The chaotic but fun years of puppyhood only last so long, and as your precious pup grows up, so do his health needs. Even with the change of pace that comes with older age, paying attention to your dog’s wellness is still as much a priority as it was before. The senior years are a fun and rewarding time with your dog, especially if you understand the changing wellness issues at paw.
Health Concerns in Older Dogs
According to veterinarian Jeremy Grossbard, the average dog is considered a senior at age seven. This can vary based on a few factors, especially the breed. Larger breeds can age more quickly and be considered senior as early as five, and smaller breeds may not be senior until even nine. “The most important thing for when pets hit the senior years is getting regular, thorough health exams and baseline bloodwork,” he explains. Talking with your vet about your dog and going in for regular checkups will help catch potential problems earlier and make preventative health care measures more effective.
Some of the most common health issues for senior dogs and what you can do to help are outlined below. Be sure to talk with your vet before acting on any of your concerns and go in immediately if you notice any sudden or drastic changes in your pet’s health.
One of Dr. Grossbard’s most important tips? “Age is not a disease! Just because we’re older, it doesn’t mean that we’re sick.”
Appropriate diet and exercise are important no matter your dog’s age. Dr. Grossbard says, “I’m not so concerned about what my patients weigh, I’m more concerned about what they look like relative to their size. Ideally, we want to be able to run our hands down the back and be able to feel the ridges of the spine. Going down the sides of the chest, we want to feel the bumps of the ribs. If you can’t feel the spine, your pet is too heavy.” There are other things your vet may evaluate as well to determine if your pet’s weight is appropriate.
The most common cause of obesity in dogs is an imbalance in diet and exercise. “In general, combating obesity is done by increasing activity and decreasing caloric intake. It’s a basic equation,” he says. He typically recommends a strict dry food diet, without canned food, and treats and snacks in moderation.
If you have been overfeeding your dog, there may be protesting in the form of whining or crying. Grossbard calls it “tough love”: You need to make a change for your dog’s health. He recommends keeping the rituals of treat giving, for example, but making changes to keep it healthier. “It potentially doesn’t matter what the treat is, it’s the ritual. Rather than a high-fat, high-calorie treat, try a single kibble or a baby carrot. That way you can keep the ritual but not load your pet up with extra fat and calories.”
In general, the more exercise you can do on a regular basis with your pet, the healthier they are going to be. However, he cautions, “It’s not black and white -– every dog and every owner is different, and what is an appropriate exercise plan for one family is not necessarily appropriate for another.” Talk to your vet for a recommendation that fits your family.
Underlying health issues are another potential cause of obesity. It’s very important to have regular vet checkups to detect these issues early. Thyroid disorders and endocrine and hormonal problems can cause your dog to be overweight. Treating these underlying issues appropriately can often achieve weight loss without changes in diet and exercise. A vet will be able to tell you with some basic bloodwork if your pet requires some “tough love” or some additional treatment -– or both. Always consult with your vet before making changes to your dog’s lifestyle.
Arthritis is common in all dog breeds, not just large dogs as commonly misperceived. Common symptoms include stiffness when walking and difficulty going upstairs or when jumping up onto something. If you notice these symptoms, go in to your vet to get your dog checked out.
A common recommendation is that most dogs start taking a glucosamine supplement, typically starting at age seven. Dr. Grossbard says, “Think of it as being a lubricant. It helps bones glide more smoothly against each other and decreases the severity of arthritis development over time.” Basically, it gives nutritional support to cartilage and slows joint degeneration. Dr. Grossbard emphasizes that it is important to ask your vet which supplement is best for your dog, since human glucosamine supplements are not as effective as products specifically made for dogs.
Simple things you can do at home to help include getting ramps or steps up to favorite resting places or to use for getting in the car. Providing a bed or mat on the first floor also lets your pet rest comfortably during the day.
These fatty tumors are very common in middle-aged to older dogs. They are almost always benign. Dr. Grossbard says, “They are more of a cosmetic problem than a medical problem,” but still recommends you get these bumps checked out. With a rapid change in size or consistency, a lipoma should be removed and biopsied ASAP. If it’s not changing and not bothering your pet, your vet will likely recommend that removal isn’t necessary, unless it’s in a bothersome location like the armpit where it rubs when your dog walks.
This devastating disease is the number one natural cause of death in dogs. Many things can cause lumps and bumps, including the aforementioned lipomas, so getting regular checkups and investigating any new or rapidly developing lumps is very important. Any wound or sore that doesn’t heal also needs attention fast. If you are concerned about something, go in to your vet.
Vision and Hearing Loss
It’s normal for dogs to experience changes in their vision and hearing as they age, just as we do. Their night vision won’t be as good, and they may not hear quiet noises as well. Your dog’s eyes may even look a bit cloudy with age, which Dr. Grossbard says is normal with vision loss and doesn’t necessarily indicate cataracts.
If your pet is running into things or seems afraid to move, go to your vet immediately. With cataracts, a vet eye specialist can remove the cataracts and improve your dog’s vision significantly. They may also recommend special eyedrops to help improve your dog’s vision.
At home, you can keep nightlights around to help your dog see better when it’s dark. Keep staircases illuminated to help prevent falls and to give your dog confidence in getting around.
This is a serious concern. Dr. Grossbard says, “If your dog is significantly and suddenly slowing down in activity level, panting more, or if he develops a moist-sounding but nonproductive cough, especially late at night or early in the morning, get seen right away.” Early action on these symptoms gets the best results. Your vet can recommend a customized plan for helping your dog.
All dogs and cats can experience a degree of dementia in their lifetime. Symptoms are more commonly noticed at night than during the day. Your pet may sleep more in the daytime and pace and cry at night. He may stare into space, seem unaware of his surroundings, and cry and act more nervous. You may also notice a change in eating patterns or a loss of housebreaking. Dementia cannot be reversed, but you can slow the progression with dietary supplements or medications. Speak with your vet for a customized plan, since each pet’s experience is very different. It’s important to be loving and patient with your pet, as this is a confusing time for them, too.
Don’t forget about maintaining your dog’s pearly whites. Pet’s teeth need to be evaluated and cleaned regularly. Your vet can recommend the best options. Dr. Grossbard encourages pet dental care, saying, “Significant dental disease can lead to infections that spread to other parts of your pet’s body.” Be sure to get your dog’s teeth checked regularly and follow the plan of care your vet recommends. There are many dental care options available to fit your and your pet’s lifestyle.
Extra Tips for When to Contact Your Vet Immediately
Here are Dr. Grossbard’s top reasons to contact your vet ASAP about your senior dog. If you are ever concerned about something, see your vet. Below are just some of the most common reasons to go in quickly, but always follow your gut instinct if you think there is a problem.
• Sudden behavioral changes
• Refusing to eat for 48 hours
• Vomiting if more than once or twice in 24 hours or several times in a row
• Loose stool for 48 hours
• Constipation -– if your dog is attempting to go but can’t, go in ASAP. If he isn’t straining or acting constipated, 24 to 48 hours without a bowel movement is not unreasonable.
• Hair loss –- this is not normal and is suggestive of an underlying hormonal problem, immune system issue, or development of an allergy.
• Loss of housebreaking
• Concern over accidental ingestion
The most important takeaway is to get regular health exams with your vet. This sets a baseline for your dog and can help with early detection.