Caring for your senior dog

A growing number of dogs are living past their mid-teens. Here are seven factors to consider when caring for your senior canine companion.

Sweet was our border collie/pointer mix. Beyond being a wonderful companion, she lived past her 18th birthday. Quite an accomplishment, especially when you realize most dogs are considered to be a senior when they reach seven or eight – less than half Sweet’s age! She was lucky enough to have no terminal illnesses, despite her advanced age. In fact, up until the end, she had no serious or life-threatening medical conditions. She was just very, very old, and as such, required a heightened level of care, attention and patience.

By the time most dogs reach seven, they begin to slow down a little, and you must start making adjustments for them, perhaps changing the diet or exercise regime, and being more vigilant about age-related medical issues. But what about dogs that are super old, say 17 or 18 or more? In human terms, that would be well past 100! Granted, not many dogs make it that far, but some do now, thanks in part to an increased awareness of quality nutrition and the importance of exercise, as well as regular veterinary care that draws on alternative as well as conventional therapies. Of course, good genes also play a role.

Drawing from our own experiences with “Old Sweet”, I am sharing seven things to consider when caring for a “super senior”.

1. Hearing, eyesight and sense of smell

These are often the first to fail. Sweet’s hearing was almost 95% gone, although her eyesight was fine for a dog her age, keeping in mind that most older dogs develop cataracts of some sort. To get Sweet’s attention, we used hand signals and other visual prompts.

Many very old dogs are both blind and deaf, which presents a greater challenge. Just remember not to walk up on or touch the dog suddenly or from behind; if she doesn’t hear or see you coming, it could startle her.

Although smell is the strongest of canine senses, it can also diminish in a super geriatric dog. Signs include licking rather than sniffing objects. Licking compensates for a diminished sense of smell.

2. Sleep patterns

All dogs sleep a fair bit as they age, especially if they get sufficient exercise. Super old dogs like Sweet sleep at least 18 hours or more a day.

3. Oral health

It’s not uncommon for very old dogs to have dental problems and even brittle, weakened teeth. A quality natural diet and regular veterinary care are paramount to keeping the teeth and gums in as good a condition as possible. Depending on the dog’s age, and how well her teeth were cared for throughout her life, she may have to have a few extracted as she gets older.

Ensure the dog is able to chew her food adequately – you might want to switch to a high quality wet food if she has been used to eating kibble. Chew toys of any type might become less interesting to a “super senior”. Avoid giving her very hard objects, over-sized biscuits, or toys that could put a strain on aged teeth.

4. Diet

Old dogs will eat more slowly and take smaller bites. Their stomachs have changed, and rapid intake or “inhaling” of food will often cause them to vomit. Feed your old dog smaller amounts of food more often; this will be easier on her digestive system. Ensure she is eating a high quality diet, and talk to an integrative or holistic vet about any supplements that could help her stay healthy.

If your dog no longer has any desire to eat or drink at all, it may be a sign of a serious medical situation that should be addressed by a vet as soon as possible.

5. Mobility

The hind legs are often the first to go in very old dogs. Your dog may be wobbly, fall down a lot, or miss a step. Be vigilant, and patiently and gently help her to her feet. Soft massages are helpful. You can also get canine mobility aids that make walking and getting up and down easier. Keep in mind that the longer your dog can continue to stand up and walk, even if for very brief periods, the better her muscle tone and strength will remain. However, do not take her for long walks. It’s not necessary and may be too much exertion for her.

Avoid slippery floors by putting runner carpets down, so your dog gets better traction. Do not let her climb up or down stairs. One miscue and she could fall, causing life-ending injury. Small or medium-sized dogs should be carried up and down stairs, and a doggie gate installed at the top or bottom. Dogs too large to be carried (and almost none of these make it past their mid-teens anyhow) should be kept on a ground-level floor and provided with a thick, foam-type mattress in a warm place.

If your dog reaches a point where she cannot stand or walk at all, this is a significant cue that her quality of life is quickly descending, and that it may be time to say goodbye. Being able to walk and stand are fundamentally important to a dog’s well being.

6. Urination/defecation

Just like old people, a “super senior” dog will have weakened bladder and/or bowel control. Frequent “accidents” in the house are the norm. They are understandably stressful, but only love, respect and loyalty for your dog will allow you to deal with them as best you can.

Use the accidents to monitor the dog’s state of health – urine should be checked for blood, and stools should be formed and consistent. If you have to go out for a few hours, expect that she may have an accident, and confine her to a comfortable area where the mess will be easier to clean up.

Very old dogs will also have weak sphincter muscles, and are therefore more likely to have a bowel movement while asleep. Don’t crate the old-timer, as there is nothing more depleting to her dignity than creating a situation in which she has to lie in her own pee or poop.

7. Dementia

This happens to dogs too, often in subtle ways, such as standing and staring at a wall or walking around in circles. Gently try to divert your dog’s attention with a soft touch, and ensure there is nothing around the home that she could hurt herself on. Supplements such as ginkgo biloba can be helpful for dementia, but consult a holistic vet before starting your dog on anything new.

Don’t forget the TLC

Your old dog may not lather you with kisses anymore, or even wag her tail as much as she used to. But every dog loves a gentle rub, stroke or cuddle. In fact, your love and affection are very reassuring and comforting to her. Be sure to spend some quiet quality time with her every day – it will help her feel better and happier.

Keep in mind, though, that senior dogs may become skittish around small children and playful, bouncy young dogs. Best to avoid these situations. Your “super senior” needs and deserves a life free of even minor stresses.

Old dogs are stoical. They don’t complain much. Good care will keep them going a long time, but when they are ready to go, you’ll see the signs. They stop eating, drinking, walking, standing or paying attention to you or their surroundings. They are letting nature take its course, and so should you, not just with heartache, but with appreciation for having had a dog blessed with super longevity.



Charles Gordon is an actor, writer and retired corporate communications executive who has lived and worked in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. He has appeared regularly on TV, radio and in film. He and his wife are dog lovers and have owned several breeds and crosses.