Senior Dog Care: Should I Be Doing Things Differently When My Dog Gets Older?

The foundation care for a dog of any age is maintaining good health and quality of life. Does that change during the different life stages?

There are some important differences. For example, puppies their vaccinations while a senior dog is likely to have plenty of immunity. With young and adult dogs, annual wellness exams are likely to suffice while it is best to have your senior dog’s health checked out twice a year.

Much of the care needs, though, depend more on the individual than on the life stage.

Senior Dog Care: Should I Be Doing Things Differently When My Dog Got Older?

When does a dog become a senior?

As a general rule, a dog is considered a senior around the age of seven. However, there are substantial differences based on the breed, size, and average lifespan. A large dog might become a senior as early as the age of five or six. Small dogs are classified as seniors at an older age.

Source: The Spruce Pets

Senior versus geriatric

There is an important distinction that often seems forgotten. And that is the difference between a senior and a geriatric dog. It is an essential distinction that makes the biggest difference in your senior dog care approach.

While there are no clear established rules about what the difference is, a good sense can be a useful guide.

In human medicine, the word senior simply describes a person that has reached a certain age. That, however, doesn’t reflect their biology, aging or healthspan. The term geriatric is used to reflect the person’s health status. It is used when an individual becomes extremely fragile.

Signs that indicate fragility include

  • weakness
  • fatigue or exhaustion
  • weight loss
  • balance issues
  • decreased mobility
  • cognitive changes
  • and so on

The care demands for a geriatric dog, rather than a senior dog, can be vastly different.

Source: dvm360

It is interesting that most articles about senior dog care are making the assumption that a senior dog is automatically fragile as well. Which, however, may or may not be the case.

Our Cookie is a Rottweiler and she’s going to be 8-years-old soon. Based on the general classification, she’s well in her senior years. I can assure you that she did not get the memo.

When we adopted Cookie, she was a year-and-a-half and required 3 hours of activity daily. Now she’s going to be eight soon and still requires the same amount of outdoor fun and adventure.

Signs of aging?

It is funny how terminology gets mixed. On one hand, you read that age is not a disease. And then you read about signs of aging. So how is it?

Well, it’s a bit of both. Aging-related changes happen on the cellular level. Aging involves many factors and how the body is able to compensate. It is influenced by genetics, lifestyle, environment and the stresses the body has been exposed through life.

Figuratively speaking, healthy aging is a competitive sport.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4759747/

You can have two dogs of the same age one of which is vibrant and active and the other frail. It’s not how old they are but how old they feel.

That’s why I don’t believe there is a single formula for caring for a senior dog. Rather, it is a combination of things an individual dog needs.

Eventually, every dog is likely to become a geriatric unless they succumb to active disease. Unless your dog is long past their breed’s life expectancy, though, don’t write off changes as signs of aging. Rather, look for an active disease to address.

Preventive care

Preventive care is vital at any life stage but it might take on a different form as your dog gets older. It is well-advised to reconsider vaccinations and opt for titer testing instead. Except for Rabies which is legislated, you are not required to get regular boosters for a dog who is likely to have perfectly good immunity. It is, however, wise to monitor whether that is the case.

Wellness exams

Ever since Jasmine became a senior dog, we started taking her for wellness exams twice a year. When we got JD, even though he was young, we got into the habit of taking them both semi-annually. By the time Jasmine passed on, and we adopted Cookie, JD became a senior so we continued getting them both checked every six months.

Normally, a young dog needs health screening just once a year. When they do become older, consider doing it twice. This allows detecting potential health problems long before your dog starts showing symptoms. The sooner you tackle the problem, the better the outcome.

Read more about wellness exams here.

Dental care

Dental disease is not only painful but it can have serious systemic fallout. Chronic inflammation anywhere in the body is just as bad as if your dog was a smoker. Bacteria from an infected mouth can make its way through the bloodstream and infect the heart, liver, kidneys and even the brain.

Read more about how diseased mouth can hurt your dog here.

