Dog ownership is a constant source of joy, fulfillment, and love. As your dog ages, care requirements change. And when your dog becomes a senior, they become more susceptible to certain health conditions that require your attention and action. Each health condition we talk about is treatable (especially at its onset), which is why we’re equipping you with the knowledge you need to protect your dog. In this article, you’ll learn at what age a dog becomes a senior, the common health conditions and symptoms to look out for, and the preventative steps that you can take (right now!) to extend and enhance your dog’s life.
Is my dog a senior?
This is actually a complicated question to answer, because every pet has unique factors that contribute to their aging process – such as genetics, environment and nutrition. In general, the larger the breed, the faster the process. For example, if you have a Great Dane, your dog may become a senior at 5 or 6 years old. If you have a Shih Tzu, your dog probably won’t become a senior until age 10 or 11. The majority of dogs (neither the very large or the very small) will become senior between the age of 7-10.
What health conditions should I look out for?
In general, the more strain put on a dog’s joint over time, the higher the probability they will develop arthritis. This is why arthritis is especially common in older dogs that are larger or overweight, though it can affect any breed of dog. Over time, the cartilage between your dog’s joints begin to thin. The cartilage acts as a shock absorber, so as it wears down, your dog’s bones begin to make contact with each other when the joint moves. The result is inflammation and bone damage, which is typically very painful.
- Decreased enthusiasm for once loved activities (like running and jumping)
- Increased difficulty sitting or standing
- Weight gain
- Favoring a limb
- General “slowing down” is sometimes mistaken as inevitable when it is really a symptom of arthritis!
Symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction (“dog dementia”) are found in approximately half of dogs over the age of 11. The cause of dog dementia is currently unknown, but it seems genetic factors may predispose a dog to the condition. Dog dementia is a progressive disease – the initial symptoms are mild, but significantly worsen over time. This cognitive decline causes behavioral changes, deficits in learning and memory, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli.
- Disregarding previously learned training
- Increased anxiety, confusion, irritability or restlessness
- Decline in self-grooming habits
- Changes in normal sleep cycle
- Decreased willingness to play
- Excessive licking
Cancer causes approximately half the deaths in dogs over the age of 10. “Cancer” is actually a blanket term for a collection of related diseases, each with unique prognoses. Essentially, cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells which spread into surrounding tissue. As these cancerous cells spread, they begin to impede normal functioning in different bodily systems. This can cause devastating and fatal effects.
- Abnormal swellings that continue to growAbnormal swellings that continue to grow
- Slow-healing sores
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Decreased appetite, or difficulty eating or swallowing food
- Bleeding from the eyes or ears
Kidney (or “renal”) failure is one of the most common causes of death in older dogs. Kidneys filter the blood in order to remove potentially harmful toxins through urination. Kidney failure occurs when the kidneys lose their ability to filter the toxins, causing the accumulation of harmful toxins in the bloodstream. Usually, kidney failure progresses over the course of months, or even years.
- Increased water consumption
- Ammonia-like odor to the breath
- Blood in urine or changes in urination patterns
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Pale gums
There are actually several types of heart disease, and it is relatively common in older dogs. It is very serious because heart disease often leads to congestive heart failure, where the heart begins losing its ability to pump blood throughout the rest of the body. As the heart’s pumping powers diminish, blood can’t move as efficiently through the circulatory system, and thus begins to back up. This has a number of dangerous effects for your dog’s health. Age-related heart disease typically progresses over a course of years, and can be difficult to spot at first.
- Persistent coughing lasting longer than a few days (especially in the evening or at night)
- Difficulty exercising
- Breathing difficulties – such as labored or rapid breathing
- Decreased appetite
- Fainting or collapsing
- Swelling in the abdomen or extremities
A plan of action
First off – if you notice or suspect your dog is exhibiting any of the symptoms listed above, please make a veterinary appointment right away. Those symptoms may indicate a serious health condition that needs to be treated as early on as possible. And fortunately, there are simple preventative measures that you can take right now to extend and enhance your dog’s life!
1 – Biannual Health Exams
Senior dogs should have health exams every 6 months. This way, we can keep careful watch of your dog’s health baseline, and can spot deviations and irregularities much more quickly. This is key for treating the diseases we mentioned. We will also be able to keep watch of any possible contributing risk factors to these diseases – for example, periodontal disease can increase the risk of kidney and heart disease.
2 – A Healthy Weight
Older dogs who are also overweight have a higher risk of arthritis, cancer, organ disease, and other serious health conditions. It is crucially important for your dog to be kept at a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight will not only increase their life span, but will immensely improve their quality of life. During your visit, we will help you develop a smart nutritional and exercise regimen that will accomplish exactly this.
3 – Home Comforts
Your aging pup needs mental stimulation and comfort more than ever! Mental stimulation can help slow the progression of dog dementia, and will keep your dog sharp and happy. Keep an abundance of safe toys around your dog’s living area. Food puzzles are a great way of keeping their mind stimulated while treating a weight issue. And because many older dogs have arthritic problems, make sure they have extra padding in their bedding. It’s also helpful to make sure they have access to softer ground to walk on, like carpets or rugs.