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Michael Dym, V.M.D.
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How to Care for a Senior Dog

When you bring a dog into your life, you do so knowing that your faithful companion will inevitably grow older. As the years pass, you begin to see changes in your dog: a silvering of the muzzle, decreasing energy levels and other physical and behavioral changes. While it can be difficult to watch your once-energetic dog slow down, the good news is that there are steps you can take to help slow down the aging process and keep your senior dog happy and healthy for many years to come.

At what age is a dog considered to be a senior?

Unlike humans where a senior is defined as age 65 and older, there is no hard-and-fast rule regarding when a dog is considered a senior. This is because, in general, a dog's lifespan will vary depending upon the size of the dog. Large or giant breed dogs tend to have a shorter lifespan, and therefore become "senior" at an earlier age than do smaller dogs. A rough guide is that dogs are considered to be senior between 5 and 10 years of age, with giant breeds at the shorter end of the spectrum and smaller dogs becoming seniors at a later age.

Schedule routine vet visits

The term "senior" is a description of a dog's life stage and doesn't necessarily reflect a dog's health status — just because a dog is considered "senior" doesn't mean he or she is unhealthy. With some extra TLC, it's possible for an aging dog to remain active and healthy. One of the most crucial steps you can take to keep your senior pet healthy is regular veterinary care. The earlier a potential problem is identified and treated, the better the outcome for your dog. Because pets are expert at hiding signs of illness, routine health checks for your senior dog should be scheduled with your veterinarian at least every 6 months.

Common health problems of senior dogs

As your pet's guardian, it's important to be observant for any physical or behavioral changes that may indicate a potential problem, and this is especially important for senior dogs. Don't assume that any change you observe in your senior pet is just a normal part of the aging process. Some issues you should be alert for include:

Dental disease and senior dogs

Dental disease is a problem often found even in younger dogs, and if not addressed, can become a painful and serious condition by the time a dog is a senior. Dental cleaning under sedation is more risky with older pets, so help keep your dog's teeth clean with an at-home dental care plan. Regular tooth brushing with toothpaste formulated for pets is the best thing you can do at home to help maintain your pet's dental health. Supplement regular brushing with an oral rinse or water additive, and treat your dog with dental chews that can help keep your dog's teeth clean.

Joint pain and aging dogs

One of the early signs of aging in dogs is a general slowing down: your pet isn't as playful, has difficulty rising, and may not be as eager for that long walk as he or she once was. Arthritis, usually caused by wear-and-tear on your dog's joints, is a problem many senior dogs experience. Luckily, there are a range of options to care for a senior dog with joint pain. A joint supplement containing glucosamine can help promote and maintain healthy joints. For more advanced cases of painful joints caused by arthritis, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription pain medication for your dog. If your dog has difficulty jumping, you can provide your dog with a ramp or pet steps to allow easier access to the sofa or other areas in the home. A senior dog with joint pain will especially appreciate a comfy orthopedic dog bed!

Behavioral changes of senior dogs

Behavioral changes in senior dogs can be the result of a cognitive impairment, a physical impairment, or a combination of both. Changes in vision and hearing, painful joints, heart, liver or kidney disease can all lead to marked behavioral changes in your older dog. You'll need your veterinarian's help to get to the root cause of your dog's behavioral changes.

Nutrition and senior dogs

As your dog ages and his or her activity level decreases, your dog's caloric requirement will also naturally decrease. Failing to address your senior dog's changing nutritional needs can result in obesity. Carrying extra weight will also put extra stress on a senior dog's already-painful bones and joints. On the other hand, some senior dogs may experience a decrease in appetite, and you may find it difficult to tempt your dog to eat enough.

Most senior dogs can benefit from a higher-fiber, reduced calorie diet. It's important to feed your senior dog a pet food with a high-quality protein to help maintain muscle mass. There are also many supplements for senior pets that can help improve your dog's symptoms of aging. If your dog has any medical conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease for example, you'll want to speak with your veterinarian for specific dietary recommendations.

After many long years together, your dog's "golden years" are a time to treasure. Some extra loving care and attention is one small way you can repay your dog for many years of loyal companionship.

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