We want our pets to live forever and will do all we can to keep them healthy and happy. In order to do so, there are many things we need to consider as our pets age. Their eyesight gets poor, their hearing diminishes, and/or they suffer from arthritis as well as experience other health problems and diseases which can greatly affect their ability to function.
Obviously senior dogs have different care requirements than those of younger dogs. But when is your dog considered senior? It really depends on such factors as breed, size, genetics, nutrition, health care and environment; all play a role in how fast your dog ages.
What are some of the things to expect as your dog becomes a “senior?”
Your dog will certainly slow down and tire more easily. He may not be able to walk as far or play as long. He may have difficulty getting up or finding a comfortable position in which to sleep. He may become reluctant to go up and down stairs or have difficulty getting into and out of the car. He may be stuck in the yard, not sure how to get back in, not able to see or hear you anymore to help guide him. Senior dogs will likely run into things and stumble; they may get underfoot much more. Also, you may startle them if you go to pet them or pick them up if they can’t see or hear you. At this time in their life, it’s important to be especially patient and not get frustrated with them. They are not trying to annoy or irritate you, they simply have more limitations. This is when they need your love, kindness and understanding the most. There’s actually a Facebook group called iHeart Senior Dogs dedicated to helping our senior dogs live longer, happier lives. It’s a community of peer support, advice, and inspiration.
Possible behavior changes in senior dogs
As our pets age, they can start demonstrating a number of behaviors that aren’t typical for them. They may experience increased reactions to sounds, increased vocalization, irritability and aggression. Or, you may see a decrease in their interaction with humans and response to commands and/or their self-hygiene/grooming habits diminish. In addition, house soiling, repetitive activity and altered sleep cycles can indicate a change in your pet’s health. Sometimes they don’t like to be petted as much as they used to. They may have pain they can’t tell you about, their bodies lose muscle mass and feel different. Older dogs may only like their ears rubbed, but each individual is different. Finding a way to show affection that your dog still enjoys is key to maintaining that part of your relationship.
A senior pet may also experience cognitive dysfunction – they will act confused or stare off into space. They appear disoriented, anxious and wander around the house. They may not respond to you as quickly as before (ruling out eyesight and hearing issues). If your dog is exhibiting any of these symptoms, check with your veterinarian for possible treatment options to enhance the quality of your pet’s life now.
What kinds of health problems can affect older pets?
In addition to senility, vision loss and hearing loss, older pets can develop many of the same health issues seen in older people, including: heart disease, kidney/urinary tract disease, liver disease, cancer, diabetes, joint disease, and weakness, among others. There are symptoms you may observe that could mean your dog is suffering from one of these diseases. For example, if your dog has increased thirst and urination or decreased/no urination, decreased appetite, poor hair coat, vomiting and/or sore mouth, this could indicate your dog has kidney disease. There are various stages of the disease and by catching it early, a kidney supplement could help maintain kidney health. For urinary tract disease, you would look for increased urination/spotting or “accidents” in the house, straining to urinate, blood in urine and weakness. Heart disease symptoms include coughing, difficulty breathing and decreased tolerance of exercise. If your dog is displaying these symptoms, consult your veterinarian right away to provide them with valuable information they need to determine a diagnosis. Catching health issues early is key.
Dental disease is also a consideration and can affect your pet’s overall health. The formation of plaque on teeth can lead to gingivitis, a form of gum disease. If left untreated, it will progress into more advanced periodontal disease which can cause problems in the heart, kidneys, and possibly the liver. The bacteria in the mouth can be released into the circulatory system and travel throughout the body. This can cause damage to cardiac tissue and lead to endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart.
Here are some tips to improve your senior dog’s health, safety and welfare:
Schedule regular visits with your veterinarian. Even if your dog appears healthy, many diseases are hidden and not obvious at first. Ask your vet to conduct a body condition evaluation during the exam and they may also recommend a blood test to determine possible health issues. Ask them about vitamins, supplements or medications to treat symptoms of old age. For instance, Anipryl may be prescribed to treat cognitive issues (it has significantly helped my 15 yr. old Chihuahua) and Synovi G4 chews aim to keep joints healthy and less painful (this made a huge difference for my 16+ yr. old Rat Terrier, Mighty to remain active).
