Your dog’s needs will change as he ages, slows downs, and experiences a decline in activity levels, cognition, vision and hearing. Being aware of those needs, and taking steps to accommodate them, will help ensure your senior dog enjoys his final years to the fullest.
Time flies – especially when it comes to our dogs. Seemingly overnight, our once young puppies with boundless energy suddenly age into senior dogs. Although they’re still the same lovable companions they always were, their needs change as they get older. We have to pay close attention to the subtle signs of aging and discomfort so we can provide our dogs with the best possible care before minor issues turn into something serious. In addition to providing regular veterinary care, here are some things your can do to make your own senior’s life easier, while also keeping him fit and mobile.
Tips to make his life easier
Provide non-slip flooring surfaces
As dogs get older, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to walk on slippery surfaces. Make sure your flooring provides sufficient traction to prevent injuries. Carpet is perfect, but if you have hardwood or tile floors, cover the areas your dog frequents with non-slip rugs or foam tiles. Make sure you also cover the area around your dog’s bed and food and water bowls. Keep his nails short and the hair under his paws trimmed.
Cater to achy joints
If your senior dog has arthritis or other joint problems, it’s a good idea to provide resting places throughout the house. Some dog beds are specifically designed to alleviate joint pain. You may find that a thicker or elevated bed makes it easier for your dog to get in and out of bed. Pet stairs or ramps will help him get on the couch, the bed, and into the car; even if your dog is still able to jump, the impact on his joints could be harmful.
If you live in a large house, place water bowls in several areas so your dog doesn’t have to walk far to get a drink. Raised water and food bowls can alleviate the strain on his neck and back. However, there is some controversy around raised food bowls. Some studies suggest they may increase the risk of bloat in some breeds. This is a life-threatening condition, so check with your veterinarian to see if an elevated food bowl would be beneficial for your own dog.
Create a safe environment for vision or hearing loss
If your dog is losing his vision, assist him by keeping the furniture in the same place so he knows his way around. Make sure there are no obstacles in his way. Remove or cover objects with sharp edges to prevent injuries should your dog bump into them.
For hearing loss, it’s a great idea to teach your dog hand signals as well as verbal cues. If he cannot hear you calling and tends to wander away, you may have to keep him on leash for his own safety.
Give him a safe haven
Some older dogs become less tolerant of puppies, children, or too much commotion in general. Watch for stress signals, such as yawning, panting, looking away, or a stiff body. No matter what his age, your dog should have a safe haven somewhere in the house. This can be a bed or crate, a spot under a desk or in a corner where your dog can retreat to get away from it all. No one should be allowed to bother him when he’s in his safe spot.
Check the temperature
Older dogs may become more sensitive to heat and cold. In the cooler weather, make sure your dog’s bed is protected from any drafts. He may also need a sweater when he goes outside. When it’s hot, provide a cool place for him. Keep him in the shade when he’s outdoors, and don’t exercise him in the heat.
Keeping your senior dog fit and mobile
Your dog may no longer to be able to run an agility course or go on strenuous hikes, but there are lots of other things you can and should do to keep him fit and mobile. Talk to your veterinarian before you start any new exercise program.
- Several shorter walks a day are better than one or two long ones. Adjust your pace to your dog’s instead of asking him to walk faster; he may increase his speed for you even if it causes him pain.
- Select easy routes that are appropriate for your dog’s physical abilities.
- If your dog has always enjoyed playing fetch or catching Frisbees, adjust the game by gently tossing the ball or toy from a short distance. Make sure he can catch it without having to jump.
- A gentle game of tug is another safe option.
- Canine rehabilitation facilities offer physical therapy not only for injured dogs but also for seniors, with the goal of pain management, increasing range of motion and flexibility, and improving strength. Hydrotherapy is a great low-impact exercise for a dog with achy joints. A canine physical therapist can also show you strengthening and stretching exercises you can do at home.
- Other supplemental therapies that can help with mobility issues and pain management are massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, laser treatment, and TTouch.
- Joint supplements may also be beneficial – consult your vet before starting any new supplements.
Always watch for signs of fatigue during any kind of exercise. When your dog starts to slow down, walks away, or pants excessively, it’s time to stop. Even better, stop before he gets to that point.
Maintain training and mental stimulation
Enrichment in the form of play sessions, new toys, training, and exposure to new sights, sounds, and smells is helpful in maintaining brain health and cognitive function.
When teaching your old dog new tricks, make sure you consider his physical abilities, and avoid high jumps or quick spins. Rolling over or “sitting pretty” might be uncomfortable or even painful for dogs with joint issues. Be patient, keep sessions short and fun, and only use positive training methods.
Regularly review his training cues, such as “sit”, “down”, or “come”. When pandemic conditions allow, consider enrolling your dog in a training class; some places tailor their curriculum to the needs of older dogs.
Scent work engages your dog’s natural ability to locate the source of certain smells. You can also hide treats around your house or yard for him to find. Treat-dispensing toys and puzzle games are another great way to make him work for food and stimulate his mind.
Continue to socialize your senior with people and other dogs and animals, provided he enjoys interacting with them. Make sure you select appropriate playmates; rambunctious adolescent dog will likely be too much for a senior.
Walk your dog in interesting areas where he can experience different scents, sounds, and sights. Dogs love to explore, and it’s a great way to provide mental stimulation and physical exercise at the same time.
Signs of aging and discomfort in dogs
The age at which a dog is considered a senior depends on his breed and size. Generally, the larger the dog, the earlier he becomes a senior.
Many people notice an overall “slowing down”. An aging dog may become less active and sleep more during the day. He might need more time to recover from exercise and/or takes more breaks during play sessions.
Some older dogs gain weight while others look skinnier because they have lost muscle mass.
A dog’s hearing, vision, and sense of smell may also decline as he ages.
- The cloudy eyes often seen in older dogs may not necessarily affect their vision. But if your dog doesn’t see squirrels running by, or if he frequently bumps into furniture and walls, his vision may be deteriorating.
- If your dog does not respond to your voice or other sounds, he may be losing his hearing.
- When he no longer finds all the treats you hide for him, it may be due to a decline in his sense of smell.
Joint and mobility issues
Joint pain and mobility concerns are among the most common health issues affecting senior dogs. Pay attention to the following signs of discomfort:
- Difficulty getting up
- Walking slowly
- Being hesitant to climb stairs, get into the car, or jump on the couch
- Standing crouched or crooked
- Shifting weight to the side in a sit position
- Changes in gait
- Licking or chewing a joint
- Panting excessively when the weather isn’t hot
- Drooling when no food is involved
- Flinching or showing aggression when touched in certain areas of the body
- Whining or whimpering
- Being more clingy or keeping away from you
- Ears flattened against the head
- Change in appetite, sleep pattern, or personality
A dog’s cognitive function tends to decline with age. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction require therapy and support. Talk to your veterinarian if you notice any of these signs:
- Change in social interactions
- Changes in sleep/wake cycles
- House soiling when your dog never did this before
- Decrease in activity
- Excessive barking
- Repetitive behavior, such as licking
Life with your senior dog will bring some new challenges, but also many beautiful moments. Enjoy every one of them!
Andrea Gronwald is a certified family dog trainer through Raise with Praise, Inc., owned and operated by Paul Owens, a leading positive dog training expert. She has worked with dogs as a volunteer for two Humane Societies. Andrea and her dog are also part of a volunteer pet therapy program for veterans. She recently started working as a trainer for a local dog training company. Andrea is a strong proponent of positive training methods.