When is a Dog Considered a Senior?
We all know and love senior dogs with their greying fur and stiff gait but always making sure to wag their tail.
When we talk about dogs, a dog would be considered senior when they are in the last 25% of their expected lifespan.
This can vary for different dogs, so there is no one-size-fits-all for all dog breeds. In general terms, smaller dog breeds tend to live longer than large dog breeds. For example, an eight-year-old Great Dane would be considered a senior dog as opposed to an eight-year-old Chihuahua, which would be regarded as a mature adult. There is a handy calculator here which can be used for your particular dog.
In this article, we will break down the eight most common health problems in senior dogs, what to look for and what can be done to make the sunset years more comfortable for your pooch.
8 Common Health Problems in Senior Dogs
- Hearing and Vision Loss
Deafness and blindness can occur in senior dogs due to tissue degeneration. Cataracts are a disease of the eye and are more common in old dogs. Cataracts in dogs form in the eye lens and are seen as cloudiness in the eye and can lead to blindness.
Cataracts can affect one or both eyes. If you suspect a cataract, bring your dog to your veterinarian. Nuclear degeneration can look very similar to cataracts but doesn’t affect vision. Medical and surgical options are available to manage cataracts.
There are other causes of blindness and deafness in senior dogs, so get them checked over for peace of mind if you are ever concerned. Unfortunately, not everything can be fixed, but learning to manage deafness and blindness can help make your pet more comfortable.
- Joint Disease
Osteoarthritis, also known as arthritis, is the most common cause of pain and stiffness in joints. Arthritis is progressive and is caused by bone rubbing on bone when a joint loses its natural lubrication and cartilage. Previous injuries and poor body conformation can predispose to arthritis in certain joints.
There is no cure for arthritis once it has developed, but surgical correction of injuries or confirmation abnormalities can help prevent arthritis in the future. Pain relief, supplements, and special food can help manage arthritis as well as physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, and acupuncture.
- Loss of Cognitive Function
Like people, dogs can develop signs of dementia as they age. Anxiety, confusion, excessive whining, or barking for no apparent reasons can all be signs of loss of cognitive function. Other conditions can also cause these signs, so if there is any change in your dog’s behavior, it is best to get them checked by your veterinarian.
There is no specific cure for loss of cognitive function, but there are things that can be done to help your dog feel more comfortable. Chat to your vet for more information.
Many different types of cancer are more common in senior dogs. Although every lump your dog develops isn’t necessarily going to be cancerous, it is always worth getting them checked and potentially tested to confirm they aren’t something to worry about.
- Heart Disease
Heart disease can become more evident as a dog ages. Congestive heart failure (CHF) is where an already diseased heart struggles to keep up with the blood flow, and a “traffic jam” can occur where blood is not pumped through fast enough.
When this occurs, fluid spills out from the blood vessels and can pool in the lungs or abdomen. You will see signs of excess fluid in these organs. Although CHF is an endpoint of many different types of heart disease, it may be the first time you notice a problem. Classic signs of CHF include increased breathing rate when resting, coughing, exercise intolerance, and a rounded abdomen.
However, there are other signs, so if you are ever concerned about changes in your pet, seek advice from your veterinarian.
As dogs age, their metabolism slows, and frequently their ability to exercise also wanes. This combination can lead to obesity, which can strain joints and complicate the treatment of concurrent diseases.
Encouraging adequate exercise and feeding appropriate quantities of food specifically for their age will help prevent obesity.
- Gastrointestinal Disease and Incontinence
Gastrointestinal disease can be caused by several reasons in senior dogs. Your veterinarian should investigate vomiting and diarrhea that doesn’t resolve quickly as they can indicate something serious.
Also, as dogs age, they may begin to have accidents in the house that they didn’t as adults. Incontinence can be caused by a physical problem but can also be a sign of pain and a dog not being capable of going outside to the toilet.
A thorough physical exam with possible blood and urine tests will help your veterinarian figure out how best to prevent this.
- Kidney Issues
Kidneys can degenerate in dogs as they age. You may suspect kidney disease by noticing your dog drinking excessive amounts of water and urinating more than usual. Your dog may also become incontinent and urinate in the house or on their bed as they struggle to keep up with the increased urine being produced.
Veterinarians can diagnose kidney disease on blood and urine tests and, depending on the cause, instigate treatment to help. Your senior dog’s food and water intake should be monitored closely, and your veterinarian should check for any change.
The Signs That Your Dog is Aging
There are some classic signs you might notice as your dog ages. These can include sleeping more, being slower to get up, greying around the face, changes in the density of their coat, longer and more brittle nails.
Other changes such as lumps developing and changes in appetite can also be normal and not causes for concern. However, it is always best to bring these up with your veterinarian for peace of mind.
Things that Your Senior Dog Wants You to Know
There are some important considerations to take into account when caring for a senior dog.
“My hearing and sight isn’t what it used to be”
When a dog ages, it can develop hearing and sight loss which can occur subtly and slowly over many months or years. A sign you might notice indicating a problem is getting frights easily or being worse at recall than usual when they used to be responsive.
