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Senior dog laying outdoors.
fusaromike / stock.adobe.com

Senior dogs are our special dogs. They don’t have the cuteness or flashiness of puppies and they’re usually not the athletic partner that they were in their “prime.” Senior dogs are special because they’ve earned their right to become our true companions. We know them and they understand us intimately which is why we owe it to them to provide them with the best quality of life and comfort in their golden years.

With improved diet and veterinary care, our dogs are now able to live longer than ever before. Older dogs, like people, now tend to live long enough to experience more age-related conditions and challenges and new set of needs.

So what is considered a “senior” dog? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), depending on a dog’s breed or type, a dog who is 6-8 years of age can be considered a senior dog. Large and giant breeds mature late but have shorter life spans and age much more quickly than small or toy breed dogs.

Dogs can develop many of the same physical problems that humans experience as we age, such as metabolic or endocrine disease ( kidney, liver, diabetes),heart disease, vision and hearing problems, joint issues such as osteoarthritis, and  degenerative weakness. These are often neurologic in origin.  In addition, though dogs (and people) get cancer at any age, it becomes more prevalent in older dogs. Almost half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer. Here are some basic considerations when caring for older pets:

Increased veterinary care Geriatric pets should have semi-annual veterinary visits instead of annual visits so signs of illness or other problems can be detected early and treated. Senior pet exams are similar to those for younger pets, but are more in depth, and may include dental care, possible bloodwork, and specific checks for physical signs of diseases that are more likely in older pets.
Diet and nutrition Geriatric pets often need foods that are more readily digested, and have different calorie levels and ingredients, and anti-aging nutrients
Weight control Weight gain in geriatric dogs increases the risk of health problems, whereas weight loss is a bigger concern for geriatric cats.
Parasite control Older pets’ immune systems are not as healthy as those of younger animals; as a result, they can’t fight off diseases or heal as fast as younger pets
Maintaining mobility As with older people, keeping older pets mobile through appropriate exercise helps keep them healthier and more mobile.
Vaccination Your pet’s vaccination needs may change with age. Talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination program for your geriatric pet.
Mental health Pets can show signs of senility. Stimulating them through interactions can help keep them mentally active. If any changes in your pet’s behavior are noticed, please consult your veterinarian.
Environmental considerations Older pets may need changes in their lifestyle, such as sleeping areas to avoid stairs, more time indoors, etc. Disabled pets have special needs which can be discussed with your veterinarian
Reproductive diseases Non-neutered/non-spayed geriatric pets are at higher risk of mammary, testicular, and prostate cancers.

Dogs can also develop behavioral changes such as confusion, increased vocalization, anxiety, changes in sleep cycles, and house soiling like what we term in people as “senility.” In dogs, we know term that behavior as Canine Cognitive Disorder (CCD). This disorder should ONLY be considered when other medical conditions have been ruled out (such as urinary tract infections, brain tumors, etc.)

Possible behavior changes in older pets include:

  • Increased reaction to sounds
  • Increased vocalization
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Decreased interaction w/humans
  • Increased irritability
  • Decreased response to commands
  • Increased aggressive/protective behavior
  • Increased anxiety
  • House soiling
  • Decreased self-hygiene/grooming
  • Repetitive activity
  • Increased wandering
  • Change in sleep cycles

Always talk to your veterinarian and follow their advice on managing you senior dogs. Senior pets will require increased attention, including more frequent visits to the veterinarian, possible changes in diet, and in some cases alterations to their home environment.