Preventing injuries

Preventing injuries by managing your dog’s environment and activity is important at any age. Older dogs are both more susceptible to injury and heal slower. Anything you can do to avoid your dog getting hurt will go a long way to maintaining their quality of life.

Here are the top points to consider in order to prevent your dog’s injury:

  • weight management
  • maintaining strong muscles
  • activity adjustments
  • regular exercise/avoiding the weekend warrior syndrome
  • minimizing jumping (on/off furniture, in/out vehicle)
  • preventing slips

Read more about canine injury prevention essentials here.

Cancer detection

Many cancerous lumps and bumps are curable with surgery if removed early. Become familiar with your dog’s body and make it a weekly habit to screen for lumps and bumps. A thorough rub-down of your dog’s body can also alert you to other problems such as swelling, infections, painful areas, and so on.

Maintenance care

Weight management

Keeping your dog thin is one of the most important things you can do for their health, quality of life, and longevity.

With all else being equal, feeding your dog a little less rather than more alone can extend a dog’s life by almost two years on average.

Long-term restriction of energy intake without malnutrition is a robust intervention that has been shown to prolong life and delay age-related morbidity.

PubMed

Excess fat damages your dog’s health in two ways.

There is a mechanical impact where carrying around the extra weight is exhausting. It places an undue burden on

  • joints
  • muscles
  • bones
  • cardiovascular system

Obesity has a negative impact on your dog’s mobility, increases the risk of injuries and degree of wear and tear.

Further, obesity is the equivalent of an ecological disaster within.

Fat is not just an inert lump of lard. It is a metabolically active tissue that produces hormones, growth factors, and signaling molecules. In this way, fat tissue is involved in appetite control, energy balance, and inflammatory response. Excess fat tissue contributes to chronic inflammation and dysregulation with severe health impacts.

Exercise

The importance of physical activity cannot be overstated. If you look up the world’s longest living dogs, you will find that most of them were farm or rural dogs, spending most of their day being active.

Exercise benefits the body and the brain.

The original purpose for a nervous system was to coordinate movement … a flexible body which is capable of making fluid movements that must be synchronized by an agile active brain, are the hallmarks of youth.

Dr. Stanley Coren

In other words, exercise prevents and offsets mental decline.

At the same time, it keeps the body healthier as well. Movement promotes strong muscles, flexible joints, and even digestive and immune functions. Outdoor physical activity also makes your dog happier, increases quality of life and reduces stress. Stress alone is detrimental to health and longevity.

Diet

Watching your dog’s caloric intake aside, should you change what your dog eats?

If your dog is healthy and has been thriving on their food, why change it?

If you take a look at most senior dog food formulas, what is different about them? Most likely they feature less protein, more carbohydrates, and more fiber. Apart from that, they are dressed up with things such as increased omega-3 fatty acids, joint nutrients etc. You can always supplement those things as needed.

The amount of fiber your dog gets may or may not need adjusting but you can achieve that without switching food.

Does a healthy senior dog need less protein? On the contrary. Unless they have active kidney disease, senior dogs benefit from more protein, not less. Among other things, protein helps prevent muscle wasting and improves satiety.

If your dog does have an existing disease, adjust their diet to address that.

Supplements

Some supplements can be helpful for most dogs. These include things such as

  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • probiotics/prebiotic
  • joint supplements

There is a difference between maintenance and treatment. If your dog already has arthritis or other condition, work with your veterinarian to figure out the best types and amounts of supplements.

Be careful with multivitamins. It is better to tailor supplementation to your dog’s individual needs.

Learn about what supplements I use for Cookie here.

Dental care

Think about dental care this way–dental disease goes far beyond bad teeth and pain. By caring for your dog’s oral health, you are preventing the health of your dog’s heart, liver, kidneys, and brain. By preventing chronic inflammation that comes with dental disease, you are preventing cancer.

Healthy mouth goes a long way to a healthy dog.

Grooming

Now, come on, what does grooming have to do with health and longevity? Quite a bit, actually. Your dog can benefit from regular grooming in a number of ways.