After getting your pet checked over to make sure nothing can be done, it’s all about adaptation. Ensure your home environment is accessible for them to navigate and be patient as they adapt to their new normal.
“I’m a little stiffer than I used to be”
As senior dogs are more prone to osteoarthritis. It’s essential to make sure they are comfortable by checking with your veterinarian if anything can be done to help.
Supplements and medicine can help as well as physical therapy, but there are also things you can do at home to help. Adding a stepping stool for dogs to get on the couch more easily and adding a ramp to the car so they don’t have to jump will allow them to get around.
“My energy requirements aren’t what they used to be”
As dogs age and their metabolisms slow, their caloric requirements reduce. Regular weight checks and careful measurement of high-quality foods appropriate for their age is the first step in preventing weight gain.
If you notice your pup is packing on the pounds for no apparent reason, take them to the vet, there could be a medical reason that needs to be addressed.
“I need a little bit more care and patience”
Our senior pets are usually not as good at taking care of themselves like they used to be, so we need to step up and help them out. Often senior dogs walk less which means their nails don’t get worn down as quickly. Regular nail trims might be necessary to keep the nails in good condition.
Senior dogs may also groom themselves less and need more regular grooming and bathing.
On top of the extra TLC required, senior dogs can have reduced cognitive function, meaning they can make mistakes like toileting inside or barking at inappropriate times.
Approaching these mishaps with love and understanding is important, and as always, take them to the veterinarian if you’re concerned there could be an underlying health concern.
FAQs on Senior Dogs – From Pet Owners
Here are some common questions veterinarians get asked daily about senior dogs.
- Is my dog a senior?
As discussed above, the exact age varies. In general, a smaller dog will be a senior from around nine years old, a large breed dog from about eight years old, and a giant breed dog from about seven years.
- What are some common signs of disease I should look out for?
Any change from the usual behavior for your pet can be cause for concern. For example, if your dog used to have a great appetite but is now leaving half its dinner uneaten, this is unusual and should be checked. Same for changes in drinking, activity levels, and toileting.
Some changes can be subtle and not obvious, so it is a good idea to regularly check in with your veterinarian to make sure your pet is healthy.
- Do I need to worry about this lump?
Any lump could be cancerous. Veterinarians and pet owners alike cannot look at a lump and diagnose it with absolute certainty.
Some lumps are more evident than others, but if there’s ever any doubt, get it tested, and then you’ll know for sure.
- When will I know when it’s time to say goodbye?
As veterinarians, we often face difficult questions surrounding putting animals to sleep. We are fortunate as a profession to relieve suffering from our patients and are also aware of how complex the topic is.
Unfortunately, the exact time to consider euthanasia is subjective, and every owner and veterinarian may have different opinions. If an animal is suffering and nothing can or will be done to stop the suffering, euthanasia should be strongly considered.
If you aren’t quite ready, chat to your veterinarian about palliative care options that might give you and your pet some precious time together as you come to terms with your decision. Remember, it is not cruel to put an animal down humanely, and euthanasia is an adequate treatment plan in some cases.
I Love Veterinary’s Top Tips on Senior Dog Care
Here are some of our top tips for looking after a senior dog:
- Take your dog for regular checkups. This should ideally be done every six months. This is to monitor for any changes which might be subtle to an owner and to address issues early. Of course, if your dog is unwell or you are concerned, get them seen sooner.
- Consider routine blood tests. Unfortunately, even as veterinarians, we can’t miss things. Animals can mask disease, and we don’t always pick things up as soon as we’d like. Routine blood tests can be a valuable tool to assess the function of vital organs and can either give peace of mind that nothing is wrong or allow us to pick up on things we otherwise would have missed.
- Pay special attention to all the parts of your senior dog. Taking check of your dog every so often and comparing it to a few weeks or months ago can allow you to monitor changes. Making sure to notice toileting, drinking, eating, and activity levels will mean that when something changes, you’ll be more aware.
- Maintain good oral health. Unfortunately, the mouth can be “out of sight, out of mind” for many owners, and it’s only during health checks that dental disease can be discovered. Making sure to check the mouth regularly and maintain good dental hygiene for your pet throughout its life will pay dividends when dogs are older.
However, if your dog is suffering from dental disease and your veterinarian recommends a dental overview, we recommend you do it. Tooth pain can be severe, and I’ve often heard how much a dog’s personality and energy returns once the rotten teeth have been sorted.
It is a privilege to own an animal and that is never truer than when dealing with senior dogs. Our canines are there throughout our lives for good times and bad, and they deserve the best care when they really need it.
Working alongside your veterinary team, you can make your senior dog comfortable as they age and pick up on problems quickly.
Making some changes to adapt to their home environment and showing patience and care as their needs change can allow for a smooth, stress-free time to enjoy the rest of their precious life together.
Helen is a small animal veterinarian from New Zealand. Animals have always been a big passion of hers and working with them is a dream come true. In her spare time Helen loves traveling to exotic locations and volunteering her time and skills to help animals around the world. Education is a
passion of hers and she is excited to be able to contribute to I Love Veterinary to inform passionate animal-lovers around the world.