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Everybody gets old, including your dog. That adorable little pup that grew into your constant companion may be showing signs of getting old, both physical and mental. Different breeds and sizes of dog age at different rates. A large breed like a Great Dane is considered senior at around six years old. A small dog, like a Chihuahua, for example, may not be considered old until she is seven to ten years old. The more tuned-in you are to the typical signs, the sooner you can help your dog age gracefully.

Physical signs that your dog is aging

  • Cloudy eyes or difficulty seeing: Eye cloudiness (nuclear sclerosis) can happen so gradually that you might not notice it right away. While it’s a fairly common occurrence in senior dogs and doesn’t affect vision, it may also be a sign of cataracts or other eye diseases, most of which are easily treatable. Your dog may also start bumping into things or have trouble locating a toy on the floor or other familiar objects. This could signal vision loss.
  • Horrible breath: While doggie breath isn’t uncommon at any age, if your dog seems to suddenly have awful breath, it could indicate gum disease, tooth decay, or infection. The immune system weakens as dogs age and they are not able to fight off infections as easily as they did when they were younger. Along with a good dental cleaning, your vet may decide to do blood work to rule out infection.
  • Slowing down or difficulty getting around:  An older dog may have trouble with stairs, jumping into the car, or just getting up after a nap. You might notice weakness in her back legs. While we all slow down as we age, your dog’s mobility issues could be caused by arthritis or another degenerative disease. Along with any medication or supplements your vet recommends, you will have to adjust your dog’s exercise regimen to slower and shorter walks or a new exercise routine. Swimming, for example, is gentle on the body and many dogs love it.
  • New lumps and bumps: Some dogs are prone to harmless fatty lipomas, but these lumps under the skin are more common as dogs age. However, any new lump should be checked by a veterinarian to rule out a malignant tumor.
  • A change in weight: It’s not surprising that older, less active dogs sometimes gain weight and you may have to adjust your dog’s diet and exercise to maintain a healthy weight. However, you should also pay attention if your senior dog loses weight. This could be the result of reduced muscle mass, which is common in older dogs, or it might be caused by reduced appetite, poor absorption of nutrients, or a digestive illness. If your dog loses more than 10 percent of her body weight in a few months, or even in a year, consult your vet.
  • Incontinence or difficulty “going:” If your dog suddenly seems to forget his housetraining or seems to strain when urinating, these could be signs of a urinary tract infection or kidney disease.  However, incontinence is not unusual in elderly dogs and there are medications that can help.

Behavioral and mental signs of aging in dogs

Physical changes aren’t the only differences you may notice in your dog as he ages. Changes in behavior can signal an underlying physical problem or may be a normal sign of aging. For example, if your sweet pup has suddenly turned into Grumpy, she may be in pain caused by arthritis or be experiencing some other physical discomfort. Or your high-energy companion may be sleeping hours a day. Older dogs need more sleep, just let him nap.

However, changes in behavior may also be the result of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS). According to a study at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, CCDS affects 14-35 percent of dogs over eight years old. A dementia similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, CCDS can bring about pronounced changes in your dog’s everyday behavior:

  • Fear of familiar people or objects.
  • Changes in the sleeping-waking cycle, including restlessness or pacing at night.
  • Increased barking and vocalization.
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors.
  • Forgetting commands and cues that she once knew.
  • House soiling.
  • Increased anxiety.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Marked change in activity level.

Your vet will be able to make a diagnosis by asking you simple questions during the appointment. While there is no cure for CCDS, there are some new medications and therapeutic options your vet can discuss with you.

How can you help your aging dog?

The single most important thing you can do is check with your vet if you see any of these physical or mental changes. The vet can determine the underlying medical causes and prescribe treatments. He can also help you make some decisions about your dog’s care going forward: changes in diet and exercise, changes you can make around the house, or in the daily routine.

We spoke with Wendy Stevens, a former veterinary technician at VCA Alton Road Animal Hospital in Miami Beach, with 30 years experience, and she said that pet owners’ greatest fear is having to make a decision about their pets’ end of life, and that fear may make an owner unwilling to visit the vet. They may also not be educated about the signs of aging and take a “wait-and-see” attitude. The cost of care is also an issue for many pet owners.

Our dogs give us many years of love and loyalty and it’s only natural to want to make their senior years as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Aging is a normal part of life and with some vigilance and attention to your dog’s health, these can truly be “golden years.”

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