Old Age in Dogs

sleeping dog

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Much like most 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. 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 generally considered old until several years later. Some studies suggest that mutts and certain breeds tend to 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 the following for medium-sized dogs:

  • 15 human years equals the first year of canine life.
  • Year two for a dog equals about nine more years for a human.
  • And after that, each human year would be approximately five years for a dog.

Consult with your vet 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 can come as a result of outward signs of a dog's advancing years or from health problems like dementia, pain, or factors related to worsening eyesight or hearing. Here 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, uses stairs, and takes part in activities. 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 and therapies 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 also may occur with old age, but more severe changes are usually associated with disease. For example muscle atrophy in the head or belly muscles are seen with masticatory myositis and Cushing's disease, respectively, while loss of muscle mass within the hind legs can be associated with spinal problems.

Hypothyroidism

Another potential cause of slowing down is hypothyroidism, an endocrine disorder common in dogs. This condition is easily managed with a thyroid supplement prescribed by a veterinarian.

Graying Around the Face

Some dogs can start to go gray at a young age, but most will show a bit of gray starting at middle age, around the five- to six-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 from sleep 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 to rule out other medical problems, such as an infection or a 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 approaching. 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, they may suffer incontinence or indoor soiling, which may be attributed to the aging of their body and their ability to "hold it in" or cognitive problems or other health concerns. Make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out medical reasons for improper elimination. Be patient with your dog, take it outside more frequently, and speak with your vet about solutions that could work for your dog.

Treatment

As your dog ages, work with your vet and schedule regular checkups to discuss health and wellbeing. The vet will look for muscle loss, hearing loss, vision loss, and other medical issues.

Some ways to help your dog through specific problems include 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 slow 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), and give sufficient opportunities for appropriate exercise, playtime, enrichment, socialization, and love.

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.