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Caring for Senior Dogs

Understanding senior dog care can help you keep your pooch happy and healthy throughout their golden years.

Defining a Senior Dog

Dogs may be considered senior anywhere from 5 or 6 to 8 or more years old depending on the lifestyle and size of the dog. Obviously, dogs who live in a less stressful environment and receive great care generally live longer later than dogs who aren't as fortunate. Smaller dogs also tend to live longer than larger dogs.

How Long Do Dogs Live?

A recent study that looked at 2,370,078 pet dogs showed how size could make a difference in the life span of dogs, which affects when they're considered middle age.

Size Median Estimated Life Span
Giant dogs 11.11 years (11.01 to 11.25 years)
Large dogs 13.38 years (13.25 to 13.40 years)
Medium dogs 13.86 years (13.82 to 13.89 years)
Small dogs 14.95 years (14.92 to 14.98 years)

The study also found that mixed breed dogs tend to live a little longer than purebred dogs:

Type Median Estimated Life Span
Mixed breed dogs 14.45 years (14.42 to 14.49 years)
Purebred dogs 14.14 years (14.12 to 14.15 years)

However, being mixed breed or purebred was less of a factor than size. So, a giant mixed breed dog would probably not outlive a small purebred dog.

The study results also highlighted two things you can do to help extend your dog's life:

  • Spay or neuter your dog: Spayed females lived about 30 weeks longer than sexually intact females. Neutered males also had slightly longer life spans than intact males.
  • Schedule yearly dental cleanings: One dental cleaning a year was associated with a nearly 20% decreased risk of death.

In addition, you should make sure your dog gets to the veterinarian for regular check-ups throughout their life. Depending on the age of the dog and especially for senior and geriatric dogs, twice yearly physicals are recommended. They give your veterinarian the opportunity to spot issues early when they can be treated more easily, and the outcome can be better for your dog.

common health problems for older dogs _ Small White Dog Waiting in Dirt Covered Dog Park

Common Ailments in Senior Dogs

Like people, dogs are prone to certain ailments as their bodies age.

Dental Disease

Dental disease is a common problem for older dogs, which can have serious consequences such as tooth loss and infections that may spread throughout the body. It can also make it painful for your dog to chew, resulting in weight loss. The good news is that dental disease is preventable with proper dental hygiene, including regular brushing at home and a yearly cleaning at your veterinarian. And remember that yearly cleaning can help your dog live a longer life!

Obesity

Dogs tend to slow down as they get older. They may get less exercise and begin putting on weight. If your dog is overweight or obese, they can face a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, liver disease, and diabetes. Those extra pounds also add pressure to their joints, which may already be sore from arthritis. The best ways to avoid obesity are to make sure your dog is eating a diet appropriate for their age, getting enough exercise, and going to the veterinarian for check-ups.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a painful joint disease that can impact your dog's mobility and quality of life. For instance, your dog may have difficulty jumping up on the couch, going up and down the stairs, hopping into the car, or just getting up from a lying position. Although arthritis can't be cured, it can be managed with medications. You can also make changes around the house to accommodate an arthritic dog. For instance:

  • Raise their food and water bowls, so they don't have to bend down to eat or drink.
  • Provide them with soft bedding or a special pet bed to soothe aching joints.
  • Use ramps to help them get in and out of the car or up to their favorite napping spots.
  • Move their bed to the first floor so they can avoid the stairs.

Your veterinarian can suggest other ways to help make your dog more comfortable at home.

health problems in old dogs _ golden retriever by a pool

Liver and Kidney Disease

As dogs get older, their kidneys and liver are getting older, too. They may not be able to perform their essential bodily functions as well anymore. Your veterinarian will check the health of your dog's liver, kidneys, and other organs during their wellness exams. If your dog starts to have liver or kidney issues, they may need to be put on a special diet or take medications to help prevent further deterioration.

Thyroid Problems

Hypothyroidism is common in older dogs. This disorder occurs when the thyroid glands aren't producing enough thyroid hormone, which helps regulate metabolism. Signs of hypothyroidism can include a dull coat, hair loss, flaky skin, discolored patches on the skin, and weight gain for no obvious reason. It can be managed by giving your dog a synthetic thyroid hormone called thyroxine. They will likely need this medication for the rest of their life.

