = >90 lbs.

The oldest recorded age of a cat is 34 years; the oldest recorded age of a dog is 30years.

I. Diet For the Senior Dog

Vets agree nutrition is the single most important factor in the healthy life of an aged or aging dog. Your senior dog’s organs don’t work as efficiently as they did in his youth, and so his body must work harder to extract the nutrients he needs from what you feed him; his health will be a direct reflection of this.

Read labels carefully, avoiding food containing generic “meat” in its ingredients, and look instead for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) designation. Also observe your dog while he eats, watching for signs he’s having trouble chewing. Dentition problems are common in aging and aged dogs; you may need to change foods.

II. Obesity In Older Dogs

It’s a hefty matter—a dog’s weight can spell the difference in a couple of years’-worth of life. Dogs are susceptible to obesity, especially as seniors. In a dog whose activity level is not what it should be, the problem can be her weight and not her age. Excess weight can bring on arthritis, as a dog’s joints are asked to bear more weight than what they’ve been accustomed to. So how much you feed your aging dog is every bit as important as what you’re feeding her.

Monitoring Your Senior Dog’s Diet

  • Excess fat in your dog’s diet may lead to pancreatitis, a serious disease.
  • Dry food should contain between 7% and 12% fat.
  • Canned food should contain between 5% and 8% fat.
  • Two smaller meals during the day instead of one large meal will help manage your senior dog’s hunger.
  • For the doggie who insists on between-meal snacking, try sliced zucchini or cucumber, fresh green beans, or seedless apple slices.

III. Vet Checkups For Senior Dogs

Most vets recommend semi-annual instead of annual check-ups for senior dogs for this simple reason: seniors are more prone to sickness, and the sooner a problem is discovered and diagnosed, the more likely is your dog to enjoy a successful treatment outcome. Each time you visit the vet with your senior dog, he’ll likely be screened for these common problems:

  • Various cancers
  • Metabolic disease (e.g., diabetes)
  • Organ deterioration (heart, kidney, and liver diseases)

Because dental disease is all but a foregone conclusion in seniors, it’s an excellent practice to have his teeth cleaned at his checkups, too: modern anesthesia drugs have made sedation for an older dog relatively safe and simple. Remember to revisit vaccinations, which may be recommended less frequently for an older dog.

And use this as an opportunity to open a discussion with your vet if you suspect your dog is showing any behavior changes to suggest the onset of dementia. In dogs this may be referred to as cognitive dysfunction, a condition not unlike Alzheimer’s in humans and for which treatment may be available.

Dementia In Dogs: Signs & Symptoms

Consult your vet if you observe any of the following:

  • Increased reaction to sounds
  • Increased vocalization
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Decreased interaction with humans
  • Increased irritability
  • Decreased response to commands
  • Increased aggressive or protective behavior
  • Increased anxiety
  • House soiling
  • Decreased self-hygiene/grooming
  • Repetitive activity
  • Increased wandering
  • Changes in sleep habits

Importantly, don’t despair; treatment options might be available.

IV. Arthritis In Senior Dogs

Arthritis is probably the most overt expression of age in your beloved doggie: she may take longer to get up after sleeping, limp or favor a leg, struggle with stairs, or show palpable signs of stiffness in general. And sadly, she may not possess the same joie de vivre she once did when you lobbed the ball across the lawn for her.

Arthritis can emerge in a dog as young as age five or six if she’s a big gal, later if she’s smallish. If you observe any of these symptoms, your dog may be hurting:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of sleep
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive panting when it’s not hot
  • Rubbing a body part against furniture
  • Limping or favoring a limb
  • Climbing stairs slowly
  • Guarding a body part
  • Fever

Any sudden change in her personality, including a show of aggression, may signal pain. Consult your vet for advice about helpful nutritional supplements, including glucosamine, chondroitin, and fish oil. Your vet may also prescribe an anti-inflammatory to help.

Then take steps to make her comfy at home. Start with an orthopedic foam dog bed, and by all means keep her off the cold, hard floor, which will only aggravate her condition. Depending what her sleep arrangements have been thus far, you may need to make changes to accommodate her in her golden years, keeping her food, water, and bed together on the first floor of your home; she may also find raised dog bowls make mealtime more pleasant and comfortable. Consider portable ramps to help ease her way into the car or onto the furniture if she’s allowed, and use area rugs with rubber backing to give her sure footing.

Symptoms Of Arthritis In Dogs

Consult your vet if you observe any of the following in your dog:

  • Favoring a limb
  • Difficulty standing or sitting
  • Sleeping more
  • Appearing to have stiff or sore joints
  • Hesitancy to jump, run, or climb stairs
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased activity or interest in play
  • Increased irritability
  • Being less alert

A course of treatment for dog arthritis may include:

  • Healthy diet/exercise regimen to maintain proper weight
  • Pain meds in consultation with vet
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory meds (NSAIDS) in consultation with vet
  • Over-the-counter supplements (glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, Omega fatty acids)

Note: Never give your dog over-the-counter preparations for humans containing acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as they are toxic to dogs.

A weekly gentle massage is another gift your aged or arthritic dog may appreciate, the key word being gentle. This is an excellent opportunity for you to palpate her for abnormal lumps or swelling, heat, or tenderness. (Note: warts, skin tags, and fatty tumors called lipomas are not considered harmful; consult your vet for a course of treatment if it’s deemed necessary.) Follow up her massage with a gentle brushing.

V. Exercises For Senior Dogs

Don’t be surprised if your senior dog wants to stay indoors for longer stretches, or spends more time sleeping. He’s an old guy, after all. Still, exercise remains important to his vitality—it will just look different than it did in his youth. Even a gentle walk will slow the rate of atrophy in his aging muscles, and the stimulation he’ll encounter during the course of his walk will help keep his mind sharp. Make sure he has an opportunity for daily exercise, and adapt it to his abilities. Be aware that your dog’s hearing and/or vision may be compromised in his senior years and always keep him leashed on his walks for safety’s sake.

VI. Incontinence In Senior Dogs

Your older dog may need more trips outside to do her doings; this is not unusual for an aged canine. She can’t hold it as long as she once did, and is more likely to leave a puddle inside the house. She can’t help it, but you can help her. If you must be away for long stretches, hire a dog sitter to come by and take her out for breaks as needed. Incontinence may also occur while she is sleeping; have your vet rule out a bladder infection if your dog suddenly starts bedwetting, and make sure her dog bedding is washable. It’s helpful to have extra dog bed covers and keep them in rotation as needed.

Love Your Older Dog

Your senior dog will sleep more and she’ll be less active; she risks becoming “invisible” to her human companions in her old age. Now is the time to show her affection with every bit the enthusiasm you did when she was a puppy. She requires more care, but the payoff is sweet. Live in the moment, and enjoy your senior dog. Take her on a walk. Snuggle up and give her belly rubs. Enjoy every second with her, and daily let her know exactly how much you love her.

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