Aging is a natural part of life, even for dogs. Their pace slows, their naps increase, and their coats may get gray. Giant breeds like the Mastiff are considered seniors by 6 or 7 years old, whereas toy breeds like the Yorkshire Terrier don’t enter their senior years until they’re 10 to 12. Regardless of when it happens, it’s important to appreciate the changes aging can bring and help them feel their best. Some are a normal part of being a senior, but others can indicate serious health concerns.
Weight gain is a risk for many older dogs as they tend to be less active—i.e. they don’t burn the calories they once did. And an age-related decrease in metabolism may play a role as well. You can tell if your dog is overweight by assessing their body condition. Looking at them from above, they should have a waist behind their ribs, and from the side, their tummy should tuck up and their ribs should just be visible. If you’re unsure, ask your vet to assess your dog’s body condition.
Obesity not only exacerbates health issues like arthritis, but it can also increase the risk of other complications such as heart disease. So, it’s important to take it seriously. However, no dog is about to put themselves on a diet. Speak to your vet about your senior dog’s daily calorie requirements and adjust feeding amounts or the choice of diet accordingly. Also, ask about exercise options appropriate for your dog’s overall health.
Older dogs take a slower approach to life, but if you notice yours seems stiff or is limping, arthritis might be to blame. Osteoarthritis is the breakdown of cartilage in the joints between bones. It causes pain and inflammation while decreasing movement. Signs to look for include:
- Difficulty getting up from sitting or laying down
- Decreased interest in running, jumping, playing, or climbing stairs
- Limping or lameness
- Losing muscle mass in the back end
- Trouble squatting for bathroom behavior or having accidents in the house
- Irritability or sensitivity to petting or touch
Along with a physical exam, your vet may also want to perform X-rays to examine the joints. There is no cure for arthritis, so treatment focuses on slowing the progression and easing discomfort. Your vet might recommend a medication like a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory or joint supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin. It’s also key to keep excess weight off your dog as it adds a burden to already degenerating joints.
Just like humans, dogs can suffer from cognitive changes as they age. You might notice they become forgetful or anxious. This could be a normal part of aging, related to other health conditions like vision loss, which is a sign of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), the dog version of Alzheimer’s disease. Diagnosis of CDS is based on behavior, and signs include house soiling, learning or memory issues, increased anxiety, disorientation or confusion, and disturbed sleep during the night.
Your vet will need to rule out other health conditions first because issues such as sensory loss or endocrine disorders can cause similar symptoms. If your dog is suffering from CDS, there are treatment options that can help them live more comfortably. Medications specifically for CDS can ease overall symptoms, or you can try a symptom-specific treatment like anti-anxiety meds for anxiety or sleep aids for sleep. Nutritional supplements like fatty acids might help as well. And finally, providing more mental stimulation and increasing potty breaks will benefit your dog too.
Hearing and Vision Loss
As with humans, vision loss and hearing loss can impact senior dogs. And if it’s gradual enough, you might not realize it until the loss is significant. Dogs adapt well by relying on their other senses. Signs to watch for include:
- Problems locating toys or the food and water dishes
- Bumping into furniture or walls
- Hesitant jumping on or off the furniture or climbing down the stairs
- Not making eye contact with you
- Behaving anxiously or becoming clingy
- Sleeping more soundly
- Ignoring your cues
- Not coming when called or not looking at you when you call their name
- Not being disturbed by loud sounds
- Ignoring sounds that used to be exciting, like a squeaky toy
Hearing loss in senior dogs is usually caused by deterioration of the nerves inside the ear. On the other hand, vision loss can result from many health issues such as glaucoma and cataracts or hypertension. Depending on the issue, the sooner your vet examines your pet, the better. Although most sensory loss is irreversible, the underlying condition might require immediate treatment.
Urinary Incontinence and Kidney Disease
Many older dogs begin to show signs of urinary incontinence, which is a loss of bladder control. Often, the muscles controlling the bladder’s opening weaken, so the dog might leak urine during the night, dribble while walking, or be unable to hold it as long as they used to. There are medications that can help tighten up the muscles, more frequent bathroom breaks might help, or you may want to get them a diaper. However, there are other possible causes of urinary incontinence such as urinary tract infections or bladder stones, so your vet will need to rule those out.
Another cause of bathroom accidents is kidney disease. This happens when the kidneys are no longer able to efficiently filter waste products from a dog’s blood, which causes the dog to drink more and therefore pee more. Other symptoms to watch for include decreased appetite and vomiting. Your vet will diagnose the disease with blood work and urine testing. It’s important to closely monitor the condition and start treatment right away to preserve as much kidney function as possible and avoid complications. That might include a special renal diet, medications, and fluid therapy.
As your dog ages, their risk of cancer increases. Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, but there are many different types of cancer, and it can occur all over the body. Symptoms will depend on the type and location of the disease. Therefore, it’s important to closely observe your senior dog’s physical health and behavior and then report anything out of the ordinary to your veterinarian. Some of the more common signs to be aware of are:
- Lumps or bumps, although these could be benign
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Unpleasant odors coming from your dog
- Problems going to the bathroom or breathing
- Sores that don’t heal or discharge from body openings like the nostrils or anus
Your vet will diagnose cancer through a physical exam, blood work, and perhaps X-rays. Finally, they will want a sample of the tumor either with fine-needle aspiration, a biopsy (removal of part of the cancerous tissue), or complete removal of the tumor. Treatment will depend on the type of cancer and how advanced it is but may include removal of the tumor, radiation therapy, or the use of drugs such as chemotherapy. The sooner your dog is diagnosed, the better the likely outcome.