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How to Care for Senior Dogs

Even though your dog may be slowing down a little, there’s no reason why his later years should not be some of his most rewarding. After all, he’s wiser as well as older, and with regular veterinary attention, daily care and proper nutrition, your senior dog can still experience a very happy, healthy life.

However, you can’t ignore the fact that your dog’s body condition will change as the years go by. Important bodily functions, normally taken for granted, may start to slow down or malfunction.

Just like humans, your dog's senses eventually start to deteriorate, leading to impaired vision, hearing, taste and smell. Appetite may decrease and very old dogs often get thinner, with the shoulders and spine becoming more prominent.

How old is your dog really?

Senior dogs have different care requirements than those of a younger dog. This fact probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

But how do you know when your dog is considered to be a senior?

It really depends on the individual dog. In general, giant breed dogs age faster than smaller breed dogs. A Great Dane is considered to be senior by roughly 5-6 years old whereas a Chihuahua would likely only be middle-aged then, and probably not considered a senior until 10-11 years. 

Large breed dogs fall somewhere in between. A Labrador Retriever might be considered senior by 8-10 years of age. Genetics, nutrition, environment; all of these play a role in how fast your dog ages.

In addition to a dog's breed, specific lifestyle factors – such as diet, exercise and medical history – affect how long a particular dog will live.

What are the signs of doggy ageing?

The most practical way to tell if your dog is growing old is to observe his or her behaviour and appearance. Simply put, how old does your dog act, look, and feel?

Your dog may develop arthritis or other degenerative diseases that cause him to slow down. He may not be able to walk as far or play as long. He may tire more easily. 

He may have difficulty getting up or finding a comfortable position to sleep in. He may experience apparent stiffness in the joints and have difficulty getting up after lying down, or after a long walk. He may become reluctant to go up and down stairs or have difficulty getting into and out of the car. He may start losing his balance, stumbling and falling over, which could be a sign of geriatric vestibular disease.

Senior dogs frequently suffer from kidney disease, liver diseaseheart disease and other conditions that may result in weight loss.

On the other hand, some senior dogs may have the opposite problem. Some dogs will become less active with age, essentially becoming couch potatoes, and will gain weight as a result.

Obesity in a major health issue in dogs of all ages and senior dogs are no different.

Other signs to watch out for include:
  • Thicker, less pliable skin. Rougher and thinner coat, with bald patches or white hairs.
  • Deafness, revealed by a failure to respond to commands or calling their name.
  • Tooth and gum conditions – look out for food being dropped or excessive salivation and pawing at the mouth. Swellings below the eye may be signs of tooth root abscesses and need vet attention.
  • Warts, fatty lumps and even tumours may appear. Check these out with your vet, as early detection may save your dog's life.
  • Excessive thirst and frequent or uncontrolled urination.
  • Confusion or failure to recognise their surroundings
  • Depression, disobedience and occasionally destructive behaviour. These last two could be indicating that your dog suffers from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) or dog dementia.
  • A hazy, bluish cast on the eyes, which is normal and usually does not hinder the eyesight. However, the hazy, whitish growth of cataracts can lead to blindness. Your vet can help you distinguish the difference.
  • A tendency to sleep more during the day but sleep less at night. Some dogs may prowl around the house at night because of sore joints, senility or even loneliness.
    The day will come when - like us - you’ll start spotting the signs of old age but that doesn’t mean you have to wrap your dog in cotton wool and start to worry. You just need to adjust your routine and take a few precautions.

    What you can do to help your senior dog:

    1. Daily routine

    A consistent daily routine is important to your older dog's physical, mental and emotional health, providing comfort and a reassuring framework. Dogs that are blind generally cope better if you can keep the layout of furniture and objects in the house and yard the same.

    2. Proper medical care

    Regular check-ups (twice a year) with your veterinarian are a must for older dogs. 

    Before the vet visit, there are a few specific things you can record that will help with diagnosing certain conditions:

    1. Measure average water intake over 24 hours. An intake of 100 mL/kg/hr is considered too much. An excess water intake can be associated with numerous diseases.

    2. Take note of any coughing – what time of day it occurs, if it occurs upon waking or when active. The timing of the cough can help determine the cause of the cough.

    3. Measure the average breathing rate over a minute, while at rest. Lung and heart disease can cause an increased breathing rate.

    4. Note any slowness to rise in the mornings, difficulty with jumping or climbing, slowing down on walks, or limping.

    5. Note all lumps and bumps, how long they have been there and if they have changed in size.

    6. Note any other changes, particularly: a decrease in weight or muscle condition, changes in appetite (decrease or increase), increased weeing, changes to the stools, bad breath, drooling, disorientation, and confusion.

    Regular blood and urine screening tests can detect the early onset of diseases that are not obvious from physical examination, such as kidney, liver, and hormonal diseases. Ideally, do not feed your dog for 12 hours prior to the blood test. Also, bring in a first morning urine sample with you from the same day as the vet visit.

