As the dog ages, some changes may occur besides the graying muzzle. Senior dogs have bigger health problems than younger dogs, but they can still be a cute and loving companion.
Harmony Peraza, veterinary technician and study subject manager for Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences ’Dog Aging Project, discusses the most common health conditions that may arise in senior dogs.
While there is some variation between breeds, dogs are typically considered senior at 8 years. Large dogs can age faster, becoming older from the age of 6 or 7, while smaller dogs can begin to show signs of age until the age of 9 or 10.
Signs of an Elderly Dog
One of the most common problems in senior dogs is rheumatism, which can cause dogs to move stiffly and slowly and sometimes even gain weight due to decreased activity. Providing a smooth surface to lay on and reducing exposure to the elements is an easy way to help a dog with arthritis remain uncomfortable.
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“I also recommend visiting your dog’s veterinarian for advice about supplements and, in some cases, medications that can potentially help rheumatic discomfort,” says Peraza. “Aging shouldn’t be a pain for your dog.”
Many dogs also lose hearing and vision as they age, but this doesn’t mean they can’t live a full and happy life.
“If you notice that your older dog seems to retreat, sleep deeper than usual, doesn’t come to you when called, or seems lost and confused, this can be a sign that he is losing vision or hearing ability.” Peraza said.
Blind and deaf dogs are great at finding new ways to navigate and stay active, but they need more patience and understanding than they have.
“Even a blind dog can manage to get along very well,” Peraza said. “It is recommended to keep furniture or items on the ground and game in the usual order for dogs. Rearranging items can be confusing and cause the dog to crash into newly prepared items.
Dogs have a higher risk of cancer as they age, and “wear” on important organs such as the heart and kidneys. If a senior dog has increased panting, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, or changes in appetite, thirst, or urination frequency, it should be seen by a veterinarian, as these may be symptoms of heart and kidney problems.
Pet owners can help prevent heart and kidney problems in senior dogs by maintaining oral hygiene.
“Red rubber lines and tartar forming on a dog’s teeth indicate bacteria or infection in the mouth,” Peraza said. “Bacteria get into the bloodstream and directly affect the health of a pet’s heart and kidneys. Dental disease is more than just bad breath and healthy looking teeth.”
Beyond physical changes, aging dogs can also develop dementia, causing them to act withdrawn or confused.
“Keeping a dog engaged in play activities and exercise can help keep his brain healthy and sharp,” Peraza said. “In addition, your veterinarian can recommend special foods and supplements that, in some cases, can help slow or minimize the onset of dementia.”
Finally, it may be common to find older dogs napping, but dogs that suddenly become less active should be evaluated by an animal. While some resentment is expected from dogs who have lived long, active lives, excessive sedentary behavior can indicate health problems. Although dogs can develop health conditions as they age, they can still be good pets and live well after becoming elderly.
Tailor to your senior needs
Throughout their lives, dogs are experts at showing unconditional and accepted love for their owner. Once a dog has moved into their senior year, owners can return to love them by helping them stay comfortable, happy, and healthy.
While the ayage may be that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” senior dogs can usually do anything that a younger dog can do, as long as they have some patience and help from their owner.
“Older dogs can learn new tricks! In fact, older dogs can learn more easily,” said Peraza. “They are likely to have a longer attention span and more focus than younger puppies. In addition, teaching your parent dog new things can help sharpen the mind and slow down the signs of aging.
Owners can also help older dogs stay younger by making small changes to their diet and activities to better fit their full body.
Dietary changes for senior dogs can be recommended by a veterinarian to treat certain health conditions, encourage weight loss, or help maintain an ideal weight.
“Often, older dogs don’t have to consume the same amount of calories as younger dogs,” Peraza said. “This can be done by just eating or switching to a milder or lower calorie diet.”
Older dogs need more calories, but this doesn’t mean they should live a sedentary life. If vigorous exercise like running or jumping has become too difficult for a senior dog, it can still benefit from walking, jogging, swimming, or playing.
As with young dogs, regular trips to the vet are important to keep senior dogs healthy and comfortable. Peraza recommends taking older dogs to the vet for exams and lab work every six to 12 months and keeping up with fleas, ticks, 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 senior dogs the love, attention, and comfort they deserve.
“Offer a comfortable and cool place for your puppy to rest,” Peraza said. “Bathing and regular grooming is a great way to not only keep your dog clean, but also give you the opportunity to give a good massage to your aging family members.
“A little patience, understanding, and a gentle arm can go a long way with an older dog,” he thinks.
Dogs take lives to love us, so that’s the least we can do to make sure they stay loved until the end.
Saying goodbye is one of the most difficult parts of dog ownership, but researchers in the United States are taking the first few steps to extend the life of a dog’s 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 the dog community, owners, veterinarians, researchers, and volunteers to promote this understanding.
This project attempts to understand how genes, lifestyle, and environment affect life expectancy and health age, a period of life free of disease. They will register 10,000 companion dogs and owners from across the US. dogagingproject.org.