Regular brushing helps keep skin and coat healthy. Keeping fur free of mats prevents infections. Brushing helps distribute oils that are part of the skin protection shield. Physical touch stimulates nerve endings and releases happy hormones reducing stress. With your hands, you can feel for ticks, scabs, lumps, bumps, swelling, and other irregularities and address them early.

Nail trimming allows your dog to walk properly, preventing all sorts of issues and injuries. Do not underestimate the negative impact overgrown nails can have on your dog’s health.

Special accommodations

If your senior dog already has health issues to contend with, you might need to do some things differently. You might need to adjust their diet, the type, and the distribution of exercise.

For example, you might need to take your dog for a walk instead of a run. And you might need to provide more frequent but shorter walks, rather than one long one. It is also a good idea to employ physical therapy

Pain management

Physical activity, as I explained earlier, can go a long way to promote your dog’s health and longevity. It can even help prevent pain. But if pain is already present, your dog will be reluctant to move. And the less active the dog, the more painful they become throwing them in a downward spiral.

Managing your dog’s pain properly helps to get them moving and the movement itself will help reduce pain in a long run.

As well as you just don’t want your dog be in pain, do you?

Don’t forget, pain management doesn’t just mean medications. You can employ other therapies such as acupuncture, laser therapy, hydrotherapy, and other non-drug modalities.

Easy access

Going up and down the stairs, getting in and out of the vehicle, up and down furniture, can become difficult and dangerous for a senior dog. You can help by providing things such as ramps to allow your dog to get when they want to go safely.

Reconsider what dog bed your dog uses. These days, orthopedic dog beds are available.

If your dog is losing sight or became blind, help them get around by providing a safe environment, texture, sound and scent markers so they know where they are. If necessary, you can even purchase things such as a “dog bumper” that will prevent them from running into things.

Other accommodations

Make sure that you have a support harness on had if your dog needed assistance walking. You might need to provide pee pads or doggy diapers for dogs that become incontinent. There are steps to take to work with dogs that became deaf.

Conclusion

With a bit of help, a senior dog can live a happy, active life. Listen to your dog and what they are telling about how they feel. Don’t let them become a couch potato. Work with your veterinarian.

And don’t forget that your companionship is what they value the most.

Related articles:
Dog Wellness Exams How To: What’s the Difference between Annual Exams and Wellness Exams?
Frailty Syndrome in Geriatric Dogs: Physical Therapy and Home Care to Reverse Frailty

Further reading:
Senior vs. geriatric: Semantics or significant?
Six Tips On Caring For Older Dogs

Categories: Dog health advocacy

Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

7 Comments
  1. I really like the distinction between senior and geriatric. My dogs are all seniors, but not geriatric. However, we are in the midst of rebuilding our back porch and will add a ramp for them this spring.

    • Those two things can be vastly different. I do agree, though, that making things easier for them, such as adding a ramp, will help prevent future issues even if there aren’t any right now.

  2. Interesting your distinction between a senior dog and a geriatric dog. Buffy, who will be 11 in a few weeks, is a senior dog, not a geriatric dog. Many of your comparisons sounded the same for people. I’m a senior by age, but my 83 year-old-aunt is geriatric.
    Buffy has had semi-annual vet checkups for the past few years, and I think they help a lot. I also like your comment about owning a support harness. I’d especially recommend one for the rear end. A sling can help elderly pets manage stairs and get into cars a lot more safely.

    • Yes, the same applies for people too. You can have two individuals of the same age, one senior and one geriatric. Cookie too is a senior dog but she did not get the memo 🙂

      Yes, it is good to have something to support the rear end at least. The harness we have has a sling for the hind end but also a chest piece which can be attached if needed.

  3. Senior is a state of mind 🙂 for us and our pets. We have to keep on top of things for them. Sounds like you are absolutely on top of it for your dogs.

  4. Layla will be 13 this year more or less being a rescue but she is very healthy. We stopped vaccinations last year which my vet agreed on, she gets home cooked food with all the supplements, she walks a lot and loves it, and in a nutshell she is very healthy for age.

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