One of the hardest parts of being a dog owner is watching your loyal companion get older. It is hard to see these beloved family members aging and knowing that their time here is very short. However, there are many ways you can help your dog achieve a long, comfortable and healthy life.
What Constitutes a Senior Dog?
According to the veterinarians at Vetstreet.com, a dog's life expectancy can be estimated by size and weight. Dog breeds under 20 lbs, such as Jack Russell Terriers or Miniature Dachshunds, average a lifespan of around 14 years, while large dog breeds such as Great Danes or Saint Bernards live just eight years. Medium-sized dogs, such as retrievers and shepherds, live on average, between 10 to 12 years. Dogs are considered senior once they pass the halfway point of their breed's average lifespan. However, it's not unusual for dogs to live longer than they are expected to, with some small dogs living 15 to 20 years and some medium to large dogs living 12 to 15 years.
Caring for Your Aging Canine
Although your dog is a senior, you shouldn't feel as if the rest of his life will be a slow decline. Taking great care of your pet and staying on top of health issues that do arise, can help your dog live his happiest, healthiest life as a senior. Pay close attention to your dog's diet, exercise, dental care and stress levels to help him live for as long as possible.
It's important for a dog of any age to eat a healthy diet, but the need for balanced nutrition becomes even more important in old age. Dogs that have specific health problems, such as urinary or gastrointestinal issues, may be put on a prescription diet such as Royal Canine Veterinary Diet. These specialized diets target health problems and provide the nutrients necessary to keep your dog's ailments in check.
Senior Dog Diet Recommendations
If you're lucky enough to have an elderly dog without any health issues, a diet rich in lean meat protein and low in calories to reflect a less active lifestyle are important. According to PetMD, overweight dogs live shorter lives than those at a healthy weight. Refrain from foods that use grain fillers or by-products, and choose a food with lean meats and healthy vegetables, such as Orijen, Blue Buffalo or the holistic dog food Wellness.
The ASPCA recommends changing small dogs to a senior diet once they reach seven years old, medium dogs at six to seven years, and large dogs at five years old. Remember to gradually change their food, mixing some of their old food with the new for a week or two to avoid stomach upset.
The veterinarians at Vetstreet.com recommend giving supplements only as recommended by your dog's veterinarian, and caution not to merely give a supplement if the true cause of the deficiency is due to your dog's diet. They recommend these three supplements for senior dogs:
- Essential Fatty Acids, such as Omega-3 or Omega-6, to aid in brain function, healthy skin and coat, and anti-inflammation
- Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate for hip or joint issues
- Probiotics to encourage good bacteria
Always consult your veterinarian before adding a supplement to your dog's diet and adhere to the dosage requirements on the bottle.
You may notice your dog begin to drink more water as it gets older. This may be a sign of an underlying health issue, such as kidney disease, Cushing's disease, hypothyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease, kidney or bladder stones, or a urinary tract infection, so be sure to keep track of your dog's water intake and report it to your veterinarian to see if any tests are necessary.
Much like humans, dental care is extremely important to keep your dog healthy. According to the American Veterinary Dental College, regular dental care is not only essential for preventing and tending to periodontal disease in dogs, but for general health as well.
Frequent brushing (daily, if possible) with pet toothpaste is recommended, and a dental appointment with your veterinarian will not only keep you abreast of what is happening with your dog's teeth and gums, but he will also allow for extractions if any are necessary. If your dog seems to be shying away when you touch near his mouth, has unusually bad breath, has pale or bright colored gums, or has trouble eating, this could indicate that a trip to the vet is necessary to check out your dog's teeth. Prevention is always the best option, so be sure to bring your senior dog to a dental appointment once per year.
Stressors are a part of life, but for a senior dog, it may not be as easy to cope with change as it was when he was just a pup. If you've had a big change recently, such as a move, a baby, a new pet, or you're away from home much more than you used to be, your dog may be feeling anxious or stressed.
Indicators of Stress
According to PetMD, indicators of stress in dogs include:
- Decreased appetite
- Increased sleep
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Aggression toward people or other animals
- Dogs isolating themselves
After checking with a veterinarian for any underlying health issues, set up a space that's just for your dog that they can be away from the stressor. Be sure to spend plenty of time with your dog, as they may just be missing your attention. Regular exercise and a healthy diet will ensure that your dog is getting the nutrition and endorphins he needs to remain healthy and happy. Remember that while a dog is aging, they are still a part of your family, and they need your companionship as much as they did before. If your dog still seems agitated or overly stressed, speak with your veterinarian about an anti-anxiety medication for your dog.
