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Defining Senior Age in Dogs

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on May 13, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD

Our pets are family no matter their age. We love senior dogs just as much as when they were puppies, but some of us might be in denial when it comes to admitting that they’ve entered their senior years.

And it can also be confusing knowing exactly when you should call your pup a senior, especially when that range is different for different breeds and sizes of dogs.

Here’s a guide for determining when your dog is truly considered to be a senior and recognizing signs of health issues so you can adapt her care to fit her needs.

Is There a Set Range for a Senior Dog’s Age?

According to the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the term “senior” can describe an aging pet, but the number of years a pet is considered to be “senior” varies.

Identifiers such as weight, breed and the state of their organs can also help determine if your pet has reached old age.

“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,” says Dr. Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC, and spokesperson for the International Veterinary Senior Care Society.

For example, large dogs will typically age faster than smaller dogs. “For a dog between 20-40 pounds, these guidelines are more effective, but it’s not uncommon to see a geriatric Great Dane at age 7 or a Chihuahua in [his] 20s,” Dr. Lobprise says. 

In most cases, however, dogs can be considered senior between 5 and 10 years old.

“The terms 'geriatric' and 'senior' also differ,” Dr. Lobprise says. “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 says. Some of these factors may be more obvious, like an intolerance to exercise or limited mobility, while others are much more subtle.

Your pet’s behavior may also help indicate signs of aging. While cats don’t always show that something is wrong until their issues become more advanced, many dogs are more demonstrative and vocal with their discomfort.

Here are some things to keep an eye on:

Eating Patterns and Weight

You’ll want to monitor your dog’s 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 Health

Sleeping patterns and cognitive behavior are also things to look out for. A dog that isn’t aware of his surroundings or has difficulty recognizing people may be experiencing early canine dementia.

Drinking Patterns and Urination

“A less obvious but just as important sign of aging is how much your pet is drinking and urinating,” Dr. Lobprise says. 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.

Monitoring your dog’s urination and defecation on walks can be a useful tool. Even if both are normal, you may notice your senior dog being slower or more resistant to posturing.

Lumps and Bumps

Being aware of your pet’s overall body condition may also help you spot any abnormalities, like cancer.

“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 says. “We need to be aware of lumps and bumps.”

Many dogs develop lumps and bumps while they age. Not every lump will need to be tested or removed, but keeping track of them can avoid problems. Lumps that are new, growing or are different from the other ones on your pet can indicate a problem.

Recognizing Common Diseases for Senior Dogs

“A very common and preventable disease that is prevalent in senior pets is dental disease,” Dr. Lobprise says. “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. If dental disease is causing discomfort, it may make your dog not want to eat, which can lead to all sorts of other problems; that is why your veterinarian recommends regular dental cleanings.

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.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lobprise says, 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 people? 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.

Working With Your Veterinarian

Dr. Lobprise 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.

Unfortunately, however, 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 [allow an issue to] progress into something worse that can impact the life span of your dog,” Dr. Lobprise says.

“Whether it’s kidney disease, heart disease or cancer, the earlier something is caught, the better,” Dr. Lobprise adds.

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. Some senior pets benefit from prescription dog food diets aimed to help treat specific diseases.

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. To help keep track and recognize changes in your dog’s weight, you can take photos or keep a body score chart at home.

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 pet medication to help ease anxiety and behavior modification training tools, 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 says.  

As a pet parent, you can help your pets thrive in their senior years by first admitting that they are indeed seniors, taking them twice a year to the vet for a checkup, and looking out for any issues that require your vet’s immediate attention.

By: Jessica Remitz

Featured Image: iStock.com/cmannphoto

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