Caring for a senior dog is a lot different from caring for a puppy.
Senior dogs have unique needs, and preparation is necessary to ensure these new needs don’t take you by surprise.
We’ll try to help you get ready for these changes below as we discuss what changes to expect in an elderly dog and show you how to care for senior dogs. This should help you keep your older canine comfortable and ensure your senior canine enjoys his golden years as much as his puppyhood.
At What Age Does a Dog Become a Senior Canine?
How do you tell when your dog has hit that time in its life? It really depends on the individual dog. However, generally speaking, giant breed dogs age faster than smaller breed dogs.
For example, Great Danes are considered to be seniors once they reach roughly 5 to 6 years of age, whereas Chihuahuas would only be considered middle-aged at this point — they wouldn’t qualify as seniors until reaching 10 or 11 years.
Medium and large breed dogs fall somewhere in between these two extremes; golden retrievers, for example, are usually considered to have reached senior status once they reach 8 to 10 years of age.
How to Care For Senior Dogs: 11 Things to Consider for Your Aging Canine
You’ll witness a number of changes in your dog as he ages. While it can be startling to see your beloved pup change as he grows older, remember that many of these changes are completely normal and nothing to be worried about.
A few of those changes you can expect to witness include…
1. Changing Dietary Needs: You May Need a New Food For Your Senior Canine
Senior dogs aren’t as mobile as they once were — they get tired quicker and often suffer from various aches and pains. This decrease in mobility sometimes means they’ll end up experiencing weight gain as they get older (you’ll see this happen in humans too).
Overweight dogs (just like humans) have a higher chance of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, skin disease, and even cancer. Excess weight is also hard on joints, making a leisurely stroll feel impossible. Your veterinarian can help you choose an appropriate diet for your dog, especially since overweight dogs must be fed carefully to ensure that all nutritional needs are met while still allowing for weight loss.
Special diets that have fewer calories, as well as those that are high in L-carnitine, are available for obese or overweight dogs. A diet with a carefully chosen carbohydrate or carbohydrate blend can also help keep your overweight dog feeling satiated.
Asking for help from your veterinarian is a good start, but it would be a good idea to start learning how to choose a dog food. As you’ll see in that guide, two of the first things you’ll want to do when selecting a food is to make sure you select one that is designed for your dog’s life stage and addresses any health issues he has.
For example, you may want to consider a special diet if your dog has heart or kidney disease. Diets lower in sodium are better for dogs with heart disease, while diets that help control phosphorus, calcium, and other electrolyte levels are often the best dog foods for dogs with kidney disease. You may also want to consider switching to canned or wet food, which may be easier for dogs with dental or gum disease to consume.
Even if your dog isn’t overweight or suffering from disease, there are also dog foods on the market that are specifically designed for senior dogs. These dog foods are usually much lower in fat while still providing the nutrients that senior canines need.
You may simply find that your senior dog has gotten pickier – you may need to experiment with different dog food brands to find what fits his taste best.
If your senior dog is experiencing weight loss and has trouble keeping on weight rather than shedding it, there could be other medical issues at play, so be sure to consult your vet.
2. Mobility Changes: Understand That Senior Dogs Slow Down
Your dog will be moving much less often as they get older. This means more napping and less chasing after squirrels (which can actually be a bonus).
You’ll likely see your dog’s mobility change in a number of ways, including:
Struggling With Eating and Drinking
Your dog’s food and water bowl may be positioned in a way that’s uncomfortable for him. Large and giant breeds may benefit from raised food and water dishes, but only if they can remain sitting or standing long enough to have their fill. Otherwise, you may want to place food and water dishes so your dog can access them comfortably, whether he’s lying down or standing on a padded, gripped surface.
Difficulty Negotiating Stairs
Senior dogs will encounter difficulty with stairs. In many houses, even a few steps that were once bounded across in puppyhood become difficult, frightening hurdles due to joint disease.
