Senior Dogs 101: Tips to keep your senior dog healthy as they age

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Just like humans, senior dogs need extra care as they grow old. As an owner, it’s important to be mindful of all the ways you can help to maximize your dog’s quality of life during their golden years – especially those you can start while your pup is still young! Read on for our top tips on how to keep your dog in prime condition as they age.

In this article:

1. Take your senior dog for regular vet visits

This is one of the most important things you can do to keep your senior dog healthy. Regular vet visits and lab testing often allow you to catch health issues before they become clinically obvious, meaning they’re easier (and less expensive) to treat, offering a better prognosis for your dog. For healthy senior dogs, we recommend wellness visits at least once every six months with yearly lab work. Dogs with health conditions and geriatric dogs may need more frequent check-ups and bloodwork. Vet visits will also allow for discussion in regards to changing patterns your pet may be experiencing that may require specific medication recommendations. 

2. Check your senior dog regularly at home

In between vet visits, it’s important to check your pet’s body regularly for any lumps, bumps, or other changes, and get these checked out as soon as you notice them. We recommend giving your pup a thorough ‘once over’ once a week. If your dog has a lump that has been tested and is thankfully benign, you should still keep a close eye on it. Snap a quick photo as a record of what it looks like and monitor for any changes in size or appearance, including color.

3. Watch for signs of pain and changes in behavior in your senior dog

As well as keeping a close eye on any physical changes, you should also monitor for behavioral changes, as these can often be the first signs of illness. Any changes in behavior that persist for more than a week or so may warrant a check-up, but in particular, here are some signs to watch for:

  • Signs of pain, such as limping, whining, unwillingness to play, exercise or engage in activities they used to enjoy

  • Changes in eating or drinking habits

  • Changes in bathroom habits or accidents

  • Vomiting, diarrhea or weight loss

  • Fatigue or any difficulty breathing

  • Confusion, aggression or anxiety

  • Startling easily

  • Bumping into things

  • Repetitive behaviors

  • Decreased interaction with humans or other pets

4. Get pet insurance for your senior dog

If you don’t already have pet insurance, consider getting it. Senior dogs are much more likely to suffer from serious conditions and diseases than younger dogs, and pet insurance provides incredible peace of mind that you’ll be able to afford the care your pet needs.

If your dog has any pre-existing conditions, remember to check the fine print thoroughly, as some companies may not cover treatment relating to that condition.

5. Switch to a senior dog food

You may have noticed that some dog foods have age guidelines on them. Seniors have different nutritional needs to younger dogs, including needing food that is easier to digest, different amounts of calories and certain nutrients to help them age well. 

Typically, you should switch to a senior dog food around age 6, depending on the size of your dog. Look for a brand with an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy for senior dogs. 

6. Keep your senior dog at a healthy weight

Weight gain is a major concern for senior dogs, as it has a huge impact on quality of life, increases the risk of many diseases, and can take years off their life. As they slow down and become less active, they will need fewer calories. Switching to a senior dog food is a good start, as these tend to be less calorically dense, but you should also keep an eye on their weight and body condition, and adjust portion sizes and increase exercise if necessary.

Body condition scoring is a really useful way to tell whether your dog is at a healthy weight. The chart below shows what you should be aiming for with your senior dog – ideally, you should aim to keep them within 5-6, where you can feel their ribs but not see them, and they should have a defined waist that is visible from both the side and above.

7. Consider supplements for your senior dog

There are a number of supplements that may help your dog to stay healthy as they age:

  • Glucosamine and chondroitin can help to protect the cartilage in your dog’s joints, and has been proven to help manage the pain of osteoarthritis. Large dogs may particularly benefit, as they are more predisposed to joint issues. We recommend Dasuquin chews.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids can also help to reduce inflammation in the joints, lower the need for other pain medications, and may also benefit dogs with cognition issues, as they promote cell membrane health. We recommend Vetiquinol or Nordic Naturals.

  • Antioxidants may also help to improve memory and cognition in senior dogs, although there is not a great deal of scientific evidence at the current time. We recommend Denamarin Advanced if your pet is showing dementia-like symptoms, also called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or you could consider giving certain fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants as treats. Berries are high in antioxidants, including blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, as well as certain apples, such as Granny Smiths.

