Pet Care

Aging

Senior Lab with bright eyes and big snout

How Do I Know When My Dog Is a “Senior”?

Most dogs enter their golden years between seven and 10 years of age, with large/giant breeds becoming seniors earlier than small breeds. Many breeds experience a graying of their coat as they age, particularly around the muzzle—but there are other, more subtle signs that your dog is aging.

Her hearing may not be as sharp as it once was, her fur may be thinner, and she may take a little longer to get up and out of bed in the mornings. It is also perfectly normal for an older dog to sleep more than he used to and to tire more quickly when playing. In healthy dogs, these changes occur slowly, over time, at a gradual pace that you probably won’t even notice.

How Often Should My Older Dog See the Vet?

It is important that dogs have an annual checkup or “wellness” visit with their vet. This is even more important as they age, so talk to your vet about whether such visits should become more frequent. ASPCA experts recommend that healthy senior dogs see the vet every six months. Make sure the exams are thorough—vets should listen to your dog’s heart and lungs, take their temperature and examine your dog’s skin, fur, ears, eyes, mouth, teeth and internal organs. They may also order routine screening tests for early detection of problems.

What Health Issues Are Common in Older Dogs?

There are many health issues more common to aging dogs, including:

  • kidney and liver disease
  • more frequent intestinal problems
  • prostate disease and testicular cancer
  • breast cancer and infected uterus
  • diabetes
  • arthritis and degenerative joint disease
  • cognitive problems

What Lifestyle Changes Will Help My Older Dog?

Dogs, especially older ones, tend to love routine. But for the sake of her health, your vet may recommend the following changes:

Aging animals undergo metabolic and body composition changes. Some of these are unavoidable, but others can be managed with diet. Dog foods formulated for seniors should be lower in fat, but not lower in protein (ask your vet for a recommendation).

Since smaller dogs live longer and don't experience age-related changes as early as bigger dogs, size is used to determine when it’s time to feed your canine a senior diet: Small breeds/dogs weighing less than 20 pounds—7 years of age
Medium breeds/dogs weighing 21 to 50 pounds—7 years of age
Large breeds/dogs weighing 51 to 90 pounds—6 years of age
Giant breeds/dogs weighing 91 pounds or more—5 years of age

More frequent feedings are easier on a dog’s digestive system than one or two large meals a day.

Some vets feel that aging dogs benefit from the addition of dietary supplements, also known as “nutriceuticals.” Common nutriceuticals added to senior food formulas include glucosamine, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene and extra vitamin C and vitamin E. Speak with your vet about whether your dog needs additional supplements for specific health issues.

What Can I Do to Make My Senior Dog More Comfortable?

- Older dogs are unable to regulate body temperature as effectively as young dogs, and should be kept warm, dry and indoors when not outside for exercise. Likewise, senior dogs are extra sensitive to heat and humidity. Please take precautions to protect them from conditions that could cause heatstroke.
- An arthritic pet may appreciate ramps in the home, extra blankets and an orthopedic bed.
- If your dog is losing his sight or hearing, remove obstacles and reduce his anxiety by keeping floors free of clutter.
- Regular tooth brushing (with special dog toothpaste, please) will help cut down on excessive plaque that can lead to a host of problems, but many senior dogs will require professional cleanings under general anesthesia.

What Symptoms Should I Be Concerned About in My Older Dog?

If you notice any unusual symptoms, please don’t wait for your regularly scheduled checkup to see your vet. Call right away. Symptoms to watch out for and promptly report include incontinence, lumps, constipation or diarrhea, shortness of breath, coughing, weakness, unusual discharges, changes in weight, appetite, urination or water intake, stiffness or limping, increased vocalization and uncharacteristic aggression or significant behavior change.