This can pose issues for dogs who normally must go down steps to access yards where they go to the bathroom and seriously impact their quality of life. In these cases, we recommend considering dog ramps, which allow your dog to travel up and down steps easier.
Dog ramps are also great for helping dogs into cars or helping them up onto beds. Senior dogs can’t jump up onto beds or couches, so they will need steps or a ramp for that as well.
You may also want to consider getting a lift harness, which can be used to provide additional assistance to your dog when navigating stairs or entering and exiting vehicles – anytime where your pooch needs a little helping hand.
These mobility tools make senior dog care much easier for you and your back, especially if your dog is on the larger side.
Difficulty Lying Down and Standing Up
As your dog gets older and faces joint issues, you’ll find that he has a harder time lying down and getting up from his seat. Watch your senior dog for signs of pain as he changes position and gauge how difficult the movement is for him. He may need doggie arthritis medicine.
Joint supplements are another way to help your four-footer’s mobility. These usually contain glucosamine, chondroitin, or MSM and aid in mobility by supporting the cartilage in your dog’s joints. Your pupper might benefit from fish oil, too. Rich in fatty acids, fish oil can reduce inflammation and gives your canine’s coat some help in looking its best.
Having Trouble Simply Moving Around
Eventually, as your dog gets older, he may have a difficult time walking, potentially sliding or slipping at times. This can be very frightening for owners but is to be expected. When this happens, be sure to take your dog to the vet, who may be able to prescribe medicine that can help him move easier with less joint pain. If your dog physically deteriorates significantly, you may need to consider a dog wheelchair.
Hardwood and tile floors are dangerous for senior dogs who may lack traction, so place carpeted runners or area rugs in these areas to make your dog’s world more walkable. These also prevent falls, which can be dangerous for senior doggos.
Cold weather can exacerbate joint issues. Keep this in mind if you have a canine with chronic pain conditions like arthritis or hip dysplasia. Take extra care during cold snaps to give your pooch the extra pampering and time he may need.
Playing Less (and Playing for Shorter Lengths of Time When He Does)
You’ll likely note that your dog will tire much more quickly during playtime. Set up short playtime sessions for fun, but let your dog rest when he seems tuckered out. You can also incorporate food puzzles and other games that require less movement. These give your dog plenty of mental stimulation without running him ragged.
Remember: Daily play and interaction are critical for your senior pup’s physical and mental health.
Having Less Stamina
Senior dogs can’t go for runs or long walks in the woods with you, but that isn’t to say you should halt walks altogether. Exercise can help keep joints limber and maintain ideal body weight – just be sure to keep exercise very light and walks very short in this golden stage of life (5 to 10 minutes, adjust to your dog’s condition).
Keep a careful eye on your dog and assess his condition, turning back when he seems tired. Don’t overwork him. If he enjoys frequent walks but doesn’t always have the energy levels for them, you can opt for a dog-safe wagon or stroller so he can still take in the sights and sounds without the struggle.
3. Hit the Snooze Button: Senior Dogs Sleep More
You’ll find your buddy will be napping and sleeping much more than he did previously. Dogs already sleep quite a lot, but older dogs sleep even more!
Your dog may take longer to get up in the morning and might opt for snoozing by your side during the day rather than bounding around the house. Just take extra care and time to ensure he rests comfortably in a quality dog bed (preferably with a non-slip bottom and plenty of cushion.)
4. You’ll Become Vet Office Regulars: Old Dogs Need Frequent Vet Visits
There’s no getting around it: Senior dogs require more frequent veterinary care than young whippersnappers do.
A normal vet checkup is recommended about every six months for senior dogs in good health. Be sure that your vet is very thorough with the examination and checks your dog’s heart and lungs in addition to all of the regular routine. Silent health abnormalities like metabolic diseases, liver disease, and more may creep up on older canines, making these visits critical.
You know your dog best, so don’t shy away from mentioning anything abnormal, no matter how minor it may seem. The tiniest clue can sometimes highlight a problem that can become bigger without care.
