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Dog Senior Care - How to Provide Quality of Life For Senior Dogs

What is the most important thing to know about taking care of my senior dog?

One of the most important things to know is that they need special attention and care because they are older. And as pets age, they are more prone to certain diseases and problems that can occur.


Dr. Nichola Gaither
Animal Hospital of Statesville

What is the life expectancy of a dog?

That kind of depends on the breed and the size of the dog. The smaller the dog, the longer the lifespan, the larger the dog, the shorter the lifespan. That doesn't exactly always hold true. But for our small dogs, typically 15, 16, 17 is old for them, where 9, 10, or 11 is older for our giant or large breed dogs.

How does getting older impact the health of my dog?

Great question. Old age itself is not a disease, but I realize that certain things are harder to get over as I get older. It takes a little longer to recover from certain injuries or problems that we might have, and just as our bodies get older and are more susceptible to certain diseases, the same goes for dogs.

How can wellness care extend the life and the comfort of my dog?

Regular wellness checkups include a thorough physical exam that would also include blood work and testing that can pick up on diseases early. And anything that we can detect early before your pet becomes symptomatic usually carries a much better prognosis.

What are the most common health problems in senior dogs?

Going back to the breeds, arthritis and joint disease are significant issues we see in giant or large breed dogs. And then, dental disease is a big one that we see in smaller dogs. Of course, both of those can occur in large and small breed dogs, and they're the two most common issues that we see in senior dogs.

Does my senior dog still need its annual wellness exams or semi-annuals, vaccines, and preventive care?

Good question. As they become senior pets, we recommend that they continue certain vaccines based on their lifestyle and based on their risks. Again, as their bodies age, they are more susceptible to certain diseases, so we want to keep them well-protected. And as far as preventative care, the more we can prevent, the less we have to treat.

What are some signs and symptoms that my dog might be slowing down?

Great question. Things that I tend to talk my clients about is perhaps if your dog usually greets you at the door when you come in from work, and now they are looking up and wagging their tail, but they're staying where they're laying down, that could indicate that they're arthritic, uncomfortable, or sore. And just in general, any change to normal is something to note. Of course, they're going to change as they grow older, and that might be their new normal, but when things change, there's usually a reason for that.

Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing whether my dog is slowing down or whether they're sick?

Great question. By self-diagnosing or Google diagnosing, we might get the wrong diagnosis. We want to make sure that we're taking into account the whole pet's health. By doing a thorough physical exam, we can check those things and get them on the appropriate activity, exercise regimen, or medications if needed to help with that.

When you examine a senior dog, what are you looking for?

When we do our physical exams, we do a thorough physical exam. We usually do that from the nose to the tail. We're looking at the teeth for dental disease, as I mentioned. We're listening to the heart and the lungs to see if they're breathing appropriately. We're checking for ear infections. We're looking at the eyes. Cataracts are something that we see as dogs age. And then we're feeling their belly for any problems internally that they may not be able to tell us about. Dogs can't tell us where it hurts, so we're