Old Age in Dogs

Elderly couple and their dog on a pier.
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Much like some humans during their aging process, senior dogs (and cats) may experience some of the same signs of getting old: graying hair, diminishing eyesight and hearing, arthritis, and overall health concerns. Every dog ages, so you should know what to expect and how to help your dog navigate through its golden years.

What Is Old Age in Dogs?

There is a well-known adage that "one human year equals seven dog years." This is not entirely accurate. For example, large-breed dogs like Great Danes are considered to be seniors at 6 or 7 years of age, whereas small breeds like toy poodles aren't considered old until their teen years. Poodles have even been known to live up to the 20-year range. Some studies suggest that certain breeds outlive others. As a general rule, if your pet is 7 years old or older, consider it to be a middle- to a senior-aged dog.

If you want a calculation, the American Veterinary Medical Association goes by:

  • 15 human years equals the first year of a medium-sized dog’s life.
  • Year two for a dog equals about nine years for a human.
  • And after that, each human year would be approximately five years for a dog.

A consultation with your vet is in order to determine the best health care regimen for your dog as it ages. For smaller-breed dogs, your vet may elect to wait a couple of years before doing any geriatric monitoring.

Symptoms of Aging

Each dog, like each human, is different. An aging dog may experience changes in behavior, pack order dominance issues, or even aggression. These social changes usually come as a result of outward signs of a dog's advancing years or can result from dementia, debilitating pain, or factors related to worsening eyesight or hearing. These are some general physical signs to watch for and some ways to help your dog adjust to seniorhood.

Slowing Down, Arthritis, or Muscle Loss

You may notice that your dog has been slowing down some with aging. This is not always the case but look for subtle changes in the way your dog gets up, lies down, and uses stairs. Is there any hesitation or stiffness? Does a change in the weather (rainy or cold) make it worse?

Arthritis is common in dogs as they age, particularly large breeds, and can occur in any joint, most commonly the legs, neck, or spine. There are many different medications available to help ease the discomfort of arthritis. You should take the dog to see your vet if you notice these signs of slowing down.

Mild loss of muscle mass, especially in the hind legs, also may occur with old age. Some muscle atrophy, notably the head and the belly muscles, may signify diseases such as masticatory myositis and Cushing's disease.

Hypothyroidism

Another potential cause of slowing down is hypothyroidism, an endocrine disorder common in dogs. This condition is easily diagnosed and can be medically treated with proper veterinary care.

Graying Around the Face

Dogs can start to go prematurely gray at a young age, but most dogs commonly show a bit of gray starting at middle age, around the 5- to 6-year mark. Most graying happens around the face, but it can also appear on the chest or body.

Reduced Hearing

Is your dog hard to wake up after its been asleep or does it become startled easily if you approach from behind? Hearing loss or deafness may be to blame. There's not a lot that can be done for age-related hearing loss, but a vet exam should be done first to rule out other medical problems, such as an infection, growth, or foreign body in the ear.

If your dog has hearing loss, take extra care to protect it from hazards, such as cars and kids that it may not hear. Dogs do learn and adapt well to hand signals for come, stay, sit, and so on. For this reason, it's a good idea to "cross-train" your dog early in life to recognize basic hand signals.

Cloudy or Bluish Eyes

As they age, a dog's eyes often show a bluish, transparent haze in the pupil area. This is a normal effect of aging, and the medical term for it is lenticular sclerosis. Vision doesn't appear to be affected.

Lenticular sclerosis should not be confused with cataracts, which are white and opaque. Just like humans, a dog's vision can be affected by cataracts, and you need to consult your vet. As with hearing loss, be extra vigilant when your dog is around cars or other hazards that it may not see.

Elimination Issues

As dogs age, a symptom can be incontinence or indoor soiling. Some may be attributed to the aging of their body and it's ability to "hold it in" and some can be attributed to cognitive problems of aging. Be patient with your dog, take it outside more frequently, and speak with your vet about solutions that could work for your dog.

Treatment

While there is no treatment for aging, you can treat the specific symptom or symptoms that your dog is demonstrating. As your dog ages, work with your vet to schedule regular medical visits. The vet will look for muscle loss, hearing loss, vision loss, or other medical issues.

Some ways to help your dog through this period may be through vet-recommended medications for pain management or physical aids like ramps and lift harnesses. If incontinence is an issue, you may use the crate more, employ pads, and even use doggie diapers.

Prevention

In dogs as in people, old age can’t be prevented, but there are things a person can do for their dog to possibly retard the process or at least make aging a better experience. In addition to regular vet visits, it's important to keep the dog's weight at a healthy level, feed it a nutritious diet that contains all the necessary macro- and micronutrients (and supplements if necessary), massage achy joints and muscles, introduce a younger playmate, give the old dog sufficient exercise, playtime, and plenty of enrichment and socialization.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.