As a dog ages, several changes may occur besides a greying muzzle. Senior dogs have more health concerns than younger dogs, but they can still make playful, loving companions.
Harmony Peraza, a veterinary technician and the study subject manager for the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Dog Aging Project, discusses the most common health conditions that may arise in a senior dog.
While there is some variation among breeds, a dog is typically considered a senior at 8 years old. Large dogs may age faster, becoming seniors as early as 6 or 7, while smaller dogs may not start showing signs of age until they are 9 or 10.
The signs of an Aging Dog
One of the most common concerns in senior dogs is arthritis, which can cause a dog to move stiffly and slowly and sometimes also gain weight because of decreased activity. Providing a soft surface to lay on and reducing exposure to the elements are easy ways to help a dog with arthritis stay comfortable.
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“I also recommend reaching out to your dog’s veterinarian for suggestions of supplements and, in some cases, medications that can potentially help with the discomfort of arthritis,” Peraza said. “Aging doesn’t have to be painful for your dog.”
Many dogs also lose their hearing and vision as they age, but this does not mean that they can no longer live a full and happy life.
“If you notice that your older dog seems withdrawn, is sleeping deeper than usual, doesn’t come to you as readily when called, or seems lost and confused, these can be signs that he or she has lost some vision or hearing ability,” Peraza said.
Blind and deaf dogs are great at finding new ways to navigate and stay active, but they do need more patience and understanding from their owners.
“Even dogs that go blind can manage to get along very well,” Peraza said. “It is recommended to keep furniture or objects in the home and yard in familiar order for the dog. Rearrangement of items can be confusing and cause the dog to bump into the newly arranged items.”
Dogs have an increased risk for cancer as they age, as well as “wear” on important organs like the heart and kidneys. If a senior dog has increased panting, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, or a change in appetite, thirst, or the frequency of urination, it should be seen by a veterinarian, as these can be symptoms of heart and kidney problems.
Pet owners can help prevent heart and kidney problems in senior dogs by keeping up with oral hygiene.
“A red gum line and tartar build up on a dog’s teeth indicate bacteria or infection within the mouth,” Peraza said. “Bacteria is shed into the bloodstream and directly affects the health of the pet’s heart and kidneys. Dental disease is much more than just smelly breath and yucky looking teeth.”
Beyond physical changes, an aging dog may also develop dementia, causing it to act withdrawn or confused.
“Keeping a dog engaged through play and training activities may help keep its brain healthy and sharp,” Peraza said. “Additionally, your veterinarian can recommend special foods and supplements that, in some cases, may help delay or minimize the onset of senility.”
Finally, it may be common to find an older dog napping, but a dog that suddenly becomes less active should be evaluated by a veterinarian. While some laziness is expected from a dog that has lived a long, active life, excessive sedentary behavior could indicate health problems. Even though dogs may develop health conditions as they age, they can still make great pets and live well past the point of becoming seniors.
Tuning in to your senior’s needs
Throughout their lives, dogs are experts at showing unconditional love and acceptance for their owners. Once dogs have moved into their senior years, owners can return that love by helping them stay comfortable, happy, and healthy.
While the adage may be that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” senior dogs can usually do anything that younger dogs can do, as long as they have some patience and help from their owners.
“Old dogs can learn new tricks! In fact, older dogs may be easier to teach,” Peraza said. “They likely have a longer attention span and more focus than a young puppy. Additionally, teaching your older dog new things can help to keep his mind sharp and slow the signs of senility.”
Owners can also help older dogs stay more youthful by making small changes to their diet and activity to better suit their aging bodies.
Diet changes for a senior dog may be recommended by a veterinarian to treat certain health conditions, encourage weight loss, or help maintain an ideal weight.
“Often, an older dog does not need to consume the same number of calories as a younger dog,” Peraza said. “This can be accomplished by simply feeding less or moving to a lighter or low-calorie food.”
Older dogs may need fewer calories, but this doesn’t mean that they should live a sedentary life. If vigorous exercises like running or jumping have become too difficult for a senior dog, it can still benefit from walking, jogging, swimming, or playing.
Just as with younger dogs, regular trips to the veterinarian are important for keeping senior dogs healthy and comfortable. Peraza recommends taking old dogs to the veterinarian for exams and lab work every six to 12 months and keeping up with flea, tick, heartworm, and intestinal parasite control.
“Having your dog’s health regularly monitored can lead to early discovery of problems, and early discovery of problems can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome,” Peraza said.
Most importantly, owners should remember to give a senior dog the love, attention, and comfort it deserves.
“Offer a comfortable, cool place for your pup to rest,” Peraza said. “Regular baths and grooming are a great way to not only keep your dog clean, but also provide an opportunity to give a nice little massage to your aging family member.
“A little patience, understanding, and a gentle hand can go very far with older dogs,” she said.
Dogs spend their entire lives loving us, so it is the least we can do to make sure they stay just as loved until the end.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest parts of dog ownership, but researchers across the U.S. are taking some of the first steps toward extending the lifespans of our canine companions.
“We all want to help our companion dogs live long and well,” said Dr. Kate Creevy, CVM associate professor. “To accomplish this, a better understanding of the aging process in dogs is needed. The Dog Aging Project brings together a community of dogs, owners, veterinarians, researchers, and volunteers to advance this understanding.”
This project seeks to understand how genes, lifestyle, and environment influence lifespan and healthspan, the period of life spent free from disease. It will enroll 10,000 companion dogs and their owners from across the U.S. Learn more at dogagingproject.org.