Daily walks are recommended for senior dogs to keep joints limber but don't over exercise them. If you haven't been walking your dog daily throughout his life, start off slow with just one or two walks per week and work your way up to a few times per week so as to prevent injury and overworking the heart. Keep walks short. Remember that a geriatric dog cannot walk as far or as fast as he once did when he was younger, but that exercise is a staple in the life of a healthy older dog.
Try to avoid too many stairs, as a senior dog may have trouble with his hips and other joints when walking up or down a staircase. For dogs with limited mobility, try swimming. It's easy on their joints and provides great exercise.
Common Ailments and Diseases in Senior Dogs
Your geriatric dog should get urine and stool screens, a chemistry panel and blood work designed for elderly dogs every six months, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. These tests will look for abnormalities in blood count and organ function, and regular checkups will spot any problems in the eyes, skin or abdomen. Common problems in senior dogs include arthritis, diabetes, periodontal gum disease, kidney disease, hypothyroidism, cataracts and cancer.
Arthritis is inflammation and stiffness of the joints, and this ailment is common in senior dogs. Arthritis is painful and can affect your pet's daily routine, so it's important to bring your dog to the vet right away if you think he may be experiencing arthritic symptoms.
Symptoms as potential effects of arthritis in dogs include:
- Periodic limping
- Struggling to stand up after sitting or laying
- Stiffness that improves throughout the day
- Hesitation before climbing or descending stairs
- Reluctance to jump on furniture or in or out of the car
If your dog suddenly becomes irritable, snarling or biting at people that he normally wouldn't, this is a sign that he may be in pain, and arthritis may be the culprit.
Low impact exercise, such as mild walks, swimming or using an underwater treadmill, is recommended for dogs suffering from arthritis to help with joint fluidity and maintenance of a healthy weight.
Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements are recommended to assist in joint mobility and functioning for arthritic dogs. Though these are some of the same supplements that people take for arthritis, only use supplements that have been designated for dogs, following the dosage recommendation on the bottle for your dog's size.
Diabetes in dogs is a disease caused by either a lack of the hormone insulin (Type I) or an inadequate response to insulin and impaired insulin production (Type II), both of which cause blood sugar to elevate. According to PetMD, Type I is the most common type of diabetes found in dogs, and obese dogs, female dogs (especially unspayed females), and senior dogs are prone to the disease.
If your dog begins to display any of the following symptoms of diabetes, seek veterinary attention right away:
- Increase or decrease in appetite
- Drinking much more water than usual
- Weight loss while eating normally
- Increased urination
- Breath that smells sweet
- Urinary tract infections
- Cataracts or blindness
- Chronic skin infections
Your veterinarian will collect blood and urine to test for diabetes. If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, don't panic; the disease is manageable.
Treatment for diabetes normally include daily insulin injections, which your veterinarian will supply and show you how to administer. Spaying intact dogs may be recommended to decrease sex hormones that affect glucose levels. For dogs in a more stable condition who have been diagnosed right away, a diet including more fiber may be enough to regulate the glucose in the dog's body. Remember that obesity is a big factor in diabetes, so regular exercise is essential for treatment.
Periodontal Gum Disease
Periodontal disease is an inflammation of the structures surrounding a dog's teeth. As food particles and bacteria accumulate along a dog's gums, it forms plaque and tartar. Untreated, these lead to gingivitis (inflammation and reddening of gums), an early stage of periodontal gum disease, and periodontitis (loss of bone and soft tissue around teeth), which is a more progressed stage of the disease.
According to the American Veterinary Dental College, periodontal gum disease is one of the most common diseases in older dogs, and it is entirely preventable with regular dental care.
- Bad breath
- Bleeding, inflamed or receding gums
- Sensitivity around or pawing at the mouth
- Loose or missing teeth
- Pus around teeth
- Stomach upset
- Difficulty chewing or eating
Imagine trying to eat, all the while in extreme pain. It would make any person irritable or depressed, and so it does for dogs, as well. Immediate attention to any tooth or mouth related issue is essential.
A veterinarian will use an X-ray to determine the stage of periodontal disease and treatment actions. A professional dental cleaning is required, including an oral exam, scaling and polishing.
In the mildest cases, a cleaning above and below the gum line is the only treatment necessary. However, more advanced cases, where periodontal pockets have formed, gum tissue and tooth roots are cleaned. Advanced stages of periodontal disease include bone loss. Tooth extraction is the only treatment.
Depending on the level of treatment, your vet may ask you to feed your dog a soft diet for the week following.
Periodontal gum disease is irreversible, so prevention with daily brushing and regular dental appointments is the only way to keep your dog's teeth and gums healthy.
Kidney disease, also known as renal disease, is fairly common in geriatric dogs. Kidneys help filter toxins from the bloodstream. When a dog's kidneys begin to malfunction, waste begins to build in his body.
