Caring for a Senior Dog

Photo by Nancy LeVine |

Photo by Nancy LeVine |

Dogs age much faster than people, and their life spans depend greatly upon their size. A year does not seem like a long time, but is equivalent to four to five human years. In general, the larger the breed or size of the dog, the shorter the life span. Smaller dogs generally become senior around the age of 10-12 and the largest breeds around 6-7. Dogs are considered senior in the last 25 percent of their lives. Those are the years they start slowing down, becoming less active and sleeping more. These changes often come with age, but they also can be signs of conditions that might benefit from treatment. Senior dogs can suffer from some of the same disorders people get.

The primary form of communication for dogs is body language. It is important that you learn more about this language, especially if you are caring for senior dogs, in order to understand their changing needs. It is up to you to notice the signs and signals that indicate pain and discomfort, as not only will it save your dog from suffering, it is also much more effective and less costly to detect illness or injury early on in your senior dog. Once you master this language, you will see that your dog communicates with you and others non-stop.

Overt signals that something might be physically wrong are: vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss or gain, coughing, sneezing, discharge from the nose, eye or ears, shortness of breath, stool changes, urine color or changes, strong odor in the mouth, hair loss, lumps on the body and changes in skin color. Dogs will also guard a part of their hurting body or rub on furniture when they are in pain. They might limp, undergo changes in their sleep patterns, exhibit difficulty climbing stairs or bark more weakly than they used to. Seriously ill dogs might also run a fever or their body temperature may drop to below normal.

Your dog’s respiration rate should normally be around 15-20 breaths per minute (depending on your dog’s size) and the pulse should be 80-120 beats per minute when is healthy. You can feel a dog’s heartbeat by placing you hand on the lower ribcage just behind the elbow. Don’t be alarmed if the heartbeat seems irregular compared to a humans’ heartbeat, but you may notice this change if a dog is in pain.

In addition to these relatively obvious physical signs of problems, you will want to look for subtle clues that indicate stress and anxiety in your senior dog. These include the dog putting his tail between his legs, pulling his ears back, stiffening his body, showing teeth, growling and avoiding contact with other humans or dogs.

Other signals of stress include lip-licking, averting their eyes and even yawning. Don’t assume your dog is just tired when he yawns, as dogs will also yawn when they feel anxious to help calm themselves down. In addition, dogs might blink their eyes faster than normal, scratch, pant and shake their bodies (as if wet). Excessive drooling could be a response to the presence of food, or it could also be a sign of stress. Grooming in excess—including licking or chewing of paws, legs, tail and genital areas—can also be a sign of anxiety and stress.

Stress can lead to aggressiveness in dogs, which may be another sign that your dog is experiencing difficult physical changes. People find it hard to understand why their dog has suddenly become aggressive to them or others. From the dog’s point of view, he is quite vulnerable, with limited means of communication and has no choices in the decisions of his caretaker.

We also need to talk about the constipation and diarrhea, which occasionally occurs in older dogs. Incontinence and any unusual bowel issues can also be a sign of a serious health problem in your senior dog, such as an infection, hormone imbalances, loss of bladder muscle control and weak bladder are common in senior dogs. Any bowel movement problem should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Many dogs can start to have dental problems as they age if their teeth are not taken care of properly. When dental issues become serious, all a dog can do is stand over the food bowl and salivate; it is often just too painful to eat.   Periodontal disease is one of the most widespread diseases in dogs, and it is estimated that 80% of senior dogs have it. The tissue surrounding a dog’s teeth becomes infected and inflamed and can lead to not only bad breath, but major health problems throughout the body. Seriously ill dogs might also t run a fever or their body temperature may drop to below normal.

Foods Are Friends and Foes

Changing their diet may be an option but be sure to make the change gradually. It is not good to constantly switch their foods, but occasionally it can help them stay interested in their diet.

Raw fruits and vegetables can be great healthy low-calorie treats for them but, certain foods should be avoided including raw potatoes as they contain oxalates that can harm the nervous and digestive systems. Grapes, raisins, avocado, ice cream, lemons, tomatoes, onions, garlic, macadamia nuts, nutmeg and persimmons can cause us problems. Chocolate, as well as Xylitol, in artificial sweeteners, are also very toxic to dogs and can even cause death in large quantities.

Dogs of course, love the fat trimmings, but excessive amounts can cause pancreatitis. Chicken bones can be dangerous as dogs can easily choke on them. Raw food diets can be a good option for many dogs and raw meat bones are included in the diet, however, I do recommend supervision of dogs that eat raw meat bones.   Any change in appetite or bowel movements can be a sign of a potential problem.

Baby gates are good for keeping dogs out of rooms and attempting to climb stairs you don’t want them to climb. There are also pet wheel chairs, ramps and slings you can buy for dogs as well. If you allow them on the couch or bed, pet ramps or doggie stairs will help aid them to easily climb up.

Never leave dogs in a hot car or other hot closed place. The heat rises rapidly and senior dogs, in particular, can suffer from dehydration which can lead to death. If they normally use a kennel, it should be well ventilated during summer months.

Dogs do not deliberately do things to anger you. People often say their dog looks guilty when they have misbehaved. This is not true as that would suggest an advanced level of cognition that is simply not part of their mental process. To avoid such issues, senior dogs need regular veterinary checkups; twice a year is a good idea at this stage. That may seem like a lot, but remember that because dogs age differently; this is similar to a human senior citizen visiting the doctor every four years. Your veterinarian will screen for health problems typical of older dogs, and you can get your dog the help he needs early on. The last few decades have shown an increased life span for pets because veterinary science, as well as alternative therapies, has made such great strides.

Talk with your veterinarian about age-related health problems, alternative therapies and the preventative steps you can take to ensure a long and healthy life for your old friend.

An Excerpt from the book Your Dog’s Golden Years by Jennifer Kachnic

Photo credit to Nancy Levine

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Positively Expert: Jennifer Kachnic

Jennifer Kachnic is president of The Grey Muzzle Organization, a nonprofit providing grants to animal shelters and rescues nationwide for senior dog programs. She is also author of a manual on senior dog care.


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