Caring for a senior dog is a lot different from caring for a puppy.
Senior dogs have unique needs, and preparation is key so that these new needs don’t take owners by surprise.
In this post and we’ll discuss what changes to expect in an elderly dog and show you how to care for senior dogs and keep them comfortable, ensuring that 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.
In general, giant breed dogs age faster than smaller breed dogs. For example, a Great Dane is considered to be senior by roughly 5-6 years of age, whereas a Chihuahua would likely only be middle-aged then, and probably not be considered a senior dog until 10-11 years.
Large breed dogs fall somewhere in between – dogs like Golden Retrievers might be considered seniors by 8-10 years of age.
How to Care For Senior Dogs: A Golden Years Guide
You’ll witness a number of changes in your dog as he or she ages. While it can be startling to see your beloved pup change as he or she 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. Diet: Choosing Food For Your Senior Canine
Senior dogs aren’t as mobile as they once were – they get tired quicker and suffer from old age aches and pains. This decrease in mobility sometimes means they’ll end up gaining weight 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. 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 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 read your dog’s food labels.
As dogs get older, some of their organs can break down and don’t work as well as they did in canine youth.
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.
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 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 is having trouble keeping on weight rather than shedding it, there could be other medical issues at play, so make sure to consult your vet.
2. Mobility: 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 dogs mobility change in a number of ways, including:
- 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.
This can pose issues for dogs who normally must go down steps to access yards where they go to the bathroom. In these cases, we recommend considering dog ramps, which can let your dog travel up and down steps easier.
Dog ramps are also great to help dogs into cars, or help 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.
- Lying Down and Getting Up. As your dog gets older, you’ll find that they have a harder time lying down and getting up from their seat. Try to watch your senior dog as he changes position and gauge how difficult the movement is for him. He may be in need of doggie arthritis medicine.
- General Movement. Eventually, as your dog gets even older, he or she may even have a difficult time walking, with your dog 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 which can help your dog move a bit more easily. If your dog physically deteriorates significantly, you may need to consider a dog wheelchair.
- Playing. 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 or she seems tuckered out.
- Exercise. 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 all together. Exercise can actually help keep your senior dog healthy and keep joints limber – just be sure to keep exercise very light and walks very short (5-10 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.
3. Senior Dogs Sleep More
You’ll find your buddy will be napping and sleeping much more than he or she did previously. Dogs already sleep quite a lot, but older dogs sleep even more!
They’ll take longer to get up in the morning, and will opt for snoozing by your side rather than bounding around the house.
4. Old Dogs Should Get More Vet Visits
Regular vet visits are extremely important when it comes to caring for your senior dog.
Whether or not your dog should see a vet more regularly once he or she begins to age is really determined by your dog’s health and should be discussed with your veterinarian.
A normal vet checkup recommended for a senior dog in good health is every six months (twice a year). 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.
5. Body Temperatures: Senior Dogs Have Increased Sensitivity
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 one if your dog gets cold easily).
6. Physical Signs of Canine Aging
As your dog gets older, you’ll see some or several physical signs of aging, including:
- Thinning Of Coat. Senior dogs will have their coat thin out and become less glossy than before.
- Foggy 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 – this could be a sign of canine cataracts, which needs veterinary attention.
- Going Grey. Old dogs often have grey around 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 them checked out, as some could potentially pose a mobility problem or be a sign of cancer.
7. Temperament: 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, and that can often frighten and overwhelm older dogs.
8. Senior Dog Senses
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 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, etc.
- 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 Canine Comfort: 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 they won’t have as much cushioning to keep them comfy. Many owners end up purchasing an orthopedic, memory foam dog bed for their elderly canines to help ensure their comfort.
If you need recommendations, consider taking a look at our post about the best dog beds for senior arthritic dogs.
- Dogs Ramps. As discussed earlier, some dogs may be in need of dog ramps for help getting up and down stairs or other tough terrain. Ramps are also great for helping larger dogs get into cars without forcing them to jump (which can be painful for older dogs and also 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 would leap up onto). Dog stairs ensure dogs don’t strain their joints or hurt themselves trying to jump up and down raised objects.
- 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 simply means more trips outside, but in some homes more trips outside isn’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 harness strap under your dog and give owners a handle they can use to provide their canines with extra support.
10. Behavior, 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 is one of 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 the owner does leave, the dog can become destructive, barks or howls, may urinate or defecate, and may 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. Mental Deterioration 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. Pacing and being awake all night, or a change in sleeping patterns.
- 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.
- Lack of Attention. Decreased attentiveness or staring into space.
- Lack of Recognition. Not recognizing friends or family members.
- 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 or her many good years already. You have cared well for your pet.
Do what you can to make your pet comfortable in his or her 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 them. 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, eat a bit of bacon, watch the sunset. There’s still plenty of good times ahead with your senior dog, so treasure those times.