If you are lucky, you’ll see your dog live a very long and happy life. But just like humans, aging brings about many changes to a dog’s physical and cognitive health. These changes can have a slow and subtle onset, so that they are barely noticeable until one day, you realize that ‘something is different’!
All my dogs have shown differences in their aging process. There are some typical signs and symptoms to look for, however.
It may be alarming to realize that your dog can’t run, or hike with you like they used to. But don’t worry, there are still lots of pursuits that you can, and must do with your dog. They still need to be kept active and stimulated.
Your dog will need your support to keep them healthy and happy in their older years. This article explores the aging process in dogs, and gives you ten proven tips which are guaranteed to help make your dog live a better life, for longer.
When is a Dog Considered Senior?
Large breed dogs have a shorter life expectancy than their smaller counterparts. This means that they will become an ‘older’ dog at about 6 years of age, and small dogs from 8 or 9 years.
What are the Signs Of Aging in a Dog?
Just like any aging person, your dog’s health will need to be closely watched, and any issues checked by your vet. Liver and kidney function starts to decline, as well as many other age-related degenerative changes. Dogs suffer from heart disease and cancer, at about the same rate as humans. Cancer is extremely common in geriatric dogs over 10 or 11 years of age.
Arthritis is another common ailment, especially in larger breeds. Your dog may also start to develop lumps and bumps over their body. The vast majority of these will be benign, fatty growths, but always get your vet to check new lumps to make sure they don’t need to be removed.
They may prefer to shuffle along on a walk, having a good sniff along the way instead of racing ahead to explore. You might notice it takes them a little longer to get up from their bed, or they may struggle to get into the car.
Older dogs tend to be a bit fussier about tastes and smells. They may not finish their food, or if they’re bored with the same thing, they just won’t eat it. They’re not as hungry as they used to be, because they are less active.
Loss of hearing in older dogs usually has a very gradual onset. This makes it much easier for them to adapt and compensate by using their other senses, to go about their lives.
The flip-side is that we, as care-givers, may not recognize the subtle signs that our hounds are slowly losing their hearing. They may not come to you when first called, or they may seem startled when you wake them up.
Sudden movements, or noisy and boisterous children may become stressors for your senior dog with dimming sight. Your dog may appear to have a gray film over their eyes. This is generally a degeneration of the eye lens, but your dog can usually still see quite well.
The other common sight problem in older dogs is cataracts. This is also when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. This cloudiness restricts the amount of light that reaches the retina, which affects vision. This is the same process that happens in humans.
Changes in Behavior
Cognitive dysfunction can be very common in old dogs. They can become confused about where to go for very commonplace things. They may forget where the food and water bowls are and occasionally just stand and stare into space.
10 Tips on How To Take Care of your Senior Dog
- Health Issues
It’s a good idea to see your vet early on, so they can perform baseline tests in order to see what is ‘normal’ for your dog. After that, regular vet checkups will uncover any issues quickly, which need treatment or other management. Regular blood tests to check heart, liver and kidney function are not only a good idea, they are mandatory if your dog needs certain medications.
If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, your vet may prescribe some anti-inflammatory or pain medications to make them more comfortable. One of the best things you can do for an older dog is get them a comfortable orthopedic bed to sleep in. It makes a huge difference to them.
Regular grooming for your elderly dog will replace what they can no longer do by themselves. Keep their coat clean and brushed, nails clipped and eyes and ears free of debris.
- Slowing Down
Just because your dog has less energy for running around the yard, they still need plenty of exercise and stimulation. You just have to let them take YOU for a walk. Slow it down a little, smell the flowers. Enjoy a slower pace with them. One of the things that old dogs absolutely love is to sniff absolutely everything. Be patient. Let them have their joy. They deserve it.
Some dogs may need to be fitted out with a good dog stroller, or a carrier backpack for smaller dogs. The interest and enjoyment in getting out and about is always obvious on my senior dogs faces. It’s crucial to keep them stimulated and included in the pack.
You can play games at home with your senior hound. Any activity is enriching for them. If they don’t ‘do’ toys, talk to them, touch them and let them socialize with other animals if possible.
- Picky Eating
Sometimes, older dogs will seem to become fussy about their diet. This is normal. Their appetite decreases, so they will eat only what they want, rather than ‘wolfing’ everything you put in front of them. I like to tempt my older dogs with all kinds of flavors and textures.