Symptoms of kidney disease include:
- Increased water consumption
- Increased or decreased urination
- Not urinating at all
- Accidents during sleep
- Blood in the urine
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Hunched over posture, not wanting to move
- Poor or unkempt coat
Veterinarians may further notice these symptoms:
- Enlarged and/or painful kidneys or small, irregular kidneys
- Ulcers in the mouth, most commonly on the tongue, gum or inside of the cheek
- Swelling of the limbs due to accumulation of fluid
Blood or urine tests may be completed along with x-rays to look for abnormalities in kidney function.
The first thing that needs to be done for a dog with kidney disease is to get the dog back to regular hydration through IV fluids at your veterinarian's office. Medication such as furosemide or mannitol may be implemented to get the kidneys producing urine. Rehydration will likely get your dog feeling well enough to eat, and a high protein food should be provided. (Your dog will likely go on a prescription diet to aid in their disease.) Antibiotics are usually administered to clear out bacteria in the bloodstream.
Kidney dialysis may be required for more advanced cases of kidney disease. A kidney transplant may be an option, but very few clinics offer this treatment.
With early and aggressive treatment, acute renal failure may be reversible, but chronic renal failure is not, and can only be maintained to provide comfort to the dog.
Hypothyroidism means that the thyroid is not producing enough thyroxine, which affects a dog's metabolism. According to Web DVM, most cases of hypothyroidism, called autoimmune thyroiditis, stem from a dog's immune system attacking its thyroid gland tissue. Other cases of hypothyroidism in dogs come from idiopathic thyroid atrophy, which means that the thyroid gland is shrinking for no apparent reason.
- Weight gain
- Excessive panting
- Intolerance to cold
- Dull or flaky coat
- Mental sluggishness or depression
- Slow heart rate
Hypothyroidism is diagnosed through a blood panel at your veterinarian's office.
Treatment for hypothyroidism in dogs is fairly simple. A veterinarian will likely recommend your dog be put on a daily dose of a manmade version of thyroxine. Various blood draws checking the functionality of your dog's thyroid will be conducted to ensure that the medication is working and to adjust dosages as necessary. Though the dog will have to be on this medication for the duration of its life, most symptoms do disappear.
Cataracts are very common in elderly dogs. Though they can be brought on by trauma, diabetes, genetics, or infection, old age alone can bring them on, as well.
- Cloudiness in eyes
- Whitish, bluish or grayish haze over all or part of the eye
- Inflammation around eye
- Rubbing or scratching around eye
- Impaired vision
Currently, the only treatment for cataracts is surgery. PetHealthNetwork.com states that inflammation surrounding the eye can be treated with a topical ointment, but the only way to repair cataracts is a surgical removal procedure. Blood tests may be conducted to identify the underlying cause. Cataract removal is essential to avoid blindness, glaucoma or retinal detachment.
Unfortunately, cancer affects nearly half of all dogs over 10 years old. Some of the most common cancers seen in dogs are skin tumors, lymphoma and breast cancer. Genetics play a large role in developing cancer, but environmental factors, such as intact dogs (dogs that are not spayed or neutered), carcinogens and poor nutrition may contribute to the cause.
The National Canine Cancer Foundation states that there are many symptoms that could indicate cancer, including:
- Lumps on the body
- A wound that does not heal
- Swelling anywhere in the body
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Bleeding or discharge from any opening in the body
- Difficulty eating or swallowing
- Strong odor
- Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating
Check your dog regularly for lumps; it's not uncommon for elderly dogs to get benign fatty tumors, but keep track of every single lump and have a veterinarian check each one. The vet can aspirate each lump and look at it under a microscope, checking for anything that may look cancerous. If all looks clear under a microscope, the vet may still ask you to keep track of the size, shape and feel of the mass.
Dependent on the stage and type of cancer, treatments may include surgically removing cancerous masses, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. Early detection is imperative for a positive prognosis, so if your dog is experiencing any of the symptoms associated with cancer, bring them to the veterinarian immediately.
When to See a Veterinarian
The American College of Veterinary Radiology advises a regular checkup for senior dogs every six months on top of yearly exams with blood, urine and fecal screens.
If your dog begins to exhibit any of the following symptoms, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian right away:
- Labored breathing
- Decrease in appetite or an increase in water intake
- Frequent or painful urination
- Blood in the stool or urine
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Has cloudy eyes
- Significant weight loss or weight gain
- Seems to be in pain while walking
Most diseases found in dogs are treatable with medication or special diets, so it is essential that any ailments or disorders are diagnosed in a timely fashion to prevent worsening symptoms and to ease their pain.
Living With Senior Dogs
Like humans, senior dogs tend to have more physical problems, but they still feel just as much love and sense of loyalty as they did when they were younger. Making your dog's health a priority is important for a safe and comfortable life as they get older.