Caring for Senior Dogs: How to Improve the Life Quality of Your 4-Legged Friend

Senior Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Caring for senior dogs is just as important as caring for them when they were very young puppies. Just like people, their bodies will also be subject to processes that will slow down growth and repair and which will eventually affect the quality of their lives in the end. Even though it is an irreversible natural phenomenon, there are ways to slow it down and that is what you can focus on if you want to give your pet the best kind of life that they can experience in old age. Setting up healthy practices and diets during their midlife will definitely provide a good basis for their old age.

It is also important to be very wary about the problems that your dog may be facing when they get to old age. They should not be confused with actual diseases that they may be having inside their bodies. They may suddenly prefer to just lie down and sleep for longer hours each day and some people mistake this to be just a natural thing for old dogs when actually, it can be the problem of hypothyroidism.

You may also notice them to be experiencing a lot of difficulty when getting up and ignore it as a sign of aging when it is actually a bad case of hip dyspepsia. In these instances, it is better to be doubly careful than to just dismiss it as a normal and natural aging process. Have them checked with your local veterinarian for possible health conditions that may be affecting them.

All about dogs

When is a dog considered a senior?

A dog’s age varies widely depending on their breed as well as their size. The general rule is that smaller breeds age slowly, large breeds’ age faster, and giant breeds age the fastest. It is important not to calculate a dog’s age using human years as one human year can be equivalent to eight dog years for them. It is therefore important to watch your dog’s aging process carefully as their biological makeup allows them to age faster than our human bodies.  Most veterinarians will consider a dog to be already old, when it has reached the last third of their estimated life span.

A sample computation for a dog’s age can be taken by taking the number of years that they had been living either by 6 if they are a smaller breed; or by 8 if they are a larger breed in order to know the equivalent of their age by human years. For example, if your dog is of the smaller types then a 7 year-old dog may be considered as already being in their 40’s if they were human. A larger breed would have an age equivalent to be in their 50’s. As you can see, they may seem to be still quite young but they are already in their middle age.

Old dog

The smaller that the dog breed is, the slower will be the aging process for the dog and the greater chance that they will be spending a lot of time in the phase of being senior dogs. Larger breeds are expected to have shorter life spans and therefore the onset of the symptoms of old age will also appear sooner.

Giant breeds on the other hand can already be considered as old dogs once they reach the age of 5 years. As an owner, it will be your duty to carefully watch over the development of your dogs and to make sure that whatever symptoms are checked by a vet the moment that they appear to make sure that they are not hiding underlying diseases.

Just as older people tend to have more problems in terms of physical health, so do older dogs suffer from various physical conditions that can affect not only the quality of their day to day life but their emotional states as well. The aging process is a natural occurrence for all and is stated by the law of thermodynamics.

The body is not able to replace and repair as fast as it did when the dog was in its younger years and therefore cannot compensate for the daily wear and tear of its cells and tissues. You will therefore see some signs and symptoms that indicate a gradually degenerating body that is more sensitive to diseases and illnesses:

  • Loss of appetite – One of the common signs of aging in dogs is their gradual or sudden loss of appetite. Foods that they once enjoyed eating tends to be left to spoil in their dog bowls and even ignored even when you call them to eat. They tend to just lie down or sleep instead of going to their bowl and eat. This can be caused by a lot of conditions such as dental problems, weak digestive system, pain in their joints when rising up and walking, or lethargy caused by hypothyroidism.
    If your dog is experiencing any of these, their tendency is to ignore the food and just lessen the amount of pain by staying where they are. Another reason for their loss of appetite is that their bodies do not need as much energy as before due to inactivity and hence, they do not crave food as much as well.
  • Joint problems – The most common type of joint problem in senior dogs is arthritis which makes it painful and difficult either to walk, jump, or even bow down to their food bowls when eating. Another problem is what is called hip dysplasia which generally affects the hind legs and is caused by the malformation of the ball and socket joint making them have an imperfect fit.
    The dog may have been able to carry the condition in their younger years but as they got older, the constant friction may have worn down the bone materials and produced more pronounced deformities. It could also be that the dog is suffering from osteoarthritis which has symptoms similar to the human disease such as pain during colder weather and a generalized pain whenever the dog is being touched.
    Especially in larger breeds, hip dysplasia and arthritis are serious, painful conditions to deal with. If you notice the signs that your dog is having problems getting around, why not consider making your very own dog wheelchair to help him get around?
  • Degenerating of sensory perception – Another common problem with senior or aging dogs is that their once highly effective sense organs have somehow grown defective and cannot function as good as before. They may not be able to see, hear, and smell people from a far distance and may even be surprised if the person comes from behind them. This can lead to unprovoked attacks and seeming aggressiveness on the part of the dog.
    The sad part is that, a lot of these dogs are often put to sleep due to these perceived “aggressive attacks” when all that it was, was the dog’s natural reaction to being startled. You may also notice a certain bluish hue on top of their retina and you may think that this is similar to glaucoma but it is not. This condition also does not affect their vision as much as the aging of the tissues inside their eyes.
  • Increased anxiety, aggression, or confusion – If you have lived with old people or your grandparents for quite some time, you will notice that these people often have mood swings and this is also true with dogs. Their increased discomfort as well as the gradual degeneration of body functions can make them more anxious of any sudden change in their surroundings or of being separated from their owners.
    A lot of times, you can see them snap when being touched or petted and you will wonder why when they loved it when they were younger. Well the answer lies in the fact that they may be experiencing some pain in the area that was touched, is gradually losing their memory, or are more uncomfortable because they cannot assess the situation as effectively as before. Owners have reported increased howling or barking which is often caused by anxiety as they cannot see, hear, or smell as efficiently as before.
  • Grooming problems – As your dog gets older, you will notice that they do not groom themselves as often as before and they also appear to be dirtier more often. Their fur will also look less shiny and may even fall off, mat, or grow thinner as they grow older. This is due to their biological processes as well as the lack of saliva which they use for grooming.
    If you have a dog with quite longer hairs or fur, there will be greater instances of matting in certain areas especially under the tail. They may also tend to lick a particular area more often that it will soon get bald and reddish. Since the dog becomes less active, their toe nails will also tend to grow longer and their elbows develop callouses due to the long time that they spend lying down. Their foot pads will also thicken with time.
  • Disease of the internal organs – Aging has several effects on the body and it includes the wearing down of the internal organs. This includes the kidneys, reproductive organs, heart, thyroid, lungs, adrenals, and even the brain of your dog. One of the common problems that dogs have is related to the kidney and renal functions. These organs become weak or susceptible to infection that they often lead to leakages and lack of control for elimination processes. To help you and dog cope with these problems, please read our article on dog incontinence and solutions to this embarrassing problem.
    The heart and lungs can become infected with worms or may lose their elasticity making it harder to pump blood and pump out carbon dioxide and take in oxygen to the body. Dogs can also develop several types of cancer and cognitive dysfunction which has symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease. This can also lead to the poor regulation of body heat causing them to get cold or dehydrated quite easily under certain temperatures.

