Understanding Your Aging Pet’s Needs: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Senior Dogs

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Watching your dog grow old is a gift. After all, it means you’ve been able to enjoy many years with man’s best friend and enjoy countless memories with him. Of course, aging pets go through age-related changes the same way humans do, and many are difficult for their owners to cope with.

There are several physical and psychological changes dogs may endure as the years pass by. Some are common to all dogs, and others are breed specific, but in any case, there are many actions pet parents can take to make their furry loved ones healthier and more comfortable. Our guide discusses the most prevalent issues dogs experience in their later years and how their owners can help them through the changes.

Keep in mind that while the issues discussed in this guide are common for older dogs of all breeds and sizes, your pooch may not experience any of them. Many pets live out their golden years as vitally as they did in their youth, but you can still apply the following strategies to caring for a healthy-as-ever older dog to help him stay as comfortable as possible.

It’s important to note that while this guide outlines common issues in senior dogs and yours may experience one or more of them (or none at all), it’s essential to bring him to the veterinarian if you suspect he’s suffering from any of them. There may be medication or therapy your vet can prescribe to alleviate, delay, or even prevent certain conditions. Furthermore, be sure to keep up with his regular vet appointments to keep him as healthy as possible. You should also always bring your dog in for a visit as soon as you notice any of the following conditions, which are not a normal part of aging and may indicate a serious health problem:

  • Sudden disinterest in or difficulty eating food or drinking water
  • Excessive weight loss or weight gain within a short time frame
  • Skin growths, especially if they’re a different color from the rest of your dog’s skin and/or look infected
  • Sudden and extreme lethargy
  • Sudden inability to use one or more limbs
  • Vomiting that lasts for more than 24 hours
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than 24 hours

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Vision Loss

Your dog’s sense of sight may deteriorate, making it harder for him to navigate and understand the world around him. Cloudy eyes and squinting could be an indication that he’s experiencing vision loss, especially if he also bumps into furniture or walls or is startled when approached from the side or behind.

How to Help

  • Use your voice rather than visual cues to give him commands and get his attention. You should also “announce yourself” when walking toward him by calling his name as you approach.
  • Optimize your home to make it as easy as possible for him to navigate. This might mean clearing out space in the hallway so he can walk more freely without running into or tripping over anything. It also may mean closing off certain parts of the home in order to keep him away from dangers he once knew to avoid thanks to his sight (such as short flights of stairs) and so he has less terrain to cross with his vision limitations.
  • Keep his food and water dishes, bed, crate, and toys where he can easily reach them. Keeping his most-used items in assigned places will also help him memorize where they are, even if they’re difficult to see.
  • Add rugs of varying textures and sizes to rooms he uses to help him better understand where he is.
  • If his sense of smell is still strong, you can also use scents in different areas of the home to help him navigate, but make sure they don’t present any hazards to his health. Using plug-in air fresheners is preferable to lighting candles or using oil diffusers.
  • Restrict his access to the outdoors. Even if he’s used a doggy door to go in and out as he pleases his whole life, being outside presents hazards for dogs with low or no vision, including temperature, poisonous plants, and toxic chemicals. Plus, he may have trouble coming back inside, prolonging his exposure to these dangers.
  • Keep him away from your pool. Adding a fence to its perimeter will restrict his access, and installing an alarm will alert you if he’s entered the area and/or the water, but if you have a pool, it’s ideal to only let him outside when he’s under your supervision.

Hearing Loss

Similar to his vision, your dog may start to lose his hearing in his older years, so he may not respond to your commands or being called as he once did. In addition, dogs that have trouble hearing may be easily startled, which sometimes makes them seem more aggressive.

How to Help

  • Use visual cues rather than verbal cues to communicate with your dog. If you’ve always used voice commands, you can teach him to rely on his sight by adding signals to your normal vocal instructions. For example, pointing to the floor when you say “sit” will help him understand what you’re communicating, even after you stop using the word.
  • Gently alert your dog of your presence if he can’t see you approaching. For example, try coming up to him only from the front and gently petting him to wake him so he won’t be alarmed by your sudden presence. Stomping when walking toward a dog who can’t hear you is also helpful, because the floor will vibrate and alert him that someone is nearby.

Arthritis and Other Physical and Joint Pain

If your pooch has trouble laying down, sitting up, or walking, or if he yelps or nips when being petted or picked up, it may be due to physical pain. Arthritis affects as many as 80 percent of dogs of any breed that are at least 8 years old. This condition causes cartilage in joints to deteriorate, and while that causes pain on its own, it also creates strain on muscles that have to work harder to help him move.