It’s important to note that not all supplements are created equal. We strongly recommend choosing brands that employ strict quality control measures, and whose products have been involved in clinical studies to confirm their safety and effectiveness. Never give human supplements to dogs, as they may contain ingredients that are harmful, and always consult your veterinarian before starting a new supplement regimen for your dog.

8. Modify your senior dog’s exercise regimen

Over time, your dog’s stamina and mobility will decrease, so you’ll need to adjust their exercise routine accordingly. You may need to swap jogs and hikes for walks, and split up longer walks into several shorter ones. Choose low-impact exercises; avoid anything that involves running or jumping, and consider taking your dog swimming during the warmer months if they enjoy the water!

Speak to your veterinarian if you’re unsure how much exercise your senior dog needs. They can give you advice on how to fulfil your dog’s needs and the types of exercise they’ll be most comfortable doing.

9. Take care of your senior dog in extreme temperatures

As their body slows down, senior dogs may struggle more than younger ones to regulate their temperature, so it’s important to take extra care on very cold or very hot days. During the winter, equip your senior dog with a coat (and consider booties if it’s snowy and icy), keep walks short and be aware of the signs of hypothermia

In the summer, stay indoors during the hottest parts of the day, provide plenty of fresh water and use a fan if needed to keep your dog cool. You can also give them frozen treats as a cooling snack! Remember that heatstroke can be extremely dangerous, and contact your veterinarian immediately if you are concerned.

10. Adapt your senior dog’s environment to keep them comfortable

There are a number of modifications you may need to make to your home to help keep your senior dog comfortable:

  • Avoiding stairs and steps: Seniors, particularly those with arthritis, may find it difficult or painful to climb stairs. You may need to move their sleeping area to one that is reachable without climbing stairs, or consider installing ramps for them to navigate steps more easily. If your dog cuddles up with you on the couch, they may benefit from a ramp leading to the couch; and smaller dogs may need to be picked up.

  • Cover slippery surfaces: As their mobility deteriorates, older dogs may struggle with their balance and can find hard, slippery floors stressful to walk on. Covering them up with carpet, rugs or mats helps to provide more grip so your dog can walk more easily. Another option is to use nail grips that will help provide stability on floors, such as these from Dr. Buzby. 

  • Provide orthopedic bedding: Dogs suffering from arthritis or other painful conditions may benefit from a thick, therapeutic pet bed, such as the Petfusion memory foam bed, to provide additional comfort while they are resting. 

  • Raise food and water bowls: Senior dogs may not be able to bend down as easily to reach their food and water bowls, particularly taller dogs. You can place their feeding bowls on a platform, or there are height-adjustable bowls you can buy.

11. Provide extra stimulation for your senior dog

A number of studies have shown that mental stimulation can help to counteract the effects of declining cognition in dogs. Consider providing extra ‘brain teasers’ for your dog, such as:

  • Food puzzle toys, such as Trixie activity boards. Your dog has to work out how to reveal the treats hidden inside the board by flipping panels, nudging levers or spinning wheels.

  • Play sensory games, such as ‘hide the treats’. Hide a few treats around the home and let your dog sniff them out to work their sense of smell. You can also play ‘hide and seek’. A great one if you have children – hide and call your dog to come and find you. If they’re capable of it, involve some kind of obstacle that they need to work out how to overcome – such as a door they need to nudge open.

  • Teach obedience or trick training. Incorporating at least 10 minutes of training each day will help your senior dog to stay responsive to commands, and also provides stimulation. If your dog struggles with concentration, break this down into several sessions of one or two minutes over the course of the day. For example, ask them to do a few commands before you feed them breakfast and dinner, and before you go out for a walk.

  • Encourage interaction with other dogs. Although they may not play as vigorously as they once did, senior dogs still benefit from sniffing, interacting and relaxing with dogs of a similar temperament and energy level (it’s perhaps best to avoid over excited puppies.)

