How to Care for Senior Dogs

Understanding Your Aging Dog

old senior golden dog and woman
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Everyone gets older, and dogs are no exception. Advances in veterinary medicine enable dogs to live longer than ever. This makes it essential that we learn how to properly care for our senior dogs. As your dog's caregiver, there are many ways you can help make his golden years comfortable and happy. Senior dogs are such a delight, and these sweet old souls deserve the best of everything.

When is a Dog Considered a Senior?

As a general rule, a dog is considered geriatric around the age of seven.

However, this varies a bit for each dog. The typical lifespan of a dog is said to be 12-15 years. Smaller dog breeds tend to live longer on average while large and giant dog breeds have shorter lifespans. Therefore, a small dog is considered a senior at an older age, such as age 8-10. In turn, a large breed dog may be considered a senior by age 5-6. Some dogs may appear to age faster than others; this may be due to genetic background and overall health.

Signs of Aging in Dogs

As dogs age, one of the most common signs owners report is an overall "slowing down." They notice their dogs have less endurance when exercising and may be slow to rise out of bed. They may be tentative on stairs and less enthusiastic about toys, games and/or food. Some owners notice that their dogs have less patience in some situations, such as around active children or excited dogs. Sometimes, owners see that their dogs are confused, disoriented or less responsive than they were in their youth.

Older dogs may also have urinary or fecal accidents in the house.

While all of the above signs are commonly seen with aging, they are not usually the result of the aging itself, but actually symptoms of various health problems. There are several health issues common in senior pets such as arthritis, blindness and/or hearing loss, dementia and kidney disease.

Helping Your Senior Dog

There are some changes you can make in your dog's life that will help in his transition to senior status. Most of these require little sacrifice on your part and will make a positive difference for you dog.

  • See your vet every six months instead of once per year for wellness exams and health screenings. Budget for lab work and diagnostic imaging if recommended.
  • Change to a senior dog food formula. These often have fewer calories (to prevent weight gain), higher nutrient levels and lower protein (taking less of a toll on aging kidneys).
  • If your dog's endurance is declining or he is having trouble getting around, take slower and shorter walks several times a day rather than one or two long, brisk walks. However, do not stop exercise or significantly decrease it - your dog still needs to be active.
  • For dogs having trouble getting around: use ramps on stairs or for getting up to furniture; place down mats with gripped bottoms on slick floors.
  • Get a high-quality orthopedic dog bed. The extra cost is worth it when you consider how much more comfortable it will be for your dog's old and achy body.
  • Allow your dog access to the outdoors for potty breaks more frequently. Consider putting down papers or absorbent pads for accidents.
  • Be patient and give lots of extra TLC!

When is it Time to Say Goodbye?

This is a question that no one can really answer for you. Not all dogs will pass away gently in their sleep when their time has come (though we wish they all could). Because you know your dog better than anyone else, you will probably have a gut feeling when the end is approaching. One general guideline is to look at "good days" versus "bad days." If your dog is experiencing more bad days than good days, and your vet cannot offer any treatments, then the time is near. Or, if treatments for a disease are so hard on your dog that they are hurting his quality of life, it may be time to consider humane euthanasia. This will be a difficult time that requires a lot of soul searching, but remember it is all because you love your dog.

If he could, he would thank you for being his advocate.