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The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Dog

gray-haired person embracing older dog

Helping Your Companion Enjoy Their Final Years With Grace and Dignity

Your dog is considered geriatric when they reach their expected life span. This age will vary between dog breeds, as smaller breeds have considerably longer life expectancies than larger breeds. For example, a small dog’s life expectancy may be 12 years, whereas some giant breeds are expected to live for only seven years. However, no matter the number of years your dog is expected to live, excellent lifelong care and dedication often allows pets in good health to live months, or years, past their life expectancy. Of course, geriatric dogs will require extra TLC and more frequent veterinary care, to ensure they remain healthy and happy. As your beloved pet slows down, has trouble walking, and develops age-related health conditions, they will need your help navigating their final years with grace and dignity.

Feeding your geriatric dog

With so many options, choosing a diet for your geriatric dog can be overwhelming. As your dog ages, their nutritional needs will change, and their diet should be appropriate for their life stage and breed. Your geriatric pet should not eat the same food as when they were young or middle-aged—they require a diet made specifically for geriatric dogs. If you are not sure which food to choose, a veterinarian is the best source of advice.

Whereas overeating and obesity is a concern for most dog owners, geriatric pets often have a decreased appetite, and lose weight. To help your dog maintain adequate muscle mass and strength, you’ll need to ensure they consume a sufficient number of calories each day. A veterinarian can help you calculate your geriatric dog’s daily calorie allotment. To determine how much to feed your dog at each meal, divide their total daily calorie allotment by two and, using the calories per cup on the dog food label, calculate how many cups of food to give your pet. At meal time, measure your dog’s food with a measuring cup, to ensure they receive the proper amount. 

If your geriatric dog has a decreased appetite, you can make their meals more appealing by adding canned food, warming the food to increase its aroma, or hand feeding your dog. Speak with a veterinarian about your pet’s appetite loss, as many medical issues, including dental disease and organ failure, could be responsible, and a veterinarian may be able to prescribe an appetite stimulant. Also, ensure your geriatric dog can easily access their food and water. Geriatric pets with mobility issues may have difficulty getting to their food and water bowls, particularly if they need to go up or down stairs. Place food and water bowls in easy-to-access locations on each floor of your home to ensure your geriatric dog can eat and drink adequate amounts.

Keeping your geriatric dog clean

Many geriatric dogs develop conditions that lead to frequent house-soiling. For example, arthritic dogs may not be able to get outside in time, female dogs who were spayed young may develop hormone-associated incontinence, and dogs with cognitive dysfunction often forget they are supposed to eliminate outdoors. In addition, older dogs cannot hold on as long as younger dogs, and require more frequent potty breaks. Take your geriatric dog outside frequently, or provide an inside area that is appropriate for elimination, with puppy pads or artificial turf. If your geriatric dog has mobility problems, you can use a sling to help them walk outside to eliminate. When your pet does have an accident, clean it up quickly with an enzyme-based cleaner to completely eliminate the odor, which will remove their temptation to go again in the same spot. Understand that accidents may become more frequent for your geriatric dog, but never punish them for an accident.  

In addition to cleaning your house, you’ll need to keep your geriatric dog clean and dry. Accidents, particularly those that occur when your pet is lying down, can cause urine scalding and skin infections, if waste contacts their skin for prolonged periods. Clean all urine or feces from your pet’s skin and fur as soon as possible to prevent these complications. Consider having your geriatric dog groomed with a sanitary cut, which keeps the hair around their hind end and inner thighs cut short, so the skin can dry faster. You can also use a zinc-free, pet-safe diaper cream to protect your pet’s skin and make clean-ups easier.

Keeping your geriatric dog comfortable

Your geriatric dog will spend more time relaxing and sleeping, and needs a comfortable bed. Choose one made of supportive material that’s washable, especially if your pet has frequent accidents. For larger dogs, a crib mattress covered with a fitted sheet makes an excellent dog bed. Your dog most likely wants to be near you, although mobility problems may prevent them from following you through the house as they once did. Place your geriatric dog’s bed in a common family area, where they can be near family activity and comforting noises. 

Geriatric dogs often can’t thermoregulate as well as younger pets, and don’t handle temperature extremes well. In the winter, limit your geriatric dog’s time outdoors, and ensure they are warm enough indoors. You may need to place their bed near a heating vent, or use a small heater, to keep them warm. In the summer, geriatric pets are more likely to overheat, and should be kept in the air conditioning on hot days, except for short potty breaks.

Exercising your geriatric dog

Your geriatric dog may be slowing down, but this does not mean you should stop exercising them regularly. In fact, physical and mental activity is more important than ever for your geriatric dog, as the movement and stimulation will keep their body and mind agile. Your dog may not be able to accompany you on your daily run, but you may be able to incorporate a number of activities into their routine, including:

  • Walking — Your geriatric dog will enjoy a daily walk around the block to take in the outside sights, smells, and sounds. Let them set the pace, and be patient if they poke along slowly. If your pet has mobility issues and can no longer walk with you, use a wagon or stroller so they can still enjoy time outside. 
  • Learning new tricks — Contrary to popular belief, old dogs can learn new tricks, and this is an excellent way to keep your geriatric dog’s brain sharp. Learning simple tricks will provide much-needed stimulation. 
  • Finding hidden treats — Your older dog’s legs and eyes may not work as well as they once did, but their nose likely works fine. Hide small treats or kibble pieces around your house that you encourage your dog to find. 
  • Completing food puzzles — Feeding your dog from a food puzzle makes them work for their meal, and the comprehension required to access their food will feed their brain, as well as their stomach.

