8 min read

Common Health Problems in Elderly Dogs

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By Tim Falk

Published: 06/21/2022, edited: 12/12/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Overview

Getting old is no fun. Sadly, as our dogs age, their bodies change and they start to feel the effects of a long and happy life. From stiff and aching joints to dental problems, vision loss, and autoimmune diseases, older dogs face a wide range of health risks.

The good news is that there’s often plenty you can do to protect your pet against developing health problems and maintain a high quality of life well into old age. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common health problems in elderly dogs and what they mean for your pooch.



"Dental health is important in animals, and bacteria from plaque can spread to the kidneys, liver and heart. It can also cause oral disease and pain."
— Dr. Michele King DVM


 

Dental problems in elderly dogs

Looking after your pet’s pearly whites is essential to their overall health and happiness. Let's take a closer look at the 3 most common dental problems for elderly dogs


Plaque and tartar accumulation

Plaque and tartar build-up doesn’t just affect people — it’s a common problem for dogs, too. Plaque is formed by bacteria, and if it’s not cleaned away from your dog’s teeth regularly, it turns into difficult-to-remove tartar. This can in turn lead to more serious problems like gingivitis and periodontitis.

The symptoms of plaque and tartar accumulation include:

Your vet will inspect your dog’s teeth to diagnose plaque and tartar accumulation, and a professional teeth cleaning is typically the best way to return your pet’s teeth to full health. Brushing your dog’s teeth regularly is the best way to prevent plaque and tartar buildup.

Average cost of treatment: $300–$700

vet wearing green gloves holding the mouth of a black and brown dog for a dental exam

Gingivitis

Gingivitis is the early stage of periodontal disease, a common problem that affects roughly 80% of dogs aged 2 or older. It occurs as a result of plaque accumulation when bacteria gets into the gingiva (gum pockets), causing symptoms such as:

  • Red, receding, or bleeding gums
  • Plaque accumulation
  • Bad breath

Poor dental hygiene is the most common cause of gingivitis, but some breeds, such as Poodles and Dachshunds, are also more susceptible to the condition.

Your vet will need to insert a periodontal probe under anesthesia to determine how far periodontal disease has progressed. They'll also prescribe antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria. Your dog may need to have their teeth professionally cleaned to remove plaque and tartar buildup. In severe cases, x-rays may be required to check for bone damage.

Average cost of treatment: $1,000–$2,000



"Feeding kibbles and dental treat sticks can help along with regular brushing to prevent the buildup of plaque on the teeth."
— Dr. Callum Turner DVM


Periodontitis

If gingivitis is left untreated, it progresses to periodontitis. It’s a very common problem in older dogs and weakens the support structures around your dog’s teeth, so you may notice symptoms such as:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Drooling
  • Lost or loose teeth

Poor dental hygiene is the main cause of periodontitis. This condition doesn’t just affect your dog’s teeth, but also increases their risk of kidney or heart disease. 

A periodontal probe and x-rays to check for bone damage will help your vet diagnose the extent of the problem, but sadly periodontitis causes irreversible damage. Your pet may need to have multiple teeth extracted, plus ongoing teeth cleaning and scaling to ensure optimal dental health.

Average cost of treatment: $2,000–$3,000


 

vet examining the eyes of a senior chihuahua dog

Eye problems in elderly dogs

Just like us as we get older, our dogs can face a range of problems that affect their vision. Here are 3 common vision problems in elderly dogs to keep an eye out for. 


Degeneration of the cornea

The cornea protects the eye from debris and lets light in, but when lipids accumulate in the stroma (the thickest layer of the cornea), corneal degeneration occurs. Typically caused by injury or underlying conditions like high cholesterol and hypercalcemia, corneal degeneration is a common health problem in senior dogs.

Symptoms you may notice include:

Your vet will conduct a fluorescent stain test to examine the affected eye for any ulcers, then conduct further tests to determine whether an injury or a pre-existing condition is causing the degeneration. Treatment then focuses on treating the underlying condition.

