Health concerns facing older dogs & tips on how to care for senior dogs
It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that our dogs age relatively quickly compared to us. In fact, in many dog breeds, those over the age of seven to eight are considered senior dogs. Generally, dogs age seven times faster than humans, so it makes sense that by age ten they may be facing health issues comparable to those of a 70-year-old human.
Old dogs have needs that are different to those of younger adult dogs and puppies. Increased awareness of their changing needs, along with ongoing attention and regular veterinary check-ups, can greatly benefit older dogs and help them live rewarding, happy and healthy lives in their senior years. Of course, it is essential to continue with the vaccination schedule, parasite prevention program, grooming, and continuing general care that you have been accustomed to.
Attending to the increasing health needs of ageing and old dogs can become a big financial burden. We suggest that dog owners seriously consider purchasing pet insurance early on, to ensure life-time cover. In this way, providing the best care available to your older dog need not become a financial burden.
Dog ageing rates in different breeds
Most dogs will live to between ten and fifteen years of age, and while on average one-dog-year equates to 7-human-years, the maths is not quite that simple. Dogs mature much more quickly than humans in the early stages, so by the end of a puppy’s first year his development is equivalent to a 15-year-old human, and by the end of his second year he is comparable with a 24-year-old human.
When it comes to development and ageing, size and breed play a considerable part. Smaller dogs tend to live longer than their larger relatives. Tiny and toy breeds mature more quickly in the first few years of life than larger ones; however, they generally remain sprightly and active well into their later years and don’t become senior dogs until around age 10.
In contrast, a huge puppy ages more slowly in the very early years but will begin to slow down from a younger age and will be approaching old age by age 5 or 6. Middle-size dogs will be somewhere in between. Big dogs age more quickly, or just start ageing earlier, than small ones, and while the correlation between size and lifespan in dogs is well documented, it’s not clear why this happens. Mixed breeds live an average of 14 years, while pure breeds live on average almost 10 years.
Examples of average life spans by breed:
- Chihuahua (the smallest recognised breed): 12 to 20 years
- Yorkshire Terrier: 13 to 16 years
- Dachshund, Pomeranian: 12 to 16 years
- Standard poodle, Pug, Siberian Husky, Miniature Schnauzer: 12 to 15 years
- Toy Poodle and Maltese, Boston Terrier, Beagle, Shetland Sheepdog: 12 to 14 years
- Shih Tzu: 11 to 14 years
- Labrador Retriever, Greyhound, French Bulldog: 10 to 14 years
- German Shepherd: 9 to 13 years
- Doberman, Boxer, Golden Retriever: 10 to 12 years
- English Mastiff: 6 to 12 years
- Great Dane, St. Bernard, Rottweiler, Bulldog, Bullmastiff, Newfoundland: 8 to 10 years
- Irish Wolfhound: 6 to 10 years
Bear in mind that it’s not just a dog’s size and breed that influences the length of his life. Specific lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise and medical history, also play a significant role in determining how long an individual dog will live.
Behaviours and signs of dog ageing
When it comes to the showing signs of ageing, there can be considerable differences depending on the breed. In general, the most practical way to tell if your dog is approaching old age is to observe his or her behaviour and appearance. In other words, how old does your dog act, look, and feel?
You may notice that your dog is greying around the muzzle (this is more common in some breeds than others) or has white hairs or bald patches in his coat. Other signs of an ageing dog include a reduced appetite and increased sleeping. As your dog becomes less active, he requires less energy and eats less; with less energy and enthusiasm for exercise and play, he will often fill in the days with more rest.
Just like humans, the senses eventually start to deteriorate, leading to impaired vision, hearing, taste and smell. Appetite may decrease and very old dogs often get thinner, with the shoulders and spine becoming more prominent.