Another major aspect of these visits is monitoring your senior dog’s oral health. Dental care is more important than ever in old age, as proper dental hygiene can ward off painful tooth breaks and loss. Keep up with your dog’s oral care and cleanings, and ask your vet what you can do to maintain his smile for as long as possible.
5. Body Temperature Issues: Senior Dogs Have Increased Sensitivity to Temperature Extremes
Older dogs are unable to regulate body temperature as effectively as young dogs and should be kept warm, dry, and indoors when not outside for exercise. Senior dogs are also extra sensitive to heat and humidity. Take precautions to protect them from conditions that could cause heatstroke.
An arthritic pet may need ramps in the home, extra blankets, and an orthopedic bed (potentially even a heated dog bed if your pet gets cold easily).
6. Prepare for Physical Changes: The Signs of Canine Aging
As your dog gets older, you’ll see some or several physical signs of aging, including:
- Coat Thinning: Senior dogs will have their coat thin out and become duller in apperance than before.
- Cloudy Eyes: Older dogs often have a foggy or grayish-blue tint to their eyes. This is very normal. Also, keep an eye out for a whitish-tinge to your pet’s eyes, which could be a sign of canine cataracts — a condition that’ll require veterinary attention.
- Going Gray: Old dogs often have gray around their face and muzzle.
- Skin Lumps: Senior canines will have a number of changes to their skin. Often, dogs will begin to grow fatty lumps on their skin called lipomas. Lipomas are usually harmless, but you should still take your dog to the vet to get him checked out, as some could potentially pose a mobility problem or be a sign of cancer. Warts and skin tags are also common in older doggos.
7. Changing Temperaments: Old Dogs Can Get Grumpy
Have you ever noticed how people can get a bit grumpier (sometimes a lot grumpier) as they age? The same thing can happen to our canine pals!
Older dogs may become aggressive for several reasons. Aggression may be the result of a medical problem such as something causing pain (arthritis or dental disease) or vision/hearing loss, which result in the dog being easily startled.
For this reason, it’s best not to force senior dogs to interact with young children — even if they’ve always been great with kids in the past. Young children move unpredictably, which can frighten and overwhelm older dogs. It’s also good to steer clear of bouncy puppies who may harass or even hurt your senior fur friend.
8. Changes in Pooch Perception: Senior Dogs Experience the World Differently
Aging dogs gradually experience fading senses, just like people. These fading senses can cause behavioral changes and, sometimes, frustration.
Be aware of how your senior dog’s senses may be changing, and try to adjust accordingly.
- Vision: If your dog is losing his vision, turn the lights on for him and teach him a word that means he has reached a staircase. You can also physically guide him around obstacles. If your dog is losing his sight (or hearing), remove obstacles and keep floors free of clutter.
- Hearing: You may find your dog is no longer responding to commands as he once did. He probably isn’t ignoring you but simply can’t hear you well. When out, stay close and stay within sight of your dog. Use more body language and physical touch to communicate with your canine.
- Taste: One way to improve things for dogs with scent and taste difficulties is to experiment with more enticing foods, such as putting tuna juice on your dog’s meals.
- Smell: Dogs probably can no longer smell as well, but since our sense of smell is so paltry in comparison, we probably won’t notice any change. However, this does mean your dog may have a harder time finding his food, locating you, and getting around in general, so keep that in mind.
9. Senior Canines Require Extra Comfort Consideration: Supplies You May Need
Senior dogs often need a bit more help staying comfortable — here are a few supplies you may end up picking up to help out your senior canine.
- Orthopedic Dog Beds: Senior dogs’ bodies are more sensitive and lack some of the cushioning they used to have to remain comfy when snoozing. Many owners purchase an orthopedic, memory foam dog bed for their elderly canines to help ensure their comfort. If you need recommendations, take a look at our post about the best dog beds for senior arthritic dogs.