Encourage your pet to interact with your family and other pets often. If mobility problems interfere with their ability to access favorite spots, make navigating your home as easy as possible. Place rubber-backed rugs in a path on slippery floors to prevent a fall, or use toe grips to provide traction. If your dog can no longer jump onto the bed or couch, use ramps or steps to help them get to their resting spots. 

Keeping your geriatric dog healthy and safe

As your dog ages, health problems become more common, and keeping them healthy requires more effort. Although medical issues may develop, staying on top of your geriatric pet’s health care, and addressing problems immediately, can help them maintain a good quality of life.

Regular veterinary visits for your geriatric dog

While annual veterinary visits may have been sufficient to monitor your adult pet’s health, your geriatric pet’s health status can change quickly, and more frequent visits are necessary. Most healthy geriatric dogs should visit a veterinarian every three to six months, to help ensure diseases are detected in their early stages when treatment is most effective. During your pet’s visit, a veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam, oral health assessment, and lifestyle risk assessment. Routine screening tests, such as a heartworm test and fecal analysis, are typically performed to detect dangerous parasites that can impact your dog’s health. A veterinarian may also perform comprehensive blood work to evaluate your dog’s blood cell counts and organ function, and screen for diseases, such as diabetes and liver failure. If your geriatric dog has a chronic health condition, they will likely need more frequent veterinary visits to monitor their progress and adjust treatments.

Vaccines for your geriatric dog

You may be tempted to skip your geriatric dog’s vaccines, but as your pet ages, their immune system can weaken, leaving them more susceptible to common infectious diseases. A veterinarian will base your dog’s vaccines on their current lifestyle and exposure risk to specific diseases, although all dogs will receive core vaccines, including:

  • Rabies — The rabies virus is spread mainly by wildlife, and transmitted via bite wounds. Rabies affects a pet’s nervous system and is always fatal, making vaccination critical. The disease can also be transmitted to people, and is typically fatal.
  • Distemper — The distemper virus is spread via aerosolized respiratory secretions, and affects a pet’s respiratory and nervous systems. The virus often causes severe disease and death, and pets who survive the initial phase typically develop progressive neurologic degeneration, and eventually die.
  • Hepatitis —Caused by a virus, infectious canine hepatitis causes liver disease, blood clotting issues, and temporary vision problems. Most dogs recover and do not suffer lifelong effects, although severe cases can be deadly.
  • Parvo — Parvo is a highly infectious disease spread through the feces of infected dogs. The canine parvovirus is extremely hardy, and remains infectious in the environment for months to years. Some dog breeds, including rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, and American pit bull terriers, have a higher infection incidence. Parvo causes severe vomiting and diarrhea, and death from dehydration and sepsis is common.
  • Parainfluenza — The parainfluenza virus causes an upper respiratory infection that can progress to pneumonia, particularly in dogs who contract concurrent respiratory infections.

 

Optional vaccines that can be administered, based on your geriatric dog’s lifestyle and risk, include:

  • Leptospirosis — Leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria that is shed in the urine of infected wild animals, and spreads through contaminated water. Infection causes kidney and liver failure that can be fatal without treatment, and geriatric dogs are more likely to develop severe disease. Dogs who go camping, hiking, or swimming are at risk, as well as those who may come in contact with wildlife in their own backyard. If your once-active geriatric dog now sits out camping trips and hikes, they may no longer need this vaccine. 
  • Lyme disease — Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria spread by black-legged ticks (i.e., deer ticks). Lyme disease causes joint inflammation and lameness, and severely affected dogs can develop kidney failure, neurologic problems, and heart disease. Treatment with antibiotics is curative, but dogs who develop kidney failure typically do not survive. Dogs who likely will be exposed to ticks, such as those who go camping, hiking, or hunting, are at highest risk. Despite no longer accompanying you on hunting trips or hikes, your geriatric dog can pick up a tick that latches onto your clothing, and migrates to their body.
  • BordetellaBordetella bronchiseptica is a bacteria that causes kennel cough, a highly infectious canine upper respiratory infection transmitted via respiratory secretions. Dogs who contact other dogs, such as those who go to boarding, daycare, and grooming facilities, are at risk for contracting kennel cough.
  • Canine influenza — Canine influenza is a highly infectious respiratory infection caused by the canine influenza virus that typically causes an upper respiratory infection, but can progress to pneumonia and death, particularly if other infections are present. The virus is spread through respiratory secretions, and dogs who contact other dogs are at greatest risk for contracting kennel cough. 

Parasite prevention for your geriatric dog

A number of internal and external parasites can threaten your geriatric dog’s health, and require regular prevention and screening.

