When Should Your Senior Dog Visit the Vet?

Senior dog outdoors

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There are some conditions in senior dogs that warrant prompt attention. Knowing how to identify clinical signs early on, will hopefully lead to a quick diagnosis and immediate treatment. A dog is considered a senior around the age of seven. At this time, you can expect to see some physical and behavioral changes. It is not unusual for them to develop vision, hearing loss, and maybe even dementia. It is recommended that your senior dog be seen by their veterinarian at least twice a year to make sure these changes aren't affecting their overall health.


Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis, is a degenerative disease of the joints. Approximately 20 percent of dogs in North America over one year of age have osteoarthritis. Lameness is the most common sign in senior dogs. Stiffness is common after periods of rest but can improve as the dog warm up. Your veterinarian may recommend lab tests and radiographs to help diagnose arthritis. Treatment options include pain management, surgery, physical therapy, joint supplementation, cold and heat therapy, muscle toning and strengthening.

Dental Disease

Eighty percent of dogs over the age of three have active dental disease. Few dogs show obvious signs of dental disease. It's up to the dog’s owner and veterinarian to uncover this often painful condition. Dental disease is very common in senior dogs. Pay attention if you notice a decrease in appetite, bad breath, or drooling. On examination, tartar build-up and gum inflammation may be noted. Dental radiographs may be needed to identify the extent of dental disease. Treatment options may include a professional dental cleaning, extraction of diseased teeth, removal and/or biopsy of oral growths, antibiotics, and pain management.

Kidney Failure

The kidneys serve many roles, including water conservation, toxin removal, calcium, phosphorus, pH, and electrolyte balance, blood pressure regulation, and red blood cell production. A pet with impaired kidney function will have a difficult time concentrating urine and will need to drink extra water to process the body's waste chemicals.

Typically, a dog consumes about one cup of water per 10 pounds of body weight. Most owners may not measure their dog's water input on a daily basis. It may not be until your senior dog begins taking frequent trips to the water bowl that it becomes apparent there is a problem. Kidney failure is diagnosed through lab testing. This condition is irreversible. Treatment is aimed at slowing down the disease. Treatment options are based on the progression of the disease and severity and may include fluid therapy, diet therapy, and supplements. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be needed.

Diabetes Mellitus

Diabetes Mellitus is caused by a deficiency of insulin in the body. Insulin is necessary to remove glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream. When it is low or absent, there is a buildup of glucose. Normally, the kidneys conserve the bloodstream's glucose, but when they are overwhelmed the glucose spills into the urine in high amounts. Glucose attracts water and eventually leads to increased thirst and urination.

Diabetes is similar to kidney failure in that clinical signs may be subtle in the beginning. In addition to more water intake and urine output, a senior dog may experience increased appetite and weight loss. Diabetes Mellitus is diagnosed through bloodwork and urinalysis (examination of the urine). Once diagnosed, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options which will include insulin injections. Prescription diets are also available.

Vet listening to dog
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Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF), is the clinical syndrome of fluid retention due to severe heart disease. This is a very common condition in senior dogs. Occasional coughing that seems worse in the morning or after a few hours of sleeping is one of the first signs noted. Other early clinical signs include lagging on walks or a decreased desire to play. Later clinical signs may include shortness of breath, especially when resting, abdominal swelling, and a decreased appetite. Your veterinarian may notice a heart murmur and/or increased heart and respiratory rate. Radiographs and sometimes a cardiac ultrasound are needed to diagnose CHF. Treatment is directed at both the underlying heart disease and the accumulation of fluid if present. Treatment options may include medication, surgery if the problem is congenital, and manual removal of fluid. Prescription diets are also available. Prognosis depends on the underlying disease.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) is the term used to describe behavioral changes in older dogs that cannot be attributed to other medical, behavioral or environmental changes. The prevalence of CDS in dogs is extremely high, ranging from 28% in 11-to 12-year-old dogs to 68% in 15-to 16-year-old dogs.

Signs of CDS are associated with loss of memory, loss of learned behavior, changes in social patterns and sleep cycles among other things. A dog with CDS may get disoriented or stuck in corners, vocalize more because it is unsure of where it is, have a break in previously perfect house-training, and start pacing more and sleeping less at night. Sometimes it is hard to notice these changes when they happen gradually. Your veterinarian may have a favorite tool to assess your pup, so ask them first for recommendations.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is considered a "diagnosis of exclusion." This means that your veterinarian will need to rule out medical issues before focusing on management of CDS. Treating CDS involves a multi-modal approach that includes supplements and diet, environmental enrichment and management, increased training sessions, and medications.

Changes in behavior, movement, eating, drinking, and bathroom habits can all be indicators of disease. Fortunately, because veterinary medicine and science have advanced greatly, there are numerous options in treating some of the most common senior issues. Do your pup—and yourself—a favor and get a veterinarian to examine your pup at the first sign of concern. Early intervention usually allows you and your pup to live happier and healthier together even longer.

Article Sources
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