By Jessica Remitz
While most of us like to remember our dogs as the squirmy, floppy puppies we brought home at just a few months old, they don't stay young forever. The best way to help keep your dog as healthy as possible later in life is to recognize signs of aging and learn more about common ailments that can affect senior dogs.
What is a 'Senior Dog'?
“Though many old guidelines talk about seven dog years being equal to one human year, the size of the dog really depends on the extent to which you can follow that rule,” said Dr. Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC and spokesperson for the International Veterinary Senior Care Society. “For a dog between 20 and 40 pounds these guidelines are more effective, but it’s not uncommon to see a geriatric Great Dane at age seven or a Chihuahua in its twenties,” Dr. Lobprise said. In most cases, dogs can be considered senior between five and ten years old.
According to the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the term “senior” can describe an aging pet, but the number of years considered to be “senior” varies and other identifiers like the state of their organs, species and breed can also help determine if your pet has reached old age. “The terms 'geriatric' and 'senior' also differ,” Dr. Lobprise said. “While a dog may be considered senior, they’re likely still healthy or just beginning to experience signs of aging. Geriatric animals are at the older end of the aging spectrum and often experience more health-related issues.”
Signs of Aging for Senior Dogs
“There is a wide range of factors to help you recognize signs of aging in your pet — many of them similar to the signs of aging in people,” Dr. Lobprise said. Some of these factors may be more obvious, like an intolerance to exercise or limited mobility, while others are much more subtle. You’ll want to monitor their eating patterns and body weight, as obesity can cause issues including osteoarthritis and diabetes. A too-thin animal or dog that won’t eat could be having dental or stomach issues. Sleeping patterns and cognitive behavior are also things to look out for; a dog that isn’t aware of its surroundings or has difficulty recognizing people may be experiencing early Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“A less obvious but just as important sign of aging is how much your pet is drinking and urinating,”Dr. Lobprise said. How much your pet is or isn’t drinking can be indicative of many problems, from endocrine issues to kidney disease. Urinary incontinence in female dogs may also be a sign of trouble. It’s challenging to watch for, especially in multi pet households, but should be monitored if possible. Being aware of your pet’s overall body condition may also help you spot any abnormalities.
“We’re keeping animals healthier and healthier now, and as our pet population is graying an eventual cause of death is cancer, especially in specific breeds,” Dr. Lobprise said. “We need to be aware of lumps and bumps.”
Your pet’s behavior may also help indicate signs of aging. While cats don’t always like to admit something is wrong until their issues become more advanced, many dogs are more demonstrative and vocal with their discomfort.
Common Diseases for Senior Dogs
“A very common and preventable disease that is prevalent in senior pets is dental disease,” Dr. Lobprise said. “While it’s not always a serious disease to have, it is one worth paying attention to and can change your dog’s demeanor if treated early and effectively. ” You can spot periodontal disease by smelling your dog’s breath and regularly checking their teeth and gums for signs of bacterial infection such as inflammation, reddened gums and tartar. Left untreated, dental issues can impact a dog’s heart, kidneys and the rest of the body.
Kidney and liver disease can be an issue for both cats and dogs, as can heart valve disease. Endocrine issues including those impacting the adrenal glands and thyroid can also affect aging dogs. Hypothyroidism can make older dogs feel lethargic and potentially gain weight and should be monitored with diet and exercise. Unfortunately, Dr. Lobprise said it's more common for multiple problems to compound each other in senior pets than in younger animals.
Your pet’s cognitive function is also a common issue — are they aware of their surroundings? Do they recognize their owners? There are minor, natural declines in cognition as a part of the aging process but as it advances, it can disrupt a pet’s quality of life. Supplements, pet food and products designed to help cognitive function can help ease symptoms in these situations, but it's important to have your animal evaluated by their veterinarian before beginning treatment.
Working with Your Veterinarian
While senior and geriatric dogs need more checkups than they did as adults, the AAHA reports that only 14 percent of senior animals have regular health screenings as recommended by their vets. “Having just an annual exam may prevent subtle changes in your pet’s health to progress into something worse that can impact the lifespan of your dog,” Dr. Lobprise said. She recommends getting senior animals checked by their vets at least twice a year, complete with blood work, urine analysis and a full body examination, in addition to yearly dental cleaning if needed.
“Whether it’s kidney disease, heart disease or cancer, the earlier something is caught, the better,” Dr. Lobprise added. “If you provide the best care that you can to make sure their lives are comfortable, your dogs can be important parts of the family for a very long period of time.”
Talk to your veterinarian about what and how much your pet is eating, as different conditions will require different dietary needs to maintain a healthy weight. You should also take into consideration their lean muscle mass and body score. Your pet could be the same weight as always, but they may be retaining fluids and losing muscle as a result of some illness. Taking notes and drawing pictures or take a photo of your pet or keeping a body score chart at home may also be helpful to recognize body changes as they happen.
Depression and anxiety can also be issues with older pets, so you’ll want to discuss this and any other behavior-related issues with your veterinarian. Your vet can provide you with prescription medicine to help ease anxiety, and behavior modification, but you’ll also want to make sure their lives at home are as comfortable as possible.
“When looking at the senior or geriatric pet, there will be some rough days,” Dr. Lobprise said. “Let them keep their space to themselves and if you know that there’s a situation that will be stressful to them, manage it.”