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The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Your Senior Dog

senior dog with aging person

Ensuring Your Dog’s Health and Happiness Through Their Golden Years

Your dog is considered a senior when they reach the last 25% of their expected life span. This age will vary between different dog breeds, as smaller breeds have considerably longer life expectancies than larger breeds. Your senior dog may begin slowing down, and will need a little extra TLC and more frequent veterinary care, to ensure they remain healthy and happy. If you have recently opened your home and heart to a gray-muzzled companion, they should settle nicely into your home with little effort and accommodation. Whether your senior dog has been by your side for years, or is a recent addition, caring for them properly will ensure their golden years are their best.

Integrating a senior dog into your household

If you have recently adopted a senior dog, they may take some time to relax and  understand they are in their new forever home. In general, senior dogs are laid back, and easier to integrate into your home than a mischievous puppy. They are less active than their younger counterparts because they often have achy joints, and probably will not appreciate the antics of younger, more rambunctious pets and children. Be patient as your new senior companion adapts to your home and family, and provide the support they need to acclimate. 

Until you know you can trust your dog alone, restricting them to a crate at night and when you are not able to supervise them is best. Dogs appreciate a “den” of their own, and a crate stocked with blankets and toys will provide comfort and security. Choose a crate large enough for your dog to lie down and turn around in comfortably. 

gray-haired person embracing older dog

Feeding your senior dog

With so many options, choosing a diet for your 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 senior pet should not eat the same food they ate when they were young or middle-aged—they require a diet made specifically for senior dogs. If you are not sure which food to choose, a veterinarian is the best source of advice.

Feeding your pet the correct amount plays an important role in maintaining good health. Since your dog is slowing down, their calorie intake should decrease so they do not gain excess weight, which can strain sore joints. Many pet food companies overestimate the amount you should feed your pet, so ask a veterinarian to help you determine your dog’s appropriate daily calorie allotment. This calorie amount should be divided into two meals, rather than allowing your dog to free-feed. 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 found 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. 

Senior 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 senior dog can eat and drink adequate amounts of food and water.

House training your senior dog

When you adopt a senior dog, their history is often unknown, and you may not know whether they are house-trained. To complicate matters, older dogs cannot hold on as long as younger dogs, and require more frequent potty breaks. Also, female dogs who were spayed at a young age can develop urinary incontinence, and may no longer have full urination control. House training a new senior pet will require patience, and your long-time companion may need your understanding, and special accommodations, as they navigate their senior years.

To house train a new senior dog, take them to the location you have chosen for elimination, and tell them to “Go potty.” Repeat this process every hour or so until your dog eliminates, and reward them immediately in this location. 

person with older dog sitting on floor

Between trips outside, keep your dog nearby so you can watch them closely—use a leash or gate them in a room with you, if necessary. Once your dog understands they should not eliminate in the house, they will be hesitant to do so in front of you, and may sneak off if given the chance. Keep in mind your senior dog may not have the ability to hold on for long, and may have more frequent accidents. 

When your senior dog has 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 are an expected part of house training, and may become more frequent for your senior dog, but never punish your dog for an accident.

Exercising your senior dog

Your senior 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 senior dog, as the movement and stimulation will keep their body and mind agile. They may not be able to accompany you on your daily run, but you can incorporate a number of activities into their routine, including:

  • Walking — Your senior 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 accompany you on walks, 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 senior 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 and encourage your dog to find them. 
  • 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. 

Keeping your senior 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 senior pet’s health care, and addressing problems immediately, can help them live their life to the fullest, and enjoy many more years of quality time by your side.

Regular veterinary visits for your senior dog

While annual veterinary visits may have been sufficient to monitor your adult pet’s health, your senior pet’s health status can change quickly, and more frequent visits are necessary. Most healthy senior dogs should visit a veterinarian every six months, although some dogs may require more frequent visits, 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 blood work to evaluate your dog’s blood cell counts and organ function, and screen for diseases, such as diabetes and liver failure. If you have recently adopted a senior dog, they should visit a veterinarian for a thorough health screening during their first week of adoption.

Vaccines for your senior dog

You may be tempted to skip your senior dog’s vaccines, but as your pet ages, their immune system can weaken, leaving them more susceptible to common infectious diseases. If you have adopted a senior dog with an unknown vaccine history, assume they have not had prior vaccines, and a veterinarian can determine their best catch-up schedule. 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 senior 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. 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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 senior dog

A number of internal and external parasites can threaten your senior 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 senior 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 senior 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.

Permanent identification for your senior dog

The American Humane Association estimates that one in three pets will go missing in their lifetime, and as pets age, they are more likely to become forgetful and wander off. A microchip is a permanent identification device that can help reunite you and your pet, should they become lost. The size of a rice grain, a microchip can be injected under your pet’s skin during a routine veterinary visit without sedation. After the microchip is registered, its unique number will be linked to your contact information. Should a Good Samaritan take your lost pet to an animal shelter or veterinary hospital, an employee can scan the microchip and you can be contacted. If your senior pet has a microchip, always ensure your contact information is up to date so you can be contacted quickly, and reunited with your lost dog. 

Dental care for your senior 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 senior 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. Senior dog owners are often hesitant to have their dog’s teeth cleaned under anesthesia, but most senior 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 senior dog can safely undergo anesthesia.

Common health concerns of senior dogs

Health problems are more common in senior 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 senior 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 is treatable to improve your senior pet’s quality of life.
  • Cancer — According to the Veterinary Cancer Society, one in four pets are 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. 
  • 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. 
  • Vision loss — A number of ocular conditions, including cataracts and glaucoma, can interfere with your senior dog’s vision, and possibly lead to blindness.

 

Adhering to a regular health care routine will set your dog up for a lifetime of good health, but accidents, injuries, and illnesses can still occur. If your 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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