Vision Loss

Dogs may start to lose their vision as a natural part of the aging process or due to common conditions, such as glaucoma or cataracts. Glaucoma happens when pressure in the eye builds up because fluid isn't draining properly. It can be treated with medications that help decrease fluid production and promote drainage. A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye, which can make the eye appear cloudy or bluish-gray. Cataracts usually need to be removed through surgery.

nutrition tips for older dogs _ elderly long-haired dachshund

Nutritional Tips for Senior Dogs

A dog's nutritional needs change as they get older. For instance, they're likely to be less active, which means they should take in fewer calories to help prevent weight gain. Your veterinarian can recommend a brand of dog food that is best suited for your dog's age, overall health, and lifestyle. You should also ask your veterinarian for guidance on how much to feed your dog each day. The amounts suggested on the packaging may not match your dog's needs.

Nutritional Supplements

As your dog gets older, your veterinarian may recommend nutritional supplements to help with certain conditions or boost overall health. Two popular supplements for senior dogs are:

  • Omega-3s: These have been shown to help reduce inflammation and may benefit dogs suffering from arthritis, allergies, or skin conditions. They can also support cognitive function, which is important for senior dogs.
  • Glucosamine: This may be recommended for dogs with arthritis to help reduce pain and protect against further damage to the joints.

Please avoid giving your dog any supplements without talking to your veterinarian first. They can help make sure the supplement is safe and beneficial for your dog. They can also tell you the proper dosage for your dog’s size.

old dog exercise tips _ Morning walk with dog

Exercise Tips for Senior Dogs

As dogs age, they may become more resistant to exercise due to injuries, health conditions, or just because they're getting older and you may need to get more creative to get them moving. For instance, you can try altering your walking route to mix things up, introducing new games to pique their interest, or teaching them a new trick to help stimulate them mentally.

If your dog is not used to getting much activity, talk to your veterinarian about how to start a safe exercise routine. You'll need to start gradually and watch for signs they may need a break, like panting or laying down. Also, avoid being too rough when you play games with senior dogs since they can be more prone to injury.

Rehab Exercises

In addition to their regular activity, you may want to consider physical therapy and rehabilitation exercises for your senior dog. Rehab exercises, such as standing on a rocker board or walking over rails set at various heights, can help your dog improve their strength, gait, and balance. Your veterinarian or a canine rehabilitation therapist can evaluate your dog and create a program that best suits their needs.


Pet insurance can cover physical therapy or other alternative therapies that may be helpful for older dogs, like acupuncture. See our buyer's guide to learn more.


Mental Health

Older dogs may start experiencing cognitive issues, such as declines in their memory and ability to learn. They can also develop behavioral problems that didn't exist before, such as separation anxiety or excessive vocalization. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) offers a checklist for signs of cognitive dysfunction, which includes getting lost in familiar places, losing interest in petting and other interactions, needing constant contact, staring at objects, and pacing.

If you notice issues with your senior dog's mental health, you should consult with your veterinarian. Don't assume it's just part of the aging process and there isn't anything that can be done about it. There may be an underlying health condition that needs to be treated, or your dog may benefit from medication or behavioral therapies.

In addition, there are things you can do at home to promote mental health. For instance, stimulating toys, such as interactive games and treat-filled puzzle toys, are great ways to keep your dog's mind sharp. You may also want to ask your veterinarian about Omega-3 and other supplements as a way to help support cognitive functions.

sleeping tips for older dogs _ Tired German Shepherd dog Sleeping on Bed

Sleep Tips

Is your senior dog restless at night? That's not uncommon as dogs get older. It can be a sign of illness or pain, so check with your veterinarian to make sure there isn't an underlying health condition or injury. When one of my older patients became restless at night, his dog parent attributed it to age, but it turned out to be a broken tooth. After a root canal, the dog began sleeping comfortably through the night again.

Your veterinarian can also offer suggestions to help improve your dog's sleep. For instance, sticking to a regular schedule, keeping evenings calm, and ensuring they have enough activity during the day may help your dog.

Adopting a Senior Dog

If you're looking to welcome a new dog into your family, you may want to consider a senior dog. Senior dogs can be a great fit for some families since they tend to be calmer and easier to manage than younger dogs. They typically need less activity, and you don't have to put in all that work to train them. You may even be saving a life when you take in a senior dog since they are often passed over at shelters.

You may wonder if a senior dog might have trouble bonding with a new family, but they can easily adapt when they're placed in a loving environment. If they're healthy, you also don't need to be overly concerned with the amount of veterinary care they may need. In fact, they're probably up-to-date on vaccines and already spayed or neutered. Just be sure to take them to the veterinarian regularly to help maintain their good health.

If you're concerned about the veterinary costs for a senior dog, pet insurance can help. With ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, there is no maximum age limit or health requirements to enroll. Explore your plan options by getting a free quote.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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