How to Help 

  • Consider medical treatment. Your vet can prescribe a number of remedies that will help ease his pain, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), glucosamine or chondroitin supplements, physical therapy, and/or acupuncture. In extreme cases, joint replacement may be advised, but because it’s a surgery that requires anesthesia, it’s generally only recommended for younger dogs.
  • Massage him. Although only studied in humans, massage therapy can greatly alleviate arthritic pain, so if he’ll let you, treat your senior dog to this therapy a few times a week. Focus on the muscles surrounding his joints, not the joints themselves, and use gentle pressure to ensure you don’t cause him pain.
  • Help him lose weight. The heavier he is, the more pressure on his joints, causing him more pain and potentially leading to more wear of his cartilage.
  • Use heat to help his muscles naturally relax. Move his bed closer to a source of heat in your home, give him extra blankets to snuggle with while he sleeps, be mindful of the temperature in your home on chilly days, and consider clothing him when it’s cold, especially when you take him outside. Avoid electric blankets and heating pads, however; your dog may chew them or pierce them with his claw, putting him at risk of getting shocked.
  • Add ramps to short flights of stairs to make climbing them easier and less painful. Use baby gates to keep him from going up and down longer flights on his own, and carry him any time he needs to come up or down. It may also make sense to keep your dog on the first level of your home, especially if he’s large and too heavy to carry; even if he doesn’t seem to mind enduring the pain of using stairs, traversing them could be causing joint damage, which will ultimately lead to more discomfort.
  • Shorten your walks to accommodate his needs. If you’re concerned about exercise, you can increase the frequency of your walks while keeping them shorter distances.
  • Elevate his food and water dishes so he doesn’t have to bend far to reach them.
  • Be gentle when petting, grooming, and picking him up, especially if he seems less interested in human contact than he used to be. This seeming change in personality could simply be due to the fact that it’s painful for him to be touched.

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Declined Cognitive Ability

Just like people, pets often experience memory problems late in life. You may notice he doesn’t seem to understand commands or even his name the way he used to, or he may have trouble recognizing visitors, even those he sees often. He may even start acting aggressive in his confused state.

How to Help

  • Talk to your vet. She may recommend medication that can help delay the onset of further cognitive decline.
  • Boost his mental and physical health. Senior dogs’ overall health will benefit from adequate exercise, proper nutrition, and regular mental stimulation, which will all play a key role in his cognitive health.
  • Keep his microchip information up to date, and make sure he always has a collar or harness with ID tags on them. If he finds his way out of the house and gets lost, he will have trouble finding his way home on his own, so you’ll need to ensure that anyone who finds him can return him to you as quickly as possible.
  • Address the behavioral effects of his mental health issues. Cognitive decline may result in problems including anxiety, poor sleep health, and incontinence, to name a few. In addition to working with your vet to care for his cognitive issues, attending to the changes in his behavior will help him live more comfortably. 

Increased Anxiety

Because they may be experiencing other health changes, older dogs often have more issues with stress and anxiety than they did in their younger years. They may have a tougher time being at home alone, being in crowded spaces like the dog park, and meeting new people and pets. Your senior pup may bark, whine, pant, or drink water excessively to show you he’s feeling overwhelmed.

How to Help

  • Keep a consistent routine so he feels an increased sense of security.
  • If you notice he seems to be getting stressed or anxious, remove him from the environment as quickly as possible, and stay with him until he settles down. For example, if you have people over and he seems overwhelmed, take him out for a walk, or go to a different room with him to let him decompress.
  • Dogs with severe separation anxiety may benefit from having a dog walker drop in during long periods of their owners’ absence so they don’t have to spend as much time alone. It may also be helpful to put your pooch in doggy daycare so he has around-the-clock company. However, if he’s also showing signs of stress around new people or animals or any time he leaves the house, this isn’t an ideal solution.
  • Consider anti-anxiety medication. If anxiety separation, being around other people and animals, or aggressive behavior becomes severe, your veterinarian may recommend a medicinal remedy. Try to use prescriptions sparingly, though; you don’t want to over-medicate your dog into a subdued state to the point he doesn’t act like himself anymore, so save it for occasions when it’s truly needed.

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Sleep Issues

Problems with sleep can be due to a variety of factors, including physical pain, cognitive decline, and increased anxiety. All of these issues can disrupt a normal sleep pattern, causing senior dogs to sleep more or less than they did in their younger years.

