What to Expect When Your Dog Starts Getting Older

Signs of Old Age and Ways to Help an Aging Pet

Elderly couple and their dog on a pier.
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Much like a human in his or her aging process, senior dogs (and cats) experience some of the same signs of getting older: graying hair, diminishing eyesight and hearing, arthritis, and overall health concerns.

Learn more about what to expect, and how to help your dog navigate through its golden years.

When Is Old Age for Dogs?

The adage "one human year equals seven dog years" is not exactly accurate. For example, large-breed dogs like Great Danes are considered senior at 6 or 7 years of age, whereas small breeds like toy poodles are not considered senior 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.

To see how dogs of various sizes and breeds relate to human age, take a look at a dog age calculator.

As a general rule of thumb, a dog that is 7 years or older should be considered middle to senior aged, and a consultation with your vet is in order to determine the best health care maintenance 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.

Common Physical Signs of Old Age

Each dog, like each human, is different. An aging dog may experience changes in behavior, pack order dominance issues, even aggression. These social changes usually come as a result of outward signs of a dog's advancing years or can be as a result of 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 how the dog gets up, lays 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, and 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 the hind legs, also may be seen with old age. Some muscle atrophy, notably on the head and the belly muscles, can signify diseases such as masticatory myositis and Cushing's Disease. Be sure to have your vet check this out if any muscle loss is noted.

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.

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.

Reduced Hearing

Is your dog hard to wake up after sleeping or does it become startled easily if you approach from behind? Hearing loss or deafness may be to blame. There is 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 care to protect it from hazards, such as cars and kids that it may not hear. Dogs do learn and adapt well to using hand signals for come, stay, sit, and so on. For this reason, it is a good idea to "cross train" your dog early in life to recognize basic hand signals.

Cloudy or Bluish Eyes

As they age, 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 this is lenticular sclerosis. Vision does not appear to be affected.

This condition should not be confused with cataracts, which are white and opaque. Just like humans, a dog's vision can be affected by cataracts, and your vet needs to be consulted. As with hearing loss, be extra vigilant watching your dog around cars or other hazards that it may not see.