Everyone get older, and dogs are no exception. Fortunately, with advances in veterinary medicine, dogs are living longer than ever. This makes it essential that we learn how to properly care for our senior dogs. As your dog's caregiver, there are many ways you can help make his golden years comfortable and happy. Senior dogs are such a delight, and these sweet old souls deserve the best of everything.
When is a Dog Considered a Senior?
As a general rule, a dog is considered geriatric around the age of seven. However, this varies a bit for each dog. The typical life span of a dog is said to be 12-15 years. Smaller dog breeds tend to live longer on average, while large and giant dog breeds have shorter life spans. Therefore, a small dog is considered a senior at an older age, such as age 8-10. In turn, a large breed dog may be considered a senior by age 5-6. Some dogs may appear to age faster than others; this may be due to genetic background and overall health.
Signs of Aging in Dogs
One of the most common signs owners report as their dogs age is an overall "slowing down." They notice their dogs have less endurance when exercising and may be slow to rise out of bed. They may be tentative on stairs and less enthusiastic about toys, games and/or food. Some owners notice that their dogs have less patience in some situations, such as around active children or excited dogs. Sometimes, owners see that their dogs are confused, disoriented or less responsive then they were in their youth. Older dogs may also have urinary or fecal accidents in the house. While all of the above signs are commonly seen with aging, they are not usually the result of the aging itself, but actually symptoms of various health problems. The following health problems are commonly associated with geriatric dogs:
- Arthritis - Just like people, many dogs develop arthritis as they age. The most common form of arthritis seen in aging dogs is Osteoarthritis, also called Degenerative Joint Disease. This condition affects the weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, elbows, shoulders), causing loss of lubricating fluids, wearing away of cartilage, and abnormal bony growth. These joint changes result in pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion. Osteoarthritis is progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. Though there is no cure, these are treatments that can slow progression and ease pain.
- Obesity - A dog can become overweight at any age, but the effects of aging make weight gain more likely in seniors. Obesity can cause or complicate heath problems like arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. To prevent obesity in older dogs, decrease food amount as your dog slows down. Also make sure to keep up with exercise. If endurance is an issue, consider going for multiple short walks in a day rather than one or two very long walks.
- Deafness - It is common for older dogs to gradually lose their hearing. Nerve degeneration in older dogs typically results in gradual hearing loss. Nothing can be done to stop the deafness, but much can be done to help the dog adapt. Many owners will at first mistake hearing loss for dementia, as dogs may display a similar type of confusion. Fortunately, deafness in dogs is fairly easy to handle. Because it doesn't happen overnight, it gives you time to adapt. Try specific methods for deaf dog training, like the use of hand signals. Soon, you will find that the hearing loss hardly affects your dog's day-to-day life.
- Blindness - Like deafness, many older dogs experience gradual loss of vision. This is usually due to degenerative changes in the eye, but can be caused by an eye disease like cataracts. If you think your dog is going blind, be sure to visit your vet. If the blindness is simply due to old age, nothing can be done to reverse it. Fortunately, dogs rely less on their eyesight than you may think. Just be sure to take it slow with your dog, keep him on leash at all times if outdoors, and try to avoid moving around the furniture in your house. Once your dog knows the layout, he will probably get around well using his other senses.
- Chronic Kidney Disease - Aging takes a toll on the kidneys, so it is common for older dogs to develop kidney disease. Chronic kidney (renal) disease is usually a gradual process that begins as renal insufficiency and progresses to full renal failure. There is no cure for this disease, but there are fortunately many ways to treat it, prolonging quality and quantity of life. The sooner kidney disease is caught, the more that can be done to slow the progression. Early kidney changes may be picked up on routine blood work, which is why it is so important for your senior dog to visit the vet every six months. Signs of kidney disease include increased thirst and/or urination, loss of appetite, nausea and lethargy.
- Dementia/Cognitive Dysfunction - Dogs can develop mental changes as they age that are similar to dementia and Alzheimer's Disease in humans. The signs are subtle at first, but can become very severe, resulting in poor quality of life. Signs of dementia in dogs include disorientation, confusion, pacing/wandering, standing in corners as if lost, going to the wrong side of an opening door, vocalization, withdrawal/not interacting with family as much, urinary/fecal accidents, change in sleeping patters, restlessness and more. Many of these can be symptoms of other diseases, so be sure to see your vet. There is no cure for dementia or cognitive dysfunction, but there are medications and supplements that may help in some cases.
- Incontinence - Old age changes to the organs, muscles and nerves in the body can make it harder for your dog to "hold it" the way he used to. Incontinence can be a sign of many different diseases, so it is essential to have your vet rule some things out. If there are no other health problems found, you will simply need to adjust your schedule to let your dog out for "potty breaks" more often.
- Cancer - Unfortunately, cancer is all too common in dogs. Though younger pets can get cancer, it is seen much more frequently in older pets. Different cancers cause different symptoms, so it can be easy to dismiss certain signs as simple old age changes. This is why routine wellness screening with your vet is so important. An exam, lab work or diagnostic imaging can easily pick up on something unseen by the naked eye. Cancer treatment options vary depending on the type of cancer and the stage. The sooner it is caught, the better the chance of survival.
- Growths and Tumors - Older dogs tend to get various lumps and bumps. These should be checked by a vet to rule out cancer. Fortunately, these growths are often benign warts and moles or fatty tumors. Generally, they will not need to be surgically removed unless they are bothering the dog.
Adapting to Your Senior Dog
There are some changes you can make in your dog's life that will help in his transition to senior status. Most of these require little sacrifice on your part and will make a positive difference for you dog.
- See your vet every six months instead of once per year for wellness exams and health screenings. Budget for lab work and diagnostic imaging if recommended.
- Change to a senior dog food formula. These often have fewer calories (to prevent weight gain), higher nutrient levels and lower protein (taking less of a toll on aging kidneys).
- If your dog's endurance is declining or he is having trouble getting around, take slower, shorter walks several times a day rather than one or two long, brisk walks. However, do not stop exercise or significantly decrease it - your dog still needs to be active.
- For dogs having trouble getting around: use ramps on stairs or for getting up to furniture; place down mats with gripped bottoms on slick floors.
- Get a high-quality orthopedic dog bed. The extra cost is worth it when you consider how much more comfortable it will be for your dog's old and achy body.
- Allow your dog access to the outdoors for potty breaks more frequently. Also consider putting down papers or absorbent pads for accidents.
- Be patient and give lots of extra TLC!
This is a question that no one can really answer for you. Not all dogs will pass away gently in their sleep when their time has come (though we wish they all could). Because you know your dog better than anyone else, you will probably have a gut feeling when the end is approaching. One general guideline is to look at "good days" versus "bad days." If your dog is experiencing more bad days than good days, and your vet cannot offer any treatments, then the time is near. Or, if treatments for a disease are so hard on your dog that they are hurting his quality of life, it may be time to consider humane euthanasia. This will be a difficult time that requires a lot of soul searching, but remember it is all because you love your dog. If he could, he would thank you for being his advocate.