How to Help

  • Address underlying health issues that may be playing a role in his disrupted sleep pattern. Whether it’s arthritis, decreased cognitive function, or stress causing or contributing to his slumber troubles, taking action to address the issue may be the key to helping him get back on a normal schedule.
  • Ask your vet to prescribe a sleep aid. There are several medications that can help dogs with insomnia and restlessness, but they should only be administered after a veterinarian diagnoses the cause of the problem.
  • Evaluate his sleep setting. The same way our bedrooms should be a sanctuary to promote restful sleep, your dog will benefit from a bedtime area with comfortable bedding, no or low light, and quiet.

Chronic Low Energy

A variety of causes can be responsible for lethargy, including lack of sleep, increased stress, and physical pain. Your dog’s low energy can have a tremendous impact on his personality. For example, he may become agitated more easily or become disinterested in his once-beloved activities, including playing and taking walks.

How to Help

  • Take care of the issues that are contributing to his reduced energy. Pay attention to his sleep habits as well as his stress and pain levels, and take action accordingly.
  • Encourage physical activity. While he may resist at first, coaxing your furry friend to do some senior-dog-friendly exercise will give him a natural energy boost, not to mention multiple physical and mental health benefits.
  • Feed him an age-appropriate diet. Older dogs have different nutritional needs than they did in their younger years, and feeding them the correct amount of food that contains all of the nutrients they need to thrive will have positive immediate and long-term effects on their energy levels.

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Many dogs experience a difference in bathroom behavior in their older years, which could be due to declined cognitive ability, decreased strength in the muscles used to hold urine and feces in, or confusion about their bathroom schedule, to name a few. It’s first important to rule out any other serious issues that may be at play, so if your dog starts having frequent accidents (a few times a week or more), take him to the vet. For example, kidney disease is often the culprit for decreased bladder control, and it’s a serious issue that requires medical treatment.

How to Help

  • Take him out for potty breaks more often. If you won’t be home during the day, hiring a dog walker or dog sitter to drop by in your absence can be a huge help.
  • Keep an eye on his crate. While young, healthy dogs usually don’t eliminate in their crates, older dogs may, which means they could be stuck in unsanitary conditions for long stretches of time. If your dog is relieving himself in his crate, you may want to consider putting him in a larger one containing pee pads to provide him enough space to separate himself from his mess. You may also consider forgoing his usual shelter altogether, instead opting to block off part of a room for him with an adjustable crate, which gives him more space without allowing him to freely wander your home.
  • Limit the time he’s able to drink from his water bowl during the day. Rather than continuously leave it on the floor for him, give him opportunities to drink from it first thing in the morning, in the mid-afternoon, and within an hour or so of bed time as well as any time you return from a walk. Also watch him as he drinks to make sure he doesn’t consume too much in one sitting, but be careful not to make him feel like he’s done something wrong when you take his dish away; a scratch behind the ear as you remove his bowl is a good way to reassure him of what a good boy he is.
  • Use diapers or belly bands. Both can be helpful for dogs who can’t control when they urinate.

Less-Frequent Bowel Movements and Unhealthy Stool

Mental and physical changes can lead to bathroom issues other than incontinence, including fewer bowel movements and/or unhealthy excrement. Constipation related to digestive or even anxiety issues could be to blame for fewer bowel movements, while imbalanced nutrition could lead to watery stool.

How to Help

  • Because there are so many possible contributors to this type of issue, your first step in addressing it should be talking with your vet. She’ll ask you about your pup’s diet and eating habits, activity level, medication, and other lifestyle factors to determine the likely cause of the problem so you can find a solution.
  • Assess his diet. Even if your dog has eaten the same food for several years without issue, his aging body may be responding to it differently than it did even a few months ago. As an example, many dogs develop allergies in their senior years, so a change in bowel behavior could be a reaction to an ingredient like wheat, corn, soy (a few of the most common allergens found in dog food) or another additive.
  • Add more fiber to his diet, which helps with both regularity and encouraging healthier stool. Look for a high-fiber, senior-friendly food, or add a dollop of pumpkin puree to his bowl at mealtime.

Weight Gain

Just like with humans, it’s more difficult for dogs to naturally burn calories the older they get, because they have a lower metabolism than they did when they were younger. Dogs that are overweight or obese can suffer other health issues, including heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, and joint pain.