How do you address senior dog problems?

Senior dog problems can be easily addressed if you start them on a healthy regimen early on. This way, the aging process can occur less severely and even progress more slowly. But since the process can never be actually be stopped, it would also be good to be more realistic with our expectations regarding the outcome of our efforts. Aging is a natural process and it will take its toll on our pets depending on their breed, health, and the amount of stress that they have received and are still receiving up till now.

Below are several things that you can do to help your dog cope better with the signs and symptoms of aging:

  • Be more considerate of your dog. The first and perhaps most important factor that can affect the amount of care that a dog can receive is the amount of attention that they get from their owners. Take into consideration that they are now older and have physical pains and sufferings which you may not know of and so it is important to be quite sensitive to how your dog is feeling. This also means that you need to exert more patience in dealing with them.
  • Provide a soft and comfortable bed for them to lie in. This can take the form of orthopedic dogs to lessen the amount of pressure on their joints or it can be some simple carpeting in their sleeping areas to lessen the amount of pain on their foot when they walk around. Since older dogs spend a lot more time on their “part” of the house, it would be best to make that specific area more comfortable. You may also need to provide them with warm blankets or anything that will cover their fur in order to keep them warm at night.
    Please take a look at our article on the best orthopedic dog beds on the market to help make your dog comfortable.
  • Provide physical exercises which are suitable for their capability. Older dogs would often prefer to be walked than to jog or run around for hours. Start out with just 10 to 15 minutes three times a week and gradually increase until you can take them for 1 to 3 hours of walk.
    The smaller your dog, the lesser will be the distance that they can cover. You can also engage your dog in a game of catch using soft items. This will provide them with physical and intellectual stimulus as well to help regenerate tissues and to discard harmful radicals from their body.
  • Give a balanced diet. It is important to give your dog with fresh and healthy foods instead of canned and preserved ones. It would also be good to provide them with softer ones and rarely some raw bone to chew on to provide for their mineral needs and to exercise their jaw muscles. You can also provide chew toys which are of sufficient hardness for their teeth.
    Leftovers are good as long as they are generally made up of vegetables and fibrous foods. This will help their digestive process and prevent constipation which is a common problem with inactive dogs. Protein and micronutrients should be present in their meals even though they may not have to eat as much as before due to their lower caloric needs.
  • Use ramps or elevate food and water bowls to make it easier for them to access. Due to joint problems, coming up or down the stairs may seem to be a very painful job for your dog. Using ramps will help them get to higher places without the pain and without the need to jump which can put a lot of pressure on their bones. Raising their feeding bowls will also help them to eat without bowing down their heads which can be quite painful if they have backbone problems.
  • Brush your dog’s fur every now and then. This will help to stimulate the production of oil that will protect their coat and will also give it a healthier shine. Aside from that, it can also prevent the development of matting which is often caused by dirty fur. Frequent brushing will allow you to cut off any matted fur or wash them off. Aside from that, it also helps to calm your dog down as their bodies are gently massaged by the brush.
  • Have your pet undergo a general health checkup twice a year. This will help determine the onset of diseases and be addressed in the early stages. Your vet will also be able to determine whether your pet’s symptoms are due to aging or due to a particular disease.
  • Talk to your dog often. This will not only provide them with the emotional bond that they need but will also provide intellectual stimulation which can help slow down the deterioration of cognitive functions. Stimulate them by bringing in a puppy or by teaching them something new. Make sure though that the dog is still able to handle the playfulness of the puppy and is not suffering too much from any pain.

It may not be that easy to deal with caring for a senior dog but the fact is, you can help slow down the onset of its symptoms and ease the pain of transitioning into this phase of your dog’s life.  Some of the most important things to remember is that your pet, just like humans, will undergo the gradual degeneration of their bodies and that they will not be as good as they had been when they were younger.

Steps for senior dogs

They also need medical and emotional accommodations in order to address this stage of their development and that you as the owner would have to be very patient in dealing with this problem. But no matter what, always think of the things that your dog has brought in your life and always treat them with consideration and with patience. Just like you, they will need proper health and dietary care in order to cope with this condition.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.