Keeping them on a high protein diet, with low calorie content is the best way forward for senior dogs. This comprehensive article covers all you need to know about feeding your senior dog. I also make a home-made biscuit-topper stew for my dogs. That way they are getting a complete kibble meal, with delicious and healthy stew mixed through. It never fails to get them excited about dinner.
Keep fresh water available at all times. They usually need more hydration than younger dogs
4. The Best Home-Made Beef Stew for Dogs of All Ages
I make this and use it to mix through my dog’s dry food. It smells great, adds important moisture to the diet and she absolutely loves it!
I use a slow-cooker, but you can just as easily use a stove-top pot. A longer cooking time really brings out the flavors, and makes a nice sauce texture at the end. I place 2 large spoonfuls of this stew into a microwave-safe jug and gently warm it up for my dog.
- 1 lb beef mince
- 1 sweet potato
- 1 carrot
- 1 large apple
- 1 broccoli head
- Place the beef mince in the bottom of the cooker, separate slightly with a fork
- Peel and dice the sweet potato into ½ inch chunks. Add to cooker
- Peel and dice the carrot. Add to cooker
- Remove the core and chop the apple. Add to cooker
- Chop the broccoli head into small florets. You can use the stalk, just peel the tough outer layer off, then chop into ½ inch chunks. Add to cooker
- Add enough water to cover the ingredients
- Cook on high for 3 hours, then reduce heat to low for 2-3 hours
- Allow to cool overnight, then skim off any fat
- Place the stew in a large container, and use your hand to squash and pulp everything into a thick, delicious sauce texture.
- Store in the fridge for up to a week
If you’re worried about your dog’s lack of appetite, see your vet. They may have teeth and gum disease, or they may need to be checked for other issues causing them to be off their food.
- Hearing and Sight Loss
Just like humans, it’s normal for old dogs to gradually lose their sight and hearing. I have never met a senior dog who could not smell, though. Cataracts can develop, but eye lens degeneration is by far the most common finding. It can start developing before your dog even shows signs of physically slowing down.
It’s important to make sure your dog has good access to food and water. Try not to introduce obstacles that your dog may have trouble seeing or navigating. This is particularly important in your ‘dog’s zone’. This is the area encompassing their bowls, bed and toys, etc.
Use more gestures to tell your dog what you require. Motion to the food bowl, or tap their bed to indicate they should go to bed.
Make sure their eyes don’t dry out. This can happen with old dogs. See your vet if your dog’s eyes look sore or dry.
If your dog appears to be going deaf, it’s always a good idea to get their ears checked for wax build-up, foreign body or inflammation.
- Changes in Behavior
This can be hard for us to accept, but sometimes our senior dogs show a loss of cognitive ability. Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is very similar in presentation to human dementia symptoms. It’s important to remember that some symptoms, such as immobility and staring at nothing may in fact be due to physical pain. Always get your dog checked by a vet.
According to the American Kennel Club, approximately 50% of dogs over 11 years of age will show symptoms of CDS. By the age of 15 years, that total goes up to 68%.
Some of the symptoms of CDS include:
- Disorientation, which can manifest as aimless wandering, staring into space and constant confused pacing.
- Lack of usual excitement at seeing family, going for walks, etc.
- Sleeping during the day, but unsettled at night.
- Displays of anxiety, especially in high energy environments, such as children playing, or busy roads.
- Incontinence in the home.
It’s vital that you feed your senior dog with a high quality, high protein, low calorie diet. Clinical studies have also shown that an antioxidant-enriched diet improves mental acuity of older dogs and lessens the symptoms of CDS. That means additives in food such as berries, sweet-potato, carrots, broccoli, kale and spinach.
As with any other health issue, the main thing is to be patient and spend quality time with your dog. Quiet times with you are blissful for them.
Always see your vet if you need help or advice. They may be able to diagnose other issues that can be helped with medications.
- Make your dog’s life easier
The saying, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is not true. Dogs can benefit from new opportunities their entire lives. We, as their care-givers, just need to be sensitive to their needs. Look around your home.
- Rugs on wooden floors to stop them from slipping.
- A ramp to your door if they struggle with stairs or steps.
- Nightlights around the home, so they can see at night.
Enjoy your aging dog. Be kind and patient. It’s such a special time, and your bond with them just gets stronger as you help them through the last stage of their life.