My Dog is Getting Old…What Should I Expect?
Did you know that a dog is considered a senior once he is in the last half of his expected life span? As he approaches the last third of his life, he is considered geriatric. And just like humans, there's a variety of bodily changes he will encounter. Regular veterinary checkups are important to monitor these changes and make sure your dog is comfortable throughout his life.
One of the most significant changes a senior dog will experience is his metabolism, which will decrease by about 20%. If his calorie intake doesn't reflect this change, the risk of obesity increases. Weight management is the most important thing you can do to help your dog in his old age, as it benefits overall health, joint pain management and more. Other health problems may require additional changes in your dog's diet and nutritional needs.
Skin and Hair Coat
Your dog's hair coat will gradually become thinner, duller and gray in color, especially around the face and muzzle. His skin will also become thinner and more susceptible to injury. Fatty acid supplements can help restore some of the quality and shine of a healthy coat. Your dog may also need to be groomed more often in order to prevent tangles and mats. With extra one-on-one attention, you can also keep track of any new injuries, abnormal growths or pain your dog may have.
Arthritis and Joint Care
Over time, your dog's regular activity and movement will cause gradual degeneration in his joints and cartilage. This results in pain and inflammation in the joints, making it difficult for him to move as freely as he used to. There are a variety of things you can do to make his life easier. Joint supplements have ingredients that will help replenish lost cartilage and synovial fluids. Weight management, elevated feeders and ramps will reduce the stress on his aching joints. Heated or orthopedic beds can warm up stiff joints or give him the support he needs as he sleeps.
Dental disease is the most common problem in older dogs. Over 70 percent of dogs have signs of gum disease by the time they're age four. This makes good oral hygiene extremely important in your dog's younger years, and especially as they get older. Plaque will start to form tartar if it is not removed, leading to gingivitis and other periodontal diseases. Regular dental care includes brushing, dental rinses, hard chews and treats for friction against plaque and regular dental checkups with your veterinarian.
As your dog's gastrointestinal tract gets older, the movement of food through the digestive tract slows down, causing constipation. If your dog has pain while trying to defecate, constipation is also a common result. However, constipation is also a sign of many other diseases, so check with your veterinarian if your dog has problems. Common solutions include enemas or laxatives.
Decreased Heart Function
Your dog's heart may start to lose efficiency over time as the muscles gradually weaken. The heart won't be able to keep up with the amount of blood it needs to pump, starting the slow process of cardiac failure. Your dog will tire easily and start to become weaker and weaker. Your veterinarian will prescribe medications that strengthen the heart muscles, reducing the long-term effects of cardiac problems.
Decreased Kidney Function
Kidney problems can result for a variety of reasons, whether it's a result of changes from the kidney itself, changes in other organs that affect kidney function, or a side effect from another disease. Blood tests and urinalysis are the most reliable way to determine if your pet has kidney disease. Depending on their ability to process foods and other products, your dog's diet or medication may need to change.
Incontinence is simply an uncontrollable leaking of urine from the bladder, which happens when the bladder muscles start to lose their strength. Hormone replacement can help replenish the hormones that affect bladder muscle strength. However, a loss of housetraining with frequent accidents may indicate a more serious problem, so see your veterinarian if your dog has any problems with urinary function.
As they age, some dogs lose their ability to deal with stress, which can cause a variety of behavior changes, such as separation anxiety, noise phobias, aggression and more. Combined with the animal's increasing pain and decreasing ability to avoid the things that irritate or scare them, behavior changes may become more and more prominent. Cognitive dysfunction happens when nerve cells start to die and there is malfunction in nerve communication, similar to Alzheimer's in humans. This can also cause a variety of behavior changes, including confusion, restlessness, decreased attentiveness and activity levels and not recognizing family and friends.
A decrease in your dog's energy levels may simply be a result of normal aging, but it can also be one of the first signs of disease, as the body struggles to fight viruses and infection. One reason for sluggishness is anemia. This occurs when the body does not have enough red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. As a result, the animal will be weak and tired because the body is not getting enough oxygen to perform its daily tasks. If your dog's lack of energy is a sudden change or continues for an extended period of time, talk to your veterinarian about the possible reasons.
Loss of Senses
Hearing loss often goes unnoticed in dogs until it becomes severe. You may notice your dog isn't obeying commands as often because he can't hear you, or he may suddenly become aggressive when he's startled by your approach. Dogs with hearing loss are still sensitive to vibration, so clapping your hands or stomping while you're trying to get his attention may be helpful. Vision loss is also common, whether in the form of nuclear sclerosis, cataracts, glaucoma or more. However, if vision loss is sudden, you should consult your veterinarian.
Temperature SensitivityThe older your dog gets, the harder it is for him to regulate his body temperature in response to the environmental changes. As a result, you'll need to make extra efforts to keep him cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Limit his time outdoors when temperatures are extreme, and make sure he has ways to cool down or warm up. Easily accessible water and heated or cooling beds are all effective for helping your dog regulate his body temperature.
Your dog may be getting older and dealing with a few more problems, but he's still the same dog. It's important to keep him as comfortable as possible in his last years, adjusting your habits and schedules as needed. In response, your dog will reward you with a lifetime of his love and trust.
If you need help, call us at 800.786.4751.
Don Bramlage, DVM, Former Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your personal veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical attention.