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Caring for Senior Dogs

What to expect as your dog gets older

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Old Dog © BobMacInnes on Flickr

Old Dog

© BobMacInnes on Flickr

Companion piece to: Caring for Geriatric Cats.

This question is from a viewer asking what to expect as his dog grows older. What is "normal" for an older dog? Being aware of the normal aging changes for your senior pet will help you identify when there is a medical problem that should be addressed.

From the Mailbag:

"We have two dogs - The Bud, 11 years old, and the Little Guy, 2 years old. The Bud is active, the Little Guy sees to that. My concern is I know nothing about old age, and how to deal with, what to look for, in the serious signs, and how to make aging the most comfortable for us all. Bud and Little are inseparable, and (Bud's passing) will impact him too. Could you recommend a book or paper that will help me out?" - Louis

What is "old age" for dogs?
The old classic "one human year equals seven dog years" is an easy way to calculate and relate to your dog's age, but isn't the most accurate. Large breed dogs (i.e. Great Danes) are considered a senior at 6 or 7 years of age, whereas small breeds (i.e. toy poodle), aren't considered a senior until their teen years. I have seen more than one poodle in the 18 to 20 year range. There are studies to suggest that certain breeds are more long-lived than others, too.

To see how dogs of various sizes and breeds relate to human age, see this dog age calculator page.

As a general rule of thumb, a dog who is 7 years or older should be considered middle to senior aged, and a consultation with your vet is in order to determine the best health care maintenance program for your dog as s/he ages. For smaller breed dogs, your vet (in consultation with you) may elect to wait a couple of years before doing any geriatric monitoring.

What things should I expect as my dog ages?
Each dog, like each human, is different. Here are some general things to watch for as a pet ages.

  • Slowing down - You may notice that you dog slows down some with aging. This isn't always the case, but look for subtle changes in how s/he gets up, lays down, and uses stairs. Is there any hesitation or stiffness? Does a change in the weather (rainy, cold) make it worse?

    Arthritis is common in dogs as they age, particularly large breeds. Arthritis can occur in any joint, most commonly the legs, neck and back (spine). There are many different medications available to help ease the discomfort of arthritis -- see your vet if you notice any signs of slowing down in your dog. Another potential cause of slowing down is hypothyroidism, an endocrine disorder common in dogs. This condition is easily diagnosed and treated with proper veterinary care.

  • Graying around the face, muzzle - One of my dogs went prematurely gray at two years of age, but most dogs commonly show a bit of gray starting at middle age (5-6 years).

  • Reduced hearing - Is your dog hard to wake up after sleeping or does s/he become startled easily if you approach from behind? Hearing loss or deafness may be a reason for this. There isn't a lot that can be done for age-related hearing loss, but a vet exam should be done first to rule out other medical problems, such as an infection, growth, or foreign body in the ear.

    If your dog does experience hearing loss, take care to protect him/her from hazards, such as cars and kids that s/he may not hear (or see). Dogs do learn and adapt well using hand signals to come, stay, sit, and so on. It is a good idea to "cross train" your dog early in life to recognize basic hand signals.

  • Cloudy or "bluish" eyes - As they age, dog's eyes often show a bluish transparent "haze" in the pupil area. This is a normal effect of aging, and the medical term for this is lenticular sclerosis. Vision does not appear to be affected. This is NOT the same as cataracts. Cataracts are white and opaque. Vision can be affected by cataracts, and your vet needs to be consulted (see "when is it time to see the vet?" below).

  • Muscle atrophy - Mild loss of muscle mass, especially the hind legs, may be seen with old age. Some muscle atrophy, notably on the head and the belly muscles, can signify diseases such as masticatory myositis and Cushing's Disease. Be sure to have your vet check this out if any muscle loss is noted.

Related: When is it time to see the vet?

Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby. All rights reserved.

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