Caring For a Senior Dog

November 1st 2019

By Tara Pugh

When are dogs considered a senior pet?

The age range that can classify dogs as “senior” is broad and can vary according to a number of factors. Although the age-old rule states that seven dog years is about equal to one human year, we need to consider the size of the dog, as well as weight, breed and the state of their organs before we can determine if our pets have reached an old age.

As a general rule, large dogs tend to age a lot faster than small dogs, for example, a Great Dane that is seven-years-old may be in the equivalent senior years as a Chihuahua that is 20 years old.

In most cases, a dog can be considered to have turned “senior” when it is between five and 10 years of age.

How often should a senior pet see a vet?

We recommend semi-annual checks (at least) for your senior dogs. These comprehensive veterinary examinations often would include blood work, urine analysis and we may recommend an annual dental cleaning, depending on the status of your dog’s oral hygiene.

As we humans become senior, we are expected to visit our general practitioner at least once a (human) year. Then, considering that our pets age so much faster, these biannual check-ups with your veterinarian become vitally important!

The earlier we can detect a change in organ function or a slight deterioration, the earlier it can be treated. This can have a drastic impact on the quality of your dog’s life and even its lifespan.

What should I feed my senior dog?

As dogs age, they tend to become less active and may start to gain weight if they are fed incorrectly. Senior dogs generally require fewer calories and higher fiber diets, with less fat and extra nutritional supplements and should therefore be fed a senior diet. Senior diets can vary according to specific ailments that your pet may have and veterinarians frequently recommend a change in diet to promote wellness in senior pets.

If your dog is developing some joint stiffness, your veterinarian may recommend a diet with specific supplements that offer joint support with natural anti-inflammatories that may help to improve mobility.

Overweight dogs tend to develop arthritis and mobility issues a lot faster with more severe symptoms, so it is important that your dog maintains a healthy weight.The prevalence of developing organ dysfunction is also increased in overweight dogs. If your dog has chronic kidney disease or heart disease, a change in diet can help delay progression of the disease. 

Conversely, if your dog is underweight, this may be a sign of underlying disease and you should consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Some diseases can result in weight loss, such as the end stages of kidney disease and some cancers. In these cases, we, as veterinarians, may advise a higher caloric diet with differing amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, as well as other nutrients, depending on your dogs needs.

These are some reasons why diet and weight are so important. Please consult your veterinarian regularly to ensure your dog is maintaining a healthy weight and is eating the correct diet according to its individual needs.

Most common ailments of senior dogs

Like humans when they age, you may notice certain changes in your dog’s moods or behavior. As your dog’s guardian and caregiver, it is important that you are aware of these changes, especially since dogs are not able to tell us themselves.

We need to try and understand why their moods are changing and what we can do to help them.

Dulling of senses

An older dog that starts to “ignore” you, may actually be starting to lose some of its senses. As with humans, our dogs’ senses start to dull as they age and they may not be able to see the ball that you threw or hear you so well when you call them. Your dog may start to show signs of aggression if a person comes up behind them quickly and startles them. Aggression may also be a sign of pain in the area that you touched them.

In the cases of hearing loss, one can start training your dog to recognize hand signals. Your dog may still recognize vibrations and you may be able to call them by clapping your hands or knocking on a hard surface.

With loss of vision, your dog may become clumsier, even though he may still have a great sense of smell. It is recommended that the floors are kept free of clutter and familiar things like food and furniture be maintained in the same position. Pools or stairs or other potentially hazardous areas should be cordoned off.


Older dogs are not as capable of maintaining their body temperature, and may seek warmer areas of the house, especially in winter. Just because your dog could handle the cold when he was young, does not mean he is necessarily as comfortable now that he is older. Helping keep your dog warm will also help to minimize joint stiffness and stave off disease.

Please be ready to provide sweaters, extra blankets or even heated blankets when winter comes around.

Joint stiffness

Aging dogs have a tendency to develop arthritis, especially if they have had an injury previously. Joint pain can be debilitating, preventing your pet from getting up and down the stairs, standing up after lying for a while and may even reduce their appetite.

Adding joint supplements or feeding a prescribed joint diet can help to improve the signs of arthritis and slow the deterioration of the joints as your dog ages.

It is important to maintain regular veterinary visits to ensure that joint pain is prevented or controlled with the addition of appropriate medication or alternative therapy.

Confusion and anxiety

Aging often leads to a loss of cognitive dysfunction and your dog may forget behaviors or tricks that he has known for a long time. Your dog may become easily disorientated and struggle to navigate around obstacles. This may lead to anxiety, and any changes to routine could potentially cause stress.

It is important to gauge your dog’s individual reaction to different changes like visitors, noise phobias and separation anxiety, if left alone. Keeping a consistent routine is important, as well as frequent exercise and playing games such as food puzzles to stimulate their mental activity.

Above all, please be patient with your elderly dogs. Their aging may be frustrating for you, but it is also frustrating and sometimes scary for them.

Extra grooming

Older dogs, like humans, experience changes in their skin, coat and nails. Their coat may become dry, dull and coarse and their skin may become thinner. Nails may get very long due to lack of wear during exercise and may even become brittle and break. Good dental routines that are implemented from an early age are important to maintain healthy teeth and prevent gum disease.

Many senior diets have the necessary extra nutritional supplements required to maintain healthy skin and coat. If you have any questions regarding your dogs diet, please consult with your veterinarian.

Signs to watch for as your senior dogs/cats age

Beyond your regular veterinary visits, it is important that you keep a watchful eye on your dog for any signs of disease. If any of these signs occur, please contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to book a consultation. Even if you have recently been to your veterinarian, some diseases develop quickly and these signs do need to be addressed promptly:
  1. Vision loss or other eye problems
  2. Increased thirst or urination, strained urination or urinary incontinence
  3. Bad breath, bleeding from mouth, drooling, dropping of food
  4. Coughing or struggling to breathe, exercise intolerance or fatigue
  5. Vomiting or diarrhea
  6. Lumps or bumps
  7. Weight gain or loss; increased appetite or reduced appetite
  8. Decreased mobility or joint stiffness, reduced activity levels
  9. Behavior changes 
If you own an aging pet and have concerns, Montgomery Village Veterinary Clinic’s veterinarians have a special interest in issues facing senior animals. Call (403) 615-8016 to book an appointment.

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