While it may seem like only yesterday that your senior dog was a squirmy puppy gnawing on your slipper, aging is as much a fact of life for pets as it is for their people. With old dogs, you’ll need to pay closer attention to their needs and wellness than you might have in their younger years.
So when exactly does your dog transition from being middle-aged to a senior canine? “It depends on his breed and size,” says Shian Simms, DVM and Vice President of Veterinary Medicine at Bideawee Animal Shelter in New York City. “Large breed dogs have shorter lives, so a Great Dane, for example, would be considered senior by 6 years of age. A smaller breed dog, such as a Poodle, is considered senior at age 8 or so.” Meanwhile, the notoriously long-living Chihuahua isn’t considered a senior dog until age 10.
Senior dogs tend to suffer from the same sorts of age-related conditions that are seen in people, such as cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, joint problems and diabetes.
8 Senior Dog Wellness Tips
1. Familiarize Yourself With the Signs of Common Age-Related Diseases
While some indicators are seen with more than one condition, generally speaking, decreased appetite, thinning hair coat and increased thirst may signal kidney disease. Blood in the urine and straining to urinate might mean a urinary tract disease, while coughing, difficulty breathing and less ability to exercise could mean heart disease. Stiffness, swollen joints, favoring one leg and reluctance to go up or down stairs may point to arthritis. Any of these symptoms warrant a call to your vet.
2. See Your Vet More Often
More in-depth and more frequent exams should be a regular occurrence for older pets. Plan to see your vet every 6 months for a checkup instead of only once a year, even if there are no obvious issues. That will allow your veterinarian to be able to detect illness early, which is the key to successful treatment.
3. Keep Him Active
There is no need to retire your senior dog to his metaphorical rocking chair. In fact, it’s beneficial to their health and long-term mobility to keep older dogs active. According to Dr. Simms, “Senior dogs can be as active as they want to be,” unless they have joint disease or heart issues. If your dog does suffer from arthritis, supplements or joint medicines for dogs containing glucosamine or omega fatty acids may help relieve some of the symptoms. American Journey Wild Alaska Salmon Oil is rich in omega fatty acids and comes in a convenient squeeze bottle; NaturVet Senior Wellness Aches & Discomfort Dog Tablets feature glucosamine, which can protect against joint degradation.
4. Consider Environmental Changes
An older pet who is having trouble with mobility may need you to make some small changes around the home to keep him comfortable. These might include a bed placed in an easily accessible area, an orthopedic bed, a raised feeding platform, or a set of steps to eliminate the need to jump.
5. Keep an Eye on His Water Bowl
Old dogs are more prone to dehydration than young ones. This may be because they have a health condition that causes them to urinate more often, or require a medication that acts as a diuretic. Make sure your dog has plenty of water at all times. If it’s fresh and cool (it never hurts to toss a few ice cubes in), he’ll be more likely to lap it up. Be extra generous in warm weather.
6. Don’t Forget His Mental Health
Geriatric dogs can suffer from senility and memory loss. Similarly to elderly people, dogs should regularly engage in stimulating activities to slow the progression of these conditions. Interactions such as playing with him, talking to him and taking him to the dog park to visit with a few canine companions and their people can help keep your dog mentally sharp longer.
7. Reassess His Diet
He may have done fine on the same brand and type of dog food for years, but whether it’s his favorite or not, it’s smart to rethink it when your pupper hits senior status. Many brands of dog food have a senior formula, but there can be quite a bit of variation between them. “Some senior dogs with cognitive dysfunction will benefit from Hill’s b/d Brain Aging Care Dry Dog Food,” says Dr. Simms. A wet food option designed to boost brain power in older dogs is Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult 7+ Dog Food. You know what’s normal for your pet, so trust your gut if you feel something is off.
With aging also comes changes in metabolic rate, which causes fewer calories to be burned, and thus more to be stored as fat. As a result, mature dogs require fewer calories to maintain the same weight. So dogs in the autumn of life, so to speak, may benefit from a food with fewer calories and less fat. Weight gain in older dogs—again, much like us—increases the chance of a variety of medical problems. “It is important to keep senior dogs at a healthy weight,” says Dr. Simms. Research has shown that L-Carnitine, a derivative of amino acids found in animal products, may encourage the body to use its fat for energy. Blue Buffalo Life Protection Formula Senior Dog Food is one variety with L-Carnitine as a key ingredient.
Protein is also important to keep in mind. Older dogs tend to lose muscle mass, which in turn results in a loss of protein reserves, which can affect their bodies’ ability to resist infection and repair tissues. Senior dog diets should have an increased protein-to-calorie ratio.But those are only general guidelines that don’t apply to every dog. Before you switch foods, it’s best to chat with your veterinarian about the most important considerations for your dog. Every pet is unique, and your good old dog will have his own individual needs that go beyond just his chronological age. For example, “Dogs with kidney problems will need a special diet,” says Dr. Simms. “Dogs with heart issues need low-sodium diets.” And while you are discussing diet recommendations with your dog’s vet, ask whether a multivitamin designed for seniors might be helpful. VetriScience Canine Plus Senior Multivitamins are chicken liver flavored chews, which means no pills to coax your pet to swallow.
8. Never Give Medication or Supplements Made for Humans
While it’s true that many conditions of old age in humans are seen in dogs as well, don’t think you can share your own arthritis pills or high blood pressure medication with your pup. Human drugs will be ineffective at best for a dog, while some can be fatal.
Christina Vercelletto is a pet, travel and lifestyle content specialist and a former editor of Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and Woman’s Day. She lives on Long Island with her Chiweenie, Pickles, and 20-pound Calico, Chub-Chub.