  • Fleas — Fleas ingest a small amount of a pet’s blood each time they bite, and can cause life-threatening anemia in small dogs, particularly those who are debilitated by a chronic disease condition. Although flea bites cause itching in all dogs, if your older dog has flea allergies, they can suffer severe inflammation and itching from only a few bites. Regular flea prevention is important to prevent infestation of your pet and home.
  • Ticks — Ticks can transmit a number of life-threatening diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tick paralysis. Tick preventives kill ticks that make their way onto your dog, which will significantly decrease the likelihood of disease transmission.
  • Heartworm — Heartworms, which are transmitted by mosquitoes, cause progressive heart failure and lung damage that can be fatal without treatment. Annual heartworm testing and year-round prevention are critical to prevent these deadly parasites from establishing themselves in your geriatric pet’s body.
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) parasites — GI parasites, including roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, coccidia, and Giardia, are common in dogs, and can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Regular GI parasite preventives control common worm infections, and routine fecal analysis is performed to screen dogs for parasites.

Dental care for your geriatric dog

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), dental disease is the most common medical problem of dogs, and without regular dental care, most pets will develop dental disease by 3 years of age. Regular dental care consists of daily toothbrushing combined with regular dental exams and professional veterinary cleanings. Most pets require annual dental exams and cleanings, although some may need more frequent care. If your geriatric dog has not received consistent dental care throughout their life, they likely have advanced dental disease that is causing pain. Many owners assume their pet who is able to eat is not in pain, but dogs frequently mask pain, and will not stop eating until the pain becomes unbearable. For geriatric dogs with a decreased appetite, dental pain may be the cause. Owners of geriatric dogs are often hesitant to have their dog’s teeth cleaned under anesthesia, but many geriatric pets can be safely anesthetized. Allowing dental disease and infection to progress is typically more detrimental to your pet’s health, and a veterinarian will perform a thorough pre-anesthetic workup to determine whether your geriatric dog can safely undergo anesthesia.

Common health concerns of geriatric dogs

Health problems are more common in geriatric dogs, and regular veterinary monitoring is essential to detect diseases as soon as possible, when treatment can provide a better quality of life, and afford you more time with your beloved companion. Common health concerns of geriatric dogs include:

  • Arthritis — Aging joints can deteriorate, causing pain and difficulty walking. Mobility problems can interfere with your dog’s daily functions, such as walking, getting outside to eliminate, and accessing food and water.
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction — Some age-related changes are normal, but extreme behavior changes, such as disorientation, altered sleeping patterns, and anxiety, may be cognitive dysfunction signs, and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Canine cognitive dysfunction can be treated, to improve your geriatric pet’s quality of life.
  • Vision loss — A number of ocular conditions, including cataracts and glaucoma, can interfere with your geriatric dog’s vision, and possibly lead to blindness.
  • Hearing loss — Your geriatric pet may lose their hearing, and be unable to hear when you try to communicate with them. 
  • Kidney failure — Kidney failure causes waste products to accumulate in your dog’s body, making them feel sick. Unfortunately, kidney failure signs do not develop until approximately 75% of kidney function is lost, and treatment can’t help much. Routine blood testing can detect kidney failure in its early stages, when treatment can slow its

progression, and provide you more time with your pet.

  • Liver failure — Your dog’s liver produces blood clotting proteins, stores nutrients, and helps digest fats. Liver failure interferes with many important functions, and can progress to cirrhosis.
  • Heart disease — Heart disease can impede your dog’s normal blood flow, causing development of congestive heart failure, and fluid accumulation in the lungs.
  • Cancer — According to the Veterinary Cancer Society, one in four pets is estimated to develop cancer at some point in their life, and almost 50% of dogs over age 10 will develop cancer. Common canine cancers include mammary cancer, lymphoma, osteosarcoma, and mast cell tumors. 

End-of-life care for geriatric dogs

As your dog ages, they may develop chronic, debilitating health conditions, and despite your excellent care and devotion, the inevitable will eventually occur. If your pet is nearing their final months, weeks, or days, you may consider hospice or palliative care, which provides pain control and comfort, and minimizes a disease’s effects during your pet’s last days. You will likely function as your dog’s hospice caregiver, and will partner with a veterinarian to manage their care. Treatments, such as pain medications, appetite stimulants, anti-nausea medications, and subcutaneous fluids, can keep your pet comfortable, and give you more time as you prepare to say goodbye.

Considering euthanasia for your geriatric dog

As your geriatric dog nears their final days, you may consider euthanasia, which will allow your pet to pass comfortably, and with dignity, as opposed to suffering. Many pet owners struggle with choosing the right time to have their pet euthanized. Although there is no perfect time to make this decision, you should consider making arrangements before your pet’s quality of life significantly declines, and you are forced to rush them to a veterinarian for emergency euthanasia when they are suffering.

 

By maintaining a veterinary relationship and providing excellent care, your pet can thrive past their life expectancy. But, as your geriatric dog ages, health problems become more likely, and diseases can develop. If your geriatric dog isn’t acting normally, or you have questions that need immediate answers, download the Airvet app and speak with one of our experienced veterinarians in minutes.

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