Over time he may exhibit more debilitating symptoms that are prevalent in old dogs, such as:
- Soreness and stiffness in the leg joints
- Difficulty getting up after lying down or after a long walk
- Reluctance to jump on beds or sofas
Loss of vision and hearing:
- A hazy, bluish cast on the eyes, which is normal and usually does not hinder the eyesight
- A cloudy appearance to the eyes, which is the hazy, whitish growth of cataracts and can lead to blindness
- Hearing loss or deafness, revealed by a failure to respond to commands or calling their name
Gum and dental disease:
- Bad breath
- Food being dropped
- Excessive salivation
- Pawing at the mouth
- Swellings below the eye (may be signs of tooth root abscesses)
Skin and haircoat changes:
- Thicker, less pliable, loose skin
- Rougher and thinner coat, with bald patches or white hairs
- Greying fur, starting around the muzzle then spreading to other parts of the face, head and body
- Warts, bumps, fatty lumps and even tumours may appear (have these checked by your vet, as early detection may save your dog’s life)
- Destructive behaviour
- Less interest in food, play, children and other dogs
- Separation anxiety
- Inappropriate barking
- Increased sleeping
- Memory problems
- Confusion or failure to recognise his surroundings
- Hypertension / high blood pressure
- Heart murmur / rapid heart rate
- Breathing difficulties
- Less tolerant of extreme heat or cold
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Significant weight gain (more common) or weight loss
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent, strained or uncontrolled urination
- Bad odour
Nutrition advice for old dogs
Understanding the changing nutritional needs of your senior dog is one of the most important things you can do. A strict and highly nutritional diet is the best thing for the health of your ageing or old dog. As he starts to take life a bit easier, his activity levels decrease, and his dietary requirements change. Fewer calories are needed, but high-quality, easily digestible protein is important to maintain his muscle mass and overall body condition.
A good diet for ageing or old dogs should provide:
- High-quality protein
- Easily digestible carbohydrates for energy
- Specific minerals to support ageing joints
- Key vitamins that may help boost the immune system
Remember, even though you may be exercising him regularly, your older dog – from around 7 years and up – has a slower metabolism and does not require the same quantity of food he once did. If you notice that he is eating less, feed him less. You may find your ageing or old dog prefers to eat smaller meals more frequently. This is quite normal, as it’s easier to digest several small meals than fewer, larger ones.
Commercial pet foods formulated specifically for senior dogs are available – make sure to choose a brand of premium quality. To make his food more palatable, add wet food or water to dry food and heat to enhance its aroma. If you’re unsure about the quantity or quality of food or best diet for your elderly dog, simply contact your vet for more information.
Remember that diet is a key component of longevity. Do not fall into the common trap of spoiling dogs more as they get older. This is a bad habit that can lead to serious health problems for your senior dog.
Health concerns relating to old dogs
Just like us, as dogs grow older their chance of developing several age-related diseases and illnesses dramatically increases. Common diseases affecting old dogs include arthritis, liver disease, thyroid disease and cancer. The key to fighting these conditions is knowledge; be aware of the symptoms so that, if your dog does develop one of these diseases, you’ll be more likely to identify it early.
Caring for older dogs entails more frequent health checks with your vet – at least two per year if they are over the age of six or seven – so that any issues will be detected and treated early on. Veterinarians recommend starting geriatric check-ups for small dogs around age 11, for medium-sized dogs at around age 9, and for large dogs around age 7. Report any signs or symptoms you have observed to your vet and discuss what to look out for in the future.
The following conditions are more likely in old dogs:
- Arthritis and joint issues
- Heart, kidney and liver disease
- Heart, kidney and liver failure
- Intestinal issues
- Thyroid disease
- Tumours and cancers – more than 50% of dogs over the age of 10 get cancer
- Adrenal diseases
- Eye cataracts
- Dental diseases and issues
- Urinary incontinence
- Skin disease
Dental care for old dogs
When caring for older dogs, it is vitally important to maintain the health of your dog’s mouth, for several reasons. As dogs age, their dental health often deteriorates, and they become more prone to gum disease and tartar build-up.
