Caring for older dogs comes with challenges, but your bond with your pet means every moment you spend with him matter–to both of you. That's why you want to give him and yourself as many of those moments as possible. So how can you keep your older dog feeling young? It starts with offering him a high-quality food that is specifically made for his aging healthcare needs, but it's also important to keep him physically and mentally active. If you do those things, you'll go a long way in guaranteeing you and your furry best friend will make the most of his golden years.
When Is a Dog Considered "Elderly?"
It depends on his size and breed. Generally, larger breeds reach mature adulthood and senior status earlier than small breeds. An analysis of 2.5 million dog veterinary records by Banfield Pet Hospital showed mixed-breed dogs weighing ninety pounds or more typically live eight years. That same analysis showed dogs under twenty pounds lived an average of eleven years. PetMD reports that the typical lifespan of large-breed dogs also varies by weight. Bulldogs, mastiffs, and Great Danes have the shortest lifespans (six and seven years) while Cairn terriers, Jack Russell terriers, Shih Tzus and other small breed dogs have the longest expected lifespans (thirteen and fourteen years).
Knowing this will help you understand your dog's changing needs and keep you informed of signs to be on the look out for that he might be slowing down a little and his care needs to change. But it doesn't mean that he can't still be fun and lively. Read on to learn about the signs of aging, and what you can do to keep him as full and vibrant as he was in his young adult days.
What Are Signs of Aging to Watch For?
Older dogs exhibit many of the same signs of aging as humans. Watch for:
- Vision loss. Cataracts, glaucoma, progressive retinal atrophy, and sudden acquired retinal degeneration are the most common causes for vision problems in aging dogs. Caring for dogs with vision problems can offer a special set of challenges for the rest of the family, but certainly, doesn't mean a poor quality of life.
- Oral problems. Tartar, gingivitis, and tooth and gum disease are all serious health issues for dogs. Banfield's study reported small breed dogs (including dachshunds, Yorkshire terriers, Shih Tzus, and Maltese) have the highest prevalence of dental disease. Left untreated, these issues can lead to infection, tooth loss, bone damage, and oral pain. Talk to your veterinarian if your dog exhibits symptoms, such as bleeding gums or bad breath.
- Weight gain (or loss). Older dogs who are in pain tend to get less exercise, which can result in weight gain. Conversely, if you have a dog that is inexplicably losing weight, it could be the result of dental, stomach, or other health issues.
- Joint pain. Arthritis in older dogs is one of the most common health problems seen by vets. It can be difficult to diagnose because dogs often show only subtle signs of the pain they are experiencing. As a pet parent, you can look for signs of arthritic pain, such as less interest in playing, caution in climbing stairs or jumping on furniture, and weight gain.
- Senility. PetMD reports clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction are found in 50 percent of dogs over the age of 11. Some common signs include disorientation, anxiety, inability to follow familiar routines, lack of self-grooming and house soiling.
How Can You Help Your Dog Remain Youthful as He Ages?
Keep your dog at a healthy weight, as obesity can contribute to many diseases and put stress on your dog's joints. Also, ask your vet to help you determine what food is best for your dog as his healthcare needs change, as there are a number of foods formulated specific for aging or common ailments. Practicing good dental hygiene will keep your dog's mouth healthy, too. If he won't let you brush his teeth, there are treats that will help keep his mouth clean.
Caring for older dogs means keeping an eye out for any behavioral changes. If you notice changes such as your dog being more aggressive, a loss in appetite, or drinking more frequently call your vet to get their expert opinion. Any change in your dog's regular routine might be a sign of a serious health issue that, if you're able to catch quickly, can be treated before it spirals into something more serious. That's why regular checkups have always been essential to your pet's health, and now, as your dog enters his later years, are even more important. Age-related symptoms can be subtle. Increasing routine exams to twice a year can help your vet establish a baseline so she recognizes quickly when a pet is not well.
Consider your dog's comfort as he gets up in years. Regular exercise–like walks, fetch, and indoor play–help keep the extra pounds off and can slow degeneration of joints. Make sure to always have water available, and if your dog seems tired, give him a rest. Non-slip rugs might help a dog that's afraid of sliding on a slippery wood floor. A portable ramp can help him into the car. An orthopedic dog bed can give his aching body a much-needed rest.
To keep your dog's brain sharp, enroll in a class together (You can teach an old dog new tricks!), give him "food puzzles," or start a game of hide-and-seek with his treats.
Finally, give him lots of love. You and your dog have always enjoyed cuddling sessions, but now they're more important to your dog than ever. Just because a dog has lived a long life, doesn't mean he can't live a longer, more enjoyable life. With proper care and attention, your dog can continue to live a vibrant life in his older years.
Kara Murphy is a freelance writer in Erie, Pa. She has a goldendoodle named Maddie.