Caring for Your Senior Dog

Understanding Your Aging Dog

Woman hugging her dog
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Everyone gets older, and dogs are no exception. Advances in veterinary medicine enable dogs to live longer than ever. This means that we must 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 a senior around the age of seven. However, this varies a bit for each dog. The typical lifespan 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 lifespans. Therefore, a small dog may be considered a senior at a slightly older age, such as age eight or nine. A large breed dog may become a senior around age five or six. 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 noticed as dogs age is an overall "slowing down." Older dogs often 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, or food.

Some older dogs will have less patience in certain situations, such as around active children or excited dogs. Sometimes, senior dogs appear confused, disoriented or less responsive than 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.

There are several health issues common in senior pets such as arthritis, blindness or hearing loss, dementia, and kidney disease.

Helping Your Senior Dog

The good news is that there are several adjustments you can make in your dog's environment 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 your dog.

  • Visit your vet every six months instead of once per year for wellness exams and health screenings. Make a budget to allow for lab work and diagnostic imaging.
  • If your dog's endurance is declining or he is having trouble getting around, take slower and 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 older, aching body.
  • Allow your dog access to the outdoors for potty breaks more frequently. Consider putting down papers or absorbent pads for accidents.
  • Feed a high-quality dog food. You may even look into a senior dog food formula. These often have fewer calories (to prevent weight gain), higher nutrient levels and sometimes even supplements to support an aging dog.
  • Keep a log of your dog's health conditions and medications. Note any changes in behavior or health and contact your vet for help.
  • Be patient and give lots of extra TLC!

When Is It Time to Say Goodbye?

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. 

Know that any decision you make out of love for your dog is the right decision. If he could, your dog would thank you for being his advocate.