Average cost of treatment: $300–$3,500

golden retriever dog with cataracts lying on the floor

Cataracts

Cataracts are another common health problem we share with our dogs. Cataracts cause a progressive loss of vision and can eventually lead to blindness, but they’re also known for the distinctive hazy appearance they can give to affected eyes.

The symptoms of cataracts in dogs include:

  • Cloudy eyes
  • Change in eye color (blue haze)
  • Signs of vision impairment

There’s a genetic component to the development of cataracts, but underlying health problems such as diabetes and eye trauma can also be contributing factors. Following diagnosis via a thorough eye exam, treatment usually involves surgical intervention in the form of phacoemulsification

Average cost of treatment: $500–$5,500



"Most dogs presenting with glaucoma in one eye will develop glaucoma in the other eye within a year. Discuss your options with your vet or an ophthalmologist."
— Dr. Callum Turner DVM


 

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is an increase in intraocular pressure that can have devastating consequences for dogs. Caused by the inadequate drainage of fluid, the condition progresses rapidly and leads to blindness. 

Glaucoma symptoms include:

Glaucoma can be inherited, but injuries, tumors, and other illnesses can also cause its onset. Your vet will use a tonometry test to measure the level of pressure in the affected eye, and treatment could involve a variety of medications or potentially surgery in more severe cases.

Average cost of treatment: $500–$3,500


two people looking an an x-ray of an elderly dog's spine

Back problems in elderly dogs

Back pain can have a serious impact on your pet’s quality of life. Here are 3 common back problems in older dogs all pet parents should be aware of.


Spondylosis

Spondylosis, or spondylosis deformans, is a degenerative problem where bony spurs form alone the vertebrae of a dog’s spine. It’s a common issue for older dogs — up to 70% of dogs over the age of 9 are affected as the spinal joints degenerate over time. While dogs with the condition may not show any signs of pain, some dogs may show signs of:

  • Lameness
  • Stiffness
  • Excessive barking or whining

After a thorough physical exam, your vet will perform x-rays to rule out other issues, plus use MRIs and myelography to assess the full extent of the condition. Treatment varies depending on how spondylosis affects your dog — some pets don’t require any treatment, others need pain relief medication, while surgery may be needed in some cases if the spurs affect any nerves.

Average cost of treatment: $900–$2,500



"Intervertebral disc disease is a progressive condition which may be managed medically in many cases along with rest, weight loss and change in active behavior. More severe cases may require surgical intervention."
— Dr. Callum Turner DVM



Intervertebral disc disease

Canine intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is caused by the swelling or rupturing of intervertebral discs in a dog’s spine. It can occur due to wear and tear over time in older dogs, or due to a rapidly extruded disc. Breeds like the Dachshund and Beagle are more commonly affected.

Signs your dog may have IVDD include:

Imaging techniques and even a neurological exam may be needed to diagnose IVDD, but treatment varies depending on the severity of the disease. Mild cases may only call for medications to relieve pain and inflammation, but surgery and physical therapy may be the best option in severe cases.

Average cost of treatment: $2,000–$12,000


golden dog lying down wearing a blue cast on their leg

Arthritis

Arthritis is probably the first thing that springs to mind when you think of health problems in senior dogs. The cartilage in joints deteriorates over time, leading to debilitating stiffness and pain, and the condition can also affect a dog’s spine. Other contributing factors to arthritis include obesity, injuries suffered earlier in life, and the size of your dog.

Symptoms of arthritis include:

  • Difficulty rising and moving around
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Pain and stiffness

The treatment of arthritis involves managing the condition with ongoing medication and lifestyle changes. Dogs should be kept slim.

Average cost of treatment: $200–$2,500

Related: Top Activities for Senior Dogs

long-haired golden retriever dog scratching their ear

Autoimmune diseases in elderly dogs

Autoimmune diseases are a result of a dog’s immune system mistakenly attacking healthy cells. Here are 3 common autoimmune diseases that affect elderly dogs.