    A specific note on anaesthesia:

    Elderly pets quite commonly present to veterinary clinics with multiple diseases. A common scenario is the obese dog with severe dental disease, skin lumps, and arthritis. They may also have heart, lung, and/or early kidney disease. For these reasons, many owners become concerned about putting their dog under anaesthesia to fix the teeth or remove skin lumps. 

    But just because a dog is old does not mean they cannot have an anaesthetic. This is a discussion to be had with your vet: the risks versus the benefits. Many elderly dogs have a new lease on life when their severe dental disease is treated. I know I would be grumpy if I were living with a constant tooth ache!

    Just because a dog is old does not mean they have to suffer in silence. There are treatments for helping with arthritis, dementia, chronic pain, and many other elderly pet diseases. Seek advice from your vet.

    3. Keep exercising your senior dog 

    It can help keep your older dog lean and maintain healthy joints and muscles. Remember to tailor your dog’s exercise needs to his age and individual requirements. 
    If you dog has arthritis, regular, short gentle exercise is important to keep the joints lubricated and mobile. Use your dog as a guide. If they pull up lame or stiff after the walk, shorten the walk the next day.

    If your senior is not used to exercise, start slow and gradually increase the intensity — and only after you’ve consulted a veterinarian. Also, be careful with short-nosed dogs on hot days as they're prone to heat stress.

    Also don't forget to check your dog's nails. Elderly dogs don't always wear down their nails as well as younger active dogs and may require more regular nail trims.

    4. Feed your older dog a high-quality diet

    In general, dogs of seven years and older start taking life a bit easier and, as a result, their nutritional needs start to change once more. Senior dogs are less active and have a slower metabolism, so fewer calories are required
    But high-quality, easy-to-digest protein becomes more important than ever, to help maintain overall body condition.

    Also, learn to read the dog food label and choose a diet that is appropriate for your dog’s age and lifestyle. You should feed your dog once or twice a day, but you may find your older dog prefers to eat smaller meals more frequently. This is quite normal, as it’s easier to digest several small meals than a few large ones.

    5. Keep your senior dog at his ideal body weight

    • Overweight dogs have a higher incidence of diseases such as diabetesheart disease, skin disease, even cancer. Obesity also significantly worsens arthritis. Weight loss is the single most important thing that can improve quality of life in large obese dogs suffering from arthritis. Your veterinarian can help you choose an appropriate diet for your dog, especially since overweight dogs must be fed carefully to ensure that all nutrient needs are met while still allowing for weight loss.
    • Consider fortifying your senior dog’s diet with fatty acids such as DHA and EPA (fish oil). They have been shown to be useful for dogs with mobility issues due to arthritis or other joint diseases. 
    • Nutraceuticals containing EpitalisGreen-lipped Mussel, Glucosamine, Chondroitin, can also be beneficial for senior dogs. Look for a nutritional supplement that is backed by clinical trials.
    • Consider a special diet if your older dog has heart or kidney disease. For example, diets lower in sodium are sometimes advocated for dogs with heart disease, while diets which help control protein, phosphorus, calcium and other electrolyte levels are given to dogs with kidney disease. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best food for your dog based on your dog’s individual situation.

    6. Healthy teeth and gums

    Routine dental care from your vet is very important, as older dogs are more prone to gum disease and tartar build-up. 

    In addition to regular visits to a professional, it's always a good idea for you to check your dog's teeth and gums regularly.

    Brushing your dog’s teeth may seem like a silly idea but it can help keep your dog’s mouth healthy. If you cannot brush, consider dental treats and use a dental chew toy that helps keep the teeth clean.

    7. Provide plenty of toys to keep your senior dog occupied (canine enrichment is beneficial to dogs of all ages). Food puzzles are not only useful for entertainment but for weight loss purposes as well.

    8. Provide your older dog with special accommodations  

    For instance, dogs with arthritis might benefit from soft bedding in the form of an orthopaedic dog bed or towels/blankets on which to sleep. Ramps can be used to make stairs easier to navigate if they cannot be avoided. 

    Even providing carpeting or rugs over hard-surface flooring or anti-slip dog socks can help your arthritic dog gain his footing and make it easier for him to get around.

    9. Emotional support
    Try to be sensitive to what your older dog is going through and understand that a lot of psychological changes are taking place. Instead of letting it worry you or deter you from adopting a senior dog, use it as a reminder to live in the moment.

    Daily care of your older dog requires a little more patience on your part. Your loving care and commitment really helps create true quality of life during these senior years.

    We'd like to thank Dr. Meredith Crowhurst for her invaluable contribution to this article.

    About Dr. Meredith Crowhurst

    Dr Meredith Crowhurst is a Melbourne-based locum veterinarian. Melbourne University graduate with more than a decade of experience, she has extensive consultation and surgical experience and has worked with dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice, birds, and various other animals.

    Meredith understands the importance of the human-animal bond. Her aim is to treat pets and their owners with empathy and compassion, delivering the best standard of care.

    Previously, Meredith completed a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree and completed her PhD in the biomedical sciences. As well as treating animals, Meredith’s aim is to educate and make medical science knowledge accessible for all

    You can contact her at Tarneit Mobile Vet and follow her on Instagram at 
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