Keep your dog’s teeth clean to avoid disease. It is a good idea to check and clean your dog’s teeth and gums regularly – ideally with daily brushing, or at the very least occasional brushing, to help remove plaque. There are even several dental diets and doggy treats available that promote good oral health. If you notice any changes in your pet’s teeth, gums, or breath as they get older, raise this with your vet.
Routine dental care from your vet is very important. Gum disease and other dental conditions can cause a great deal of pain and discomfort for your senior dog and can develop into more serious health problems such as heart disease. Depending on the condition of his mouth, he might require tooth extraction, gum surgery or a thorough cleaning, all done under anaesthesia.
Tips for helping older dogs
Try to be aware of what your ageing or old dog is going through and understand that a lot of physical and psychological changes are taking place. Daily care requires a little more patience on your part.
We’ve put together a few tips for taking care of him through his later years. He’s been a part of the family for many years now and deserves the best care we can provide. Caring for older dogs with love and commitment really helps to enhance their quality of life during their senior years.
Exercise and activity
Your ageing or old dog isn’t eating as much as he used to, or moving as much, and he may be sleeping a lot more. While a reduced level of activity is inevitable, it can be offset by maintaining a good exercise regime. Your old dog requires exercise just like younger dogs – the difference is that he simply won’t be able to handle the same amount or as often. So, take your ageing or old dog for shorter walks, more often. Try to wake him if he’s sleeping too long and take him for a short stroll.
Obesity and arthritis are two of the most common problems experienced by old dogs, therefore regular, moderate exercise is very important at this age and stage of life. Exercise helps to maintain muscle mass and keep the joints mobile. Take your dog for a short swim in calm waters. Swimming is a gentle exercise that helps maintaining mobility.
Remember, if obesity sets in, it will most likely cause serious health problems for your dog; he will live much longer into ripe old age if you keep him as fit and healthy as possible.
If your dog suffers from arthritis, obesity or any other serious health issue, consult your vet before beginning an exercise program. Definitely don’t give up on exercise, not until you have to.
Despite the proverb, old dogs do love new tricks – and especially new toys. Your senior dog may appear much less active or enthusiastic these days, but it doesn’t mean that his lust for life has gone. Old dogs can be just as enthusiastic as younger ones to learn new tricks and commands, play games and solve puzzles.
Like people, dogs need mental stimulation to stay focused and mentally fit as they age. Many old dogs will lie about the house all day because their owners have given up on stimulating them with toys and games. Food puzzles are great ways to keep your dog’s inquisitive nature alive; they also promote advanced mental stimulation and weight loss.
Try taking your old dog for a walk in, or visit to, different and interesting locations. New smells, sights and sounds will keep him interested in the world around him. Remember, variety is the spice of life.
Making small adjustments to your home environment can assist your dog as he starts to show signs of ageing.
Things to consider when living with an ageing or old dog:
- Provide easy access to food and water
- Keep him cool in summer and warm in winter
- Ensure his sleeping area is in a calm and quiet location where he won’t be disturbed
- Give him soft, warm, comfortable bedding and extra cushions and blankets
- Install ramps or steps on steep inclines
- Place carpet runners on slippery floors
- Remove obstacles form the floor
- Avoid rearranging the furniture or other big changes
- Limit contact with other household pets if they disturb him
- Maintaining a consistent daily routine
As part of your regular routine, try to schedule a special grooming session at least once a week. Regular grooming helps to maintain a healthy skin and coat and can prevent dry, itchy skin. Bathing him regularly is also very important, as well as a great opportunity to give your old dog the loving attention he needs.
Grooming also gives you the chance to check for any lumps and bumps, which will ensure that possible cancers or tumours are treated as swiftly as possible. Cancer is more prevalent in ageing dogs.
We hope these tips will help you to provide a comfortable and caring environment for your ageing or old dog. Caring for older dogs entails keeping them comfortable, on a strict diet, stimulated and exercised regularly. If you can do this, your dog should remain happy and healthy, living to a ripe old age.