Hemolytic anemia

Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA) occurs when a dog’s overactive immune system attacks its red blood cells. It can have no underlying cause, or it can occur as a result of other conditions such as neoplasia(cancer).

The symptoms of IMHA include:

The condition is diagnosed via a Coombs test as well as other blood and urine tests. Corticosteroid therapy and blood transfusions (in severe cases) are used to treat IMHA. In cases of secondary hemolytic anemia, other treatments are also required to treat the underlying cause of the problem.

Average cost of treatment: $500–$8,000


"Pemphigus foliaceus is an autoimmune disease with treatment consisting of immunosuppressive drugs (corticosteroids) along with other drugs which would need to be tried on a trial basis to check their efficacy."
— Dr. Callum Turner DVM


Pemphigus foliaceus

Pemphigus foliaceus is the most common canine autoimmune disease and causes ulcers, blisters, and sores on the face, ears, and paw pads. It occurs when the immune system attacks the cells that make up the majority of the epidermis.

Symptoms include:

Pemphigus foliaceus occurs more often in some breeds, such as Border Collies and Akitas, but it can also be a side effect of drugs such as antibiotics. Your vet will need to take a biopsy or examine skin cells under a microscope to diagnose the problem. Treating pemphigus foliaceus involves the use of corticosteroids and other immunosuppressants.

Average cost of treatment: $300–$2,000


Polyarthritis

Immune-mediated polyarthritis (IMPA) is an older dog health problem that sees the immune system attack the lining of joints, causing inflammation and pain for your fur-baby. It can be idiopathic (no apparent cause) or it can be secondary to an infection, a gastrointestinal problem, or neoplasia. Most cases are non-erosive IMPA but less than 1% are classified as erosive, which is when the condition destroys the bones and cartilage it attacks.

The symptoms of polyarthritis in dogs include:

The condition is diagnosed via a series of tests, including x-rays and ultrasounds along with blood work and urinalysis. Treatment varies depending on the cause and type of polyarthritis in your dog. For primary non-erosive IMPA, the most common type of polyarthritis, your vet will recommend immunosuppressive therapy. 

Average cost of treatment: $800–$4,000


Frequently asked questions about health problems in elderly dogs

How often should I take my elderly dog to the vet?  

It’s generally recommended that senior dogs get a wellness exam every 6 months, but dogs with ongoing health issues may require more frequent vet visits. Find out more in our guide to how often senior dogs should visit the vet.

At what age is my dog considered old?

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the answer depends on the size of your dog. With their longer lifespans, small dogs are generally considered to be seniors at 7 years of age, while larger breeds live shorter lives and are considered geriatric once they reach 6 years of age. 

What is the best dog food for elderly dogs?

The right food for your dog is one that offers complete and balanced nutrition for their life stage. Your senior dog's food should:

  • be low in calories to help them stay in a healthy weight range
  • contain fatty acids to aid vitamin absorption and promote healthy skin and coat
  • provide all the nutrients your elderly dog needs for good health
Find out more in our guide to the best dog foods for senior dogs.

What does it mean if my dog’s behavior changes as they get older?

There are many reasons why your dog’s behavior may change as they get older. For example, the pain of arthritis may make them reluctant to exercise, or hearing loss may mean that they’re easily startled. So while changes in behavior are a normal part of the aging process, it’s worth getting your dog checked out by a vet to make sure there aren’t any underlying health problems at play.

Can older dogs get dementia?

Yes, older dogs can suffer from a condition known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). Also known as "doggy dementia", CCD can cause disorientation and confusion, irritability, behavioral changes, and a range of other symptoms. There’s no cure for the condition, but medications, supplements, and lifestyle changes can all help to control the symptoms of CCD and maximize your dog’s quality of life.


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