Gray hair, creaky bones and lots of midday naps...aging happens to the best of us and our dogs are no exception. During this time, many of his basic needs, from diet to exercise, will begin to change. Dogs are very good at hiding their health problems so it’s our responsibility to keep an eye on our senior dogs to ensure that we're adjusting his routine to match changes in his body and immune system. Routine exams, preventive medicine and adjustments to your dog’s lifestyle can help your pooch stay healthy even as the years creep up. These tips will help you understand what it takes to keep your senior dog happy and healthy for years to come.
1. Know When is Your Dog is Considered "Senior"
While each dog reaches “seniorhood” at a different age, most canines become seniors between 7 and 10 years old. Different sized dogs age at varying rates, with larger dogs reaching senior status much sooner than smaller dogs. Ask your vet about when your dog’s needs may begin to change.
2. Watch for Common Senior Issues
As your dog ages, you and your vet will begin looking for specific issues that become more prevalent.
- Kidney disease
- Cognitive disorders
- Intestinal problems
- Prostate disease
- Dental disease
- Diabetes mellitus
- Cancer (especially testicular or breast cancer)
- Liver disease
- Vision problems
3. Schedule Regular Wellness Exams
Regular health checkups are always essential but they become increasingly important as dogs grow older. Most experts agree that senior dogs should be seen at least once every six months. The purpose of frequent exams is to check for three things:
- The state of your dog’s health and longevity.
- Detect any illnesses at their earliest stages.
- Identify and control potential health risks.
During this checkup, vets typically check a dog’s body for tumors, signs of pain, or arthritis. In addition, your vet will assess your dog’s overall appearance and body condition, scanning his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth for irregularities as well as listening to his lungs and heart. Most veterinarians agree that these baseline laboratory tests should be performed at least once a year in adult dogs ages two to seven years old, and more frequently in senior dogs. A routine checkup may also include the following battery of diagnostic tests:
- CBC (complete blood count)
- CHEM screen (liver and kidney function)
- Blood pressure
- Heartworm blood test
- Fecal test
- Thyroid function testing
These baseline screenings allow your vet to monitor any developing trends in your dog’s health status as it changes from year to year. Additional testing may be necessary if your dog has any ongoing health issues, or if these routine screenings uncover any unusual results.
4. Consistently Monitor Your Senior Dog’s Health
Many of the illnesses that commonly plague senior dogs are obvious even to the untrained eye. So it’s important that you monitor changes in your dog’s health between regular vet visits. If any of the following signs present themselves, contact your vet immediately.
- Incontinence (sometimes evidenced by accidents in the house)
- Increased vocalization
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Changes in appetite, water intake, or urination
- Shortness of breath or other difficulty breathing
- Stiffness or limping
- Uncharacteristic aggression or other behavioral changes
5. Watch Their Weight
Unexplained fluctuations in your dog’s weight may be an early sign of an underlying disease. Weight management itself can be a huge factor in your dog’s health. Obesity in dogs increases the risk of developing arthritis and a number of other diseases.
6. Adjust Your Dog’s Nutrition
Foods designed for senior dogs often have less fat, but not lower protein levels. Ask your vet to recommend a senior dog food formula for your dog. Smaller, more frequent meals are often easier on a senior dog’s digestive system. You may also want to adjust your bathroom routine, giving your dog more frequent opportunities to go outside.
Size typically determines the age at which you should shift your dog to a senior-friendly diet.
- Small breeds (dogs weighing less than 20 pounds) at 7 years old
- Medium breeds (21 to 50 pounds) at 7 years old
- Large breeds (51 to 90 pounds) at 6 years old
- Giant breeds (91 pounds or heavier) at 5 years old
7. Accommodate Your Dog's Changing Needs
It is important to keep your dog warm, dry, and indoors when he’s not out getting his exercise. Older dogs can’t regulate their body temperature as well as they could in their younger days. Senior canines are also more sensitive to heat and humidity, so protect them from conditions in which they may overheat.
If your dog suffers from vision loss, it’s a good idea to ease his anxiety by keeping floors clear of clutter. If your dog has arthritis, he may prefer a ramp instead of walking up the stairs, extra blankets on his bed, or even a new bed designed to promote orthopedic health. These little things add up.
8. Don’t Forget Dental Care
Plaque and tartar buildup can lead to a number of nasty health problems for your dog. Regular brushing with a specially formulated canine toothpaste can reduce the likelihood of any problems. Discuss with your vet whether your dog should come into the office for a thorough cleaning.
9. Practice Prevention When Possible
As your dog’s immune system weakens, the importance of routine basic care only increases. It’s crucial that you keep up with routine preventive care such as parasite prevention, dental care, vaccinations, and nutritional management.
Create a comfortable environment for your aging best friend with easy access to food, supportive bedding, and fresh water whenever he needs it. In addition, plenty of regular attention and affection is good for morale, both yours and your senior dog’s.