  • Use a stroller or other mobility aids. For senior pets with mobility issues, a stroller can help a pet get outside for walks, which is great for mental stimulation and happiness. Similarly, depending on their medical condition, mobility aids like knee braces can help pets with certain conditions, and booties with non-slip bottoms can also help provide grip when outside. 

12. Stick to a routine for your senior dog

All dogs thrive on routine, but none more so than senior dogs. Particularly as their cognition begins to decline, predictability in their day-to-day life is incredibly important for dogs. It’s very comforting for them to get up, be fed, go for walks and enjoy playtime at similar times each day. Whatever your routine, try to stick to it as best you can, and make changes slowly if needed to minimize stress for your golden oldie.

13. Keep an eye on your senior dog’s vision

Many dogs lose their vision to some degree as they grow older. This can be due to normal aging, or a medical condition such as cataracts or glaucoma. If you notice any signs of vision loss, such as your dog bumping into things or any changes to the appearance of their eyes, contact your veterinarian, as some conditions may be treatable. 

Even if their vision loss cannot be cured, many dogs can learn to live quite happily with limited sight, since their other senses are so strong. It’s important to try to keep the furniture layout in your home the same, so your dog doesn’t become disorientated and hurt themselves bumping into things.

14. Be aware of your senior dog’s hearing

Your dog’s hearing may also deteriorate as they grow older. Since they rely on their hearing as one of their strongest senses, be mindful that dogs suffering from hearing loss may become startled more easily and even the friendliest dogs may snap when scared. To prepare for any potential hearing loss, you could teach your dog hand signals to go with spoken commands such as ‘come’, ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, to ensure you retain communication with them as their hearing diminishes.

15. Help your senior dog with grooming

As their mobility decreases, older dogs may not be able to reach all areas of their body as well as they used to, and they may struggle to keep themselves as well groomed. Set aside time regularly to brush them thoroughly, to remove any tangles and loose fur before it becomes matted. Depending on your dog’s coat and whether it’s shedding season, you may need to do this weekly, or every few days. Your dog may also need baths more frequently than they did before.

Grooming sessions are a great time to conduct a ‘once over’ on your dog to check for any lumps or bumps, as mentioned earlier.

16. Look after your senior dog’s teeth

Dental health is important at all ages, but particularly during your dog’s senior years, as a lifetime of eating and chewing takes its toll on their teeth and gums. Periodontal disease is incredibly common in senior dogs, and causes pain, inflammation, gum infections, bone loss, and plaque and bacteria can even enter your dog’s bloodstream, affecting their organs.

To keep your dog’s mouth healthy, brush their teeth once a day using dog-safe toothpaste, and have them checked by your vet during wellness exams. Senior dogs will likely need professional dental cleanings from your veterinarian to remove tartar that has built up on the teeth and under the gumline, and deal with any teeth that may need to be extracted. The exact cadence for professional teeth cleanings is pet specific and can be guided by your veterinarian. 

Also remember that your dog’s teeth weaken with age, so you should never give them hard chews, bones, antlers or hard toys. As a good rule of thumb, if you can’t make an indent with your nail, it’s too hard for your dog to chew.

17. Consider alternative therapies for your senior dog

If your senior dog is struggling with pain, loss of mobility or muscle mass, they may benefit from certain alternative therapies. Your veterinarian can refer you to specialist animal rehabilitation centers that can offer therapeutic exercises to improve range of motion, aqua-therapy (underwater treadmills or swimming), massage, acupuncture, or LASER therapy, amongst others.

CBD has also been shown to reduce pain in dogs suffering from arthritis and may be suitable for your dog, as long as they don’t have any contraindications. Scientific studies are currently in progress for its effectiveness in treating a number of other conditions, such as chronic pain, seizures and anxiety. It’s worth noting that not all CBD products are created equal, and there is currently no regulation in the market. We recommend ElleVet products, as they undergo rigorous quality control processes and are involved in clinical research.

Summary of senior dog care tips

Although the changes your dog faces during their senior years may seem overwhelming, small changes in their food, exercise, environment and care can make a huge difference to their quality and length of life. Ensure you take them for wellness checkups twice a year, and speak to your veterinarian for further advice on how you can help them live out their golden years in good health.

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