Ask your veterinarian for a dental exam to check for loose or abscessed teeth as well as dental decay. Also, check your dog’s teeth periodically to make sure there are no apparent issues. Give them softer food or treats if they are missing teeth or find it harder to chew. Also, by looking in your dog’s mouth, you can notice any changes in the color of their gums. Gum color is an important indicator of your dog’s health. Healthy gums are typically a bubble gum pink color; any color extremes such as yellow, pale pink or white, or blue, purple or bright red could indicate a serious health problem and you should consult your veterinarian ASAP. For details on gum color/appearance to assess your dog’s health, visit: PetHelpful.
Keep your dog as close as possible to its ideal body weight. Feed your older dog a high quality diet; choosing one that is right for your dog’s age, health and lifestyle. Overweight dogs have a higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease, skin disease, and cancer. Being underweight could indicate your dog is suffering from kidney disease, heart disease or another condition (if there is no apparent reason for the weight loss). If this is the case, consult your veterinarian ASAP. Along with a prescribed treatment plan, your vet may prescribe a special diet.
Exercise your senior dog. It can help keep your older dog lean and maintain healthy joints and muscles. However, take your dog’s size and any health issues into consideration. If your dog isn’t used to exercise, start slow and gradually increase the distance/time. If there are any indicators your dog is having issues on walks, discuss with your veterinarian. Be careful not to walk them on very cold or hot days as older dogs are not able to tolerate extreme temperatures. Also, keep in mind breeds with short-noses (like pugs) who are not able to breathe as easily as others.
Senior proof your home. Adjust your dog’s food and water bowls to better fit his stature. He may now find it harder to lean down to eat and drink. Elevating bowls can put less stress on joints. Watch your senior dog on the stairs – not only is his eyesight poorer than before (especially depth perception), but joint pain and weakness can cause him to stumble and fall. Put up baby or pet gates to keep your dog off the stairs unsupervised. Don’t change furniture, the yard or your dog’s daily routine if he’s having issues with his eyesight. If your dog is already blind, there are products such as Muffin’s Halo to help keep him safe while finding his way around.
Make special accommodations for arthritic dogs. Dogs with bone and joint pain might benefit from soft bedding or memory foam beds. Ramps or steps can be used next to your own bed (if that’s where your dog sleeps!) to make it easier on joints getting up and down. Avoid your dog having to do stairs if it seems difficult or painful. Providing carpeting or rugs over hard-surface flooring can help your arthritic dog gain her footing and make it easier for her to get around. Pick her up (if possible) when getting in and out of your vehicle. For bigger dogs, car ramps are useful. Find out what treatments are available to help minimize pain and inflammation.
Find other ways to communicate if your dog is hearing-impaired. Sometimes by clapping your hands, you can get your dog’s attention. You may also teach her non-verbal cues. Run interference at home if you have a multi-dog household. Your senior dog may not respond quickly enough to their signals – because she doesn’t hear them, and this could cause tension in the pack. Keep potential problem dogs separated from your older dog when you’re not home to prevent any trouble. Run interference in public as well. There are many situations outside your home where your hearing-impaired dog may face challenges, e.g. not being able to move out of the way quickly when a bike or jogger approaches. Letting your dog off-leash is not advisable; she won’t hear oncoming traffic or other dangers – or you calling her.
Embrace every day. No one wants to think about their dog passing, but those caring for an older dog know that they have even fewer days to enjoy the companionship. Instead of letting it worry you or deter you from adopting a senior dog, use it as a reminder to live in the moment. Take a walk together. Keep toys around, you may find your old dog is still interested in playing and will keep him young at heart. Or, your senior dog may sleep a lot, but that’s ok! Snuggle up. Appreciate every moment your geriatric pal has to give.
For more in-depth information on caring for older pets, warning signs of disease including cancer and other health issues, quality of life scale, and how to tell the human age equivalent for cats and dogs, please visit the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA’s) webpage: Senior Pet Care FAQs.