Until we figure out how to keep our beloved puppies from getting old, it’s something we’ll have to deal with as a dog parent. Fortunately, thanks to advances in nutrition and medicine, our canine companions are living longer than ever. How we care for them as they age will determine our dogs’ health, comfort, and happiness as adults. Here’s what you need to know to take care of a senior dog.
When is a dog considered a senior?
Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no age at which every dog is considered a senior. Small dogs tend to live longer, so they are not considered seniors until they are around 10 to 11 years old. Medium and large breed dogs reach their senior years around 8 to 10 years old, and giant breeds are considered senior at 5 to 6 years old.
Understanding when your dog is considered an adult or a senior will help you provide the best care for your pup. Diet and exercise recommendations change for dogs at different stages of life, and your dog may be facing a whole new set of health issues. Many veterinarians want to see older puppies more often to help them stay healthy.
What should senior dogs eat?
As dogs age, their metabolism and activity level tend to slow down. A slower metabolism and decreased activity levels can lead to weight gain, especially if your dog’s diet remains unchanged. Many senior dog foods are specifically formulated for the lifestyle changes and dietary needs of older dogs, containing fewer calories and fat than foods formulated for younger, more active dogs. They may also contain more fiber to keep your older pup feeling full while reducing calories and helping regulate their digestive system.
On the other hand, some older dogs experience a decrease in appetite, either due to less activity or because they become pickier as they get older. Either way, dog food for seniors should be appealing with plenty of whole meats and healthy fats to entice your pup to eat.
Another concern with aging is the loss of muscle mass, which can result from a decrease in muscle use or the body’s use of protein. To help combat loss of muscle mass, most senior puppies can benefit from a diet high in high quality, highly digestible protein. Proteins from real, whole meats are the most effective.
Diets for senior dogs may also contain beneficial bonuses, such as glucosamine, chondroitin or a healthy supply of antioxidants to help fight the effects of aging.
Exercise for older dogs
As a puppy or adult, your dog probably had no trouble getting his daily exercise. However, as a puppy ages, their activity level can really decrease. They may be in pain, tired, or just plain bored and don’t want to go out like they used to. Yet, daily exercise is very important for their health. It helps prevent weight gain, maintain muscle mass, reduce arthritis pain and improve their mood. This doesn’t mean your senior dog needs to exercise like he did as an adult. You may need to take some steps to change the way they stay in shape.
Walking and swimming are great low-impact activities that your dog can still enjoy. Climbing slight hills or inclines can also help maintain back leg strength and hip flexibility. You can also add stretching and balance exercises.
In addition to changing your senior dog’s exercise routine, you may need to change some things in his daily life. An important step is to use a dog ramp to help your pup get in and out of the car, onto your bed or sofa, or up the stairs in your home. You should also remove rugs that can cause your dog to slip and fall, and refrain from rearranging furniture in your home, which can be confusing for some older puppies.
Senior Dog Health Conditions
When your dog was an adult, he probably saw his vet once or twice a year for vaccinations and wellness checkups. They may have had an illness here or there, but chances are the vet hasn’t been a frequent stop. With age, this can change. Your vet will want to see your senior dog at least every six months, preferably every three to four months. These more frequent visits allow your veterinarian to monitor your dog’s health more closely and watch for conditions that may set in with age, such as:
- Arthritis: Most dogs will develop arthritis in at least a few joints throughout their lives. Although most commonly a hind leg and back problem, it can affect any joint and lead to pain and reduced mobility. Weight control and exercise are important to control it, along with anti-inflammatories and painkillers. Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin can also help.
- Hearing and sight: It is not uncommon for dogs to lose some or all of their hearing and sight as they age. With a few modifications, such as using sign language or staying in familiar surroundings, most puppies will settle in well.
- Cancer: More than half of dogs over the age of 10 will die of cancer. Early detection is the best treatment, which is why these frequent vet visits are so important. Additionally, knowing your puppy’s normal appetite, activity level, and behavior will help you identify other warning signs.
- Organ failure: Organs like the kidneys, liver and heart don’t last forever and productivity decreases with age. Veterinary wellness exams and blood work will help detect changes in organ function. If problems are detected, dietary changes and medications can help keep your senior dog healthy for as long as possible.
- Cognition: Canine dementia is a real thing, and it’s something that can be heartbreaking for a dog parent. Diets rich in antioxidants can help, as well as regular interaction with you and mental stimulation for your pup.
Your dog’s senior years can truly be “golden” if given the right care. Your veterinarian should be a major partner in your dog’s aging process to help you make the changes necessary to keep him comfortable, active, and happy as he ages.