How to Help

  • Make sure he’s getting exercise. Senior dogs may not be able to participate in the same vigorous play sessions they enjoyed as puppies, but they’ll benefit from low-impact activities that don’t strain their muscles or put pressure on their joints.
  • Cut back on his food intake. If your pooch gets a moderate amount of exercise but still can’t shed the extra pounds, try decreasing the amount of food you give him. Reduce his food allotment by a small increment, wait a week to see if there is a difference, and adjust as necessary. This rule applies to treats, too.
  • If you haven’t already, switch to a senior-specific food. Senior dog-food formulas have fewer calories than those made for younger pets. Plus, their nutritional content is designed for aging dogs, which helps promote their vitality. A low-fat version may also be necessary for obese critters.
  • Save meat-based treats for special occasions, and use low-calorie options as your go-to snacks.

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Fatty Lipomas

Fatty lipomas are fatty tumors that present as bumps just under the surface of the skin. In most cases, more than one develop at a time, so within the span of a few weeks, he may go from having smooth skin to several bumps. They’re often benign and completely harmless, but you should always visit your vet if you notice one or more bumps that don’t disappear after a few days.

How to Help

  • Don’t scratch or pick at them. Fatty lipomas may look like bug bites that pet parents are tempted to scratch to relieve their furry friend of itchiness, but doing so can cause skin irritation.
  • Be gentle with grooming. When using a brush or electric trimmer, use your fingers to check the area for bumps so you know where to use extra care.

Chronic Illnesses and Other Conditions

Many dog breeds are susceptible to certain illnesses or physical ailments, especially in their older years. For example, dogs with long torsos and short legs (like dachshunds and corgis) are prone to intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which occurs when a spinal disc slips or ruptures; similarly, large breeds (like German shepherds and Great Danes) may suffer from gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), a condition where the stomach bloats and twists. While breed-specific issues are a risk at any age, they’re especially problematic in later years.

How to Help

  • Take preventive actions, even in your dog’s older years. You’re likely aware of problems your four-legged friend is susceptible to suffering, and whatever actions you can take to prevent their likelihood of occurring will help ensure healthier and happier golden years. If you aren’t sure of which genetic problems your dog may encounter, do a little online research on common issues and their solutions, or reach out to your vet for guidance.

Be overly cautious. Even if your pet seems to be thriving, taking every measure against him suffering a genetic risk can help prevent tragedy. For example, if your dog is a brachycephalic breed (such as a pug or bulldog), keeping him out of extreme heat and maintaining his weight will help him stay healthy.

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Coat, Skin, and Nail Changes

Your dog’s skin may become thinner and/or duller, his coat may become drier (and therefore, prone to matting if he’s a long-haired breed), and his nails may become brittler. These changes can cause discomfort and lead to irritation and even infection if not properly cared for.

How to Help

  • Keep up with grooming. He should be bathed and brushed according to his breed’s needs, and be sure to give him regular fur and nail trims.
  • Walk on the sidewalk. Walking on paved surfaces helps naturally keep dog nails short, which is especially helpful for pooches who resist having their nails trimmed.
  • Fish oil supplements can make hair, skin, and nails suppler, and they can help ease itchiness. As with any treatment, be sure to discuss this option with your vet.

Oral Health Issues

Especially for dogs who haven’t had proper dental care over the years, teeth and gum problems can be a serious issue when they’re older. Bad breath, bleeding gums, tooth loss, and difficulty eating hard food are all indications that your pooch is suffering from poor oral health.

How to Help

  • Brush his teeth as often as possible. Brushing your dog’s teeth every day is ideal, but even a few times a week will help prevent oral health issues.
  • Switch to softer food. Dry kibble can be tough on aging teeth, so semi-soft or wet food may be a good switch. If you’re concerned he’ll gain weight eating commercial formulas, you can make your own dog food with lean protein, vegetables, and rice.
  • Have his teeth professionally cleaned. Major dental issues can be alleviated with a cleaning by your veterinarian. However, this is considered a surgical procedure, because it uses anesthesia and often leads to pulling teeth. Your vet may advise you against this procedure if she’s concerned about his ability to tolerate it.

Dogs age differently than people, but they experience a lot of the same issues in their older years that we do. While some of the problems that arise may break your heart, find comfort in the fact that there is a lot you can do to improve your faithful companion’s quality of life. With the smart strategies outlined in this guide, a little patience, and lots of love, you and your best friend can enjoy more wonderful years together.