The Senior Dog Project shares this information on caring for senior dogs.
We asked a friend of ours recently if she would be willing to contribute a photo of her two dogs, who are 7 and 9 years old, to our Senior Dogs Project. She bristled a little and then said, "My dogs aren't senior! They don't act old. They run and jump and play just as they always have."
In the 1970's, dogs generally lived 7 or 8 years. Now, a dog might be looking at 10 to 15 years of life. (Source: American Veterinary Hospital Association)
Like people, dogs are individual in the way they age. Certain breeds, mixed breeds, and, in general, smaller dogs tend to live longer. A small dog of less than 20 pounds might not seem to show any signs of age until she is 12 or so. A 50-pound dog won't seem old until about 10. Larger dogs begin to show their age at 8 or 9.
With the right care, it's not uncommon for dogs to live to 14 or 15 these days. Using established guidelines to determine when your dog might qualify as a senior will help you to understand changes in behavior or to anticipate a change in health status. On the basis of your knowledge, you will be better able to identify and approach health problems at an early stage, when they may be more easily treated. Following is a table to give you an idea of the relationship between a dog's age and a human's. Note that the weight of the dog is related to his age in human years:
Tufts University published the following guidelines for defining a senior dog: "The point at which a dog qualifies as 'aged' varies. Veterinarians generally consider small dogs to be senior citizens at about 12 years of age, while large dogs reach the senior stage at 6 to 8 years of age. This roughly corresponds to the 55-plus category in people."
What are the signs of aging and what should you do about them? One of the first signs of aging is slowing down. It will take your dog longer to get up and get started from a lying position, longer to climb stairs (one at a time, rather than two). Some of these changes are natural, but it is important not to overlook changes that may be symptoms of a condition needing treatment.
Never assume that a change in behavior or habits is simply due to old age; it may be due to a treatable condition. An excellent example is that cited by Dr. Robin Downing, DVM, who reports: "Molly wasn't leaping on and off the beds anymore, and she didn't want to go for long walks. Her family was worried that this dog had just suddenly succumbed to old age, but when I did a geriatric workup on her, we discovered Molly had a thyroid condition and arthritic back pain. A maintenance prescription of thyroid replacement hormone, pain and anti-inflammatory medication for the osteo-arthritis in her back, and Molly was back in business. In fact, three years later, her owners tell me Molly is more active than she's been in years!" (Healthy Pet magazine, Spring/Summer 2000, p. 13.)
Diseases occur in older dogs that are not usually seen in young dogs, such as arthritis, diabetes, Cushing's disease, cancer, and kidney, heart, and liver diseases. Blood tests done by a veterinarian will screen for many of these diseases, which is the reason that your veterinarian will do such tests during an annual visit. However, you can also be instrumental in keeping your older dog healthy by:
* keeping his weight down (through good nutrition and regular exercise)
* keeping his teeth clean (next to obesity, periodontal disease is the one most commonly seen in the vet's office)
* getting him to the vet for regular check-ups
* being observant about symptoms that might indicate a health problem and getting prompt and appropriate veterinary attention (information below).
Also see The Senior Dog Project's "The Ten Most Important Tips for Keeping Your Older Dog Healthy."
Other factors that influence your older dog's aging process and that may determine the age-related problems she may eventually have are:
-- Some breeds are known to have specific health problems. Golden Retrievers and large breeds, for example, are known to develop arthritis in back and hips as they age.
-- Good nutrition will retard the aging process.
Illnesses & Disease
-- A serious illness or disease can shorten a dog's life.
Control of Environmental Factors -- Keeping your dog and his environment clean and free of parasites will increase the chances of long life.
Recommendations for Veterinary Attention for an Aging Dog
Most vets recommend that you begin a geriatric screening for your dog at an appropriate age. This is related to your dog's size as follows:
In general, a geriatric screening of your dog will include:
(1) a thorough, hands-on physical exam;
(2) blood tests;
(3) possibly an electrocardiogram;
(4) specialized tests depending on your dog's health history.
Some vets advise semi-annual visits once your dog becomes a senior. An annual visit is an absolute minimum (remember, a year in your dog's life is akin to about five of your own years). In between visits to the vet and annual geriatric screenings, you can stay alert to behavioral changes and other signs of aging. Here are some things to watch for and action to take:
Sudden loss of weight can be extremely serious. Take your dog to the vet as soon as possible.
Serious loss of appetite -- to the point that your dog is eating almost nothing. See your vet right away.
Increase in appetite without increase in weight may mean diabetes. Get to the vet as soon as possible.
Diarrhea or vomiting, if it lasts more than a day can be a sign of many problems. Don't wait to see the vet.
Increased thirst, without a change in activity level, and increased urination are other signs of diabetes. Your dog should be tested as soon as possible.
Tiring more quickly than when younger is normal as a dog ages, but may also be a sign of disease affecting the heart or lungs. Be alert to your dog's becoming excessively out of breath after minimal exercise. Have your vet check for cardio-pulmonary problems as soon as possible, if you notice such symptoms. If the vet determines all is normal, you can continue an exercise program, but modify it in order not to overtax your dog.
Coughing and excessive panting may indicate heart disease. If these symptoms persist even after you've modified your dog's exercise program, visit the vet.
Difficulty in getting up from a lying position, or other problems with moving may indicate arthritis. Your vet will be able to advise you on ways you can relieve your dog's discomfort and lack of mobility.
Problems with vision and hearing are natural as a dog ages. Accommodate these changes as best you can -- by not changing the location of furniture, for example, or clapping instead of calling your dog's name when he no longer seems able to hear you.
Graying hair and drying skin are sure signs of aging. More attention to grooming and the introduction of massage will help the condition of the skin and coat.
Behavioral changes that you may see in your older dog include:
....you may note that when you leave your older dog alone, she become destructive or barks or whines or loses control of elimination
Sensitivity to noise
....thunderstorms that never bothered him before may now make your older dog tremble
Vocalizing....may be due to loss of hearing or to separation anxiety
....may be due to painful joints, a drug reaction, or intolerance for new people and new circumstances; your older dog likes things to remain the same
Confusion, lack of attentiveness, disorientation....
Roaming in circles, barking at nothing, being withdrawn....
If your dog is acting abnormally in any of the above ways, consult your vet right away.
Click to learn more about this older dogs and The Senior Dog Project.