- Dog Ramps: As discussed earlier, some dogs may be in need of dog ramps for help getting up and down stairs or other tough terrains. Ramps are also great for helping larger dogs get into cars without forcing them to jump (which can be painful for older dogs and exacerbate arthritis).
- Dog Stairs: Similarly, dog stairs may be necessary for dogs that like to sleep on couches or raised beds (or any surface a dog would previously leap up onto). Dog stairs help make life easier on dogs suffering from joint pain or joint disease, as well as those who just don’t get around like they used to.
- Dog Potty Pads: Aging can also affect a dog’s bladder, and your furry friend may have to make more trips to the bathroom than in his younger days. For some owners, that means more trips outside, but in some homes, more trips outside aren’t a viable option. In those cases, we suggest trying dog potty pads which can let your dog relieve himself indoors (note: there are even dog potty pads using real grass, which dogs love and absorb smells well).
- Dog Lift Harness: Dog lift harnesses can be helpful for assisting a dog up stairs or difficult terrain — these harnesses strap under your dog and give owners a handle they can use to provide their canines with extra support.
10. Behavioral and Psychological Changes: Seniors May Suffer from Stress and Anxiety
As your dog gets older, you’ll find that he gets stressed much more easily and more often.
Separation anxiety and stress are among the most common behavior problems seen in older dogs. A dog who has separation anxiety will become very anxious when he senses his owner is about to leave. When his owner does leave, he may become destructive, bark or howl, urinate or defecate indoors, or even salivate profusely.
Solutions: Work with your veterinarian to discuss any of these behaviors. Your vet will check to see if any indicate a treatable condition, or they may determine the behaviors are due to cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which may need to be treated with medication or training.
Also, try to learn and evaluate your dog’s stress signals — this can help you become more aware of which situations or objects are stressing your pooch out.
11. Aging Canine Brains: Mental Deterioration Is Common in Elderly Dogs
Your older dog can become senile as he gets older. You may find him barking, whining, and acting unusual for seemingly no reason. Some dogs will suddenly become distressed without explanation.
One big component of understanding how to care for senior dogs is dealing with mental deterioration.
Senior canine cognitive dysfunction is a common problem and can be very alarming for owners. Signs of cognitive dysfunction include:
- Confusion or Disorientation: Your dog may get lost in his own backyard or get trapped in corners or behind furniture.
- Pacing: Your dog might pace around the home, sometimes seeming aimless.
- Loss of House Training Abilities: A previously house-trained dog may not remember and may urinate or defecate where he normally would not.
- Decreased Activity Level: While decreased activity is common in senior dogs, unusual lethargy may be a sign of cognitive issues.
- Reduced Focus: Decreased attentiveness or staring into space is commonly seen in dogs with cognitive problems.
- Lack of Recognition: Not recognizing friends or family members is a sad part of canine cognitive dysfunction.
- Sundowners: Yup, dogs can suffer from sundowners just like humans, where owners may see an increased amount of agitation and anxiety in their dogs come evening time.
Knowing these signs will make things a lot easier for you and your dog as you decide how to move forward. Just know that, despite how difficult seeing cognitive deterioration in your dog can be, you are not alone – many dogs suffer from it.
Treasure The Memories With Senior Canines
Watching your beloved pet get older, and witnessing the changes that occur with seniority, can be extremely difficult for owners.
Do not get too down about your dog getting older — if you’re reading this post, you likely care very much for your canine pal and have given him many good years already. You have cared well for your pet.
Do what you can to make your pet comfortable in his golden years – consider an orthopedic dog bed, certain medications (after talking with your vet), and other small things you can do to make life easier for him. Don’t stress too much about your dog getting older. Instead, use this time to continue to make wonderful memories together.
Cuddle a little longer, share a bit of bacon with your bestie, and watch the sunset together. There are still plenty of good times ahead with your senior dog, so treasure them.
Do you have a dog who’s approaching his golden years? What kinds of things are you doing to prepare? How are you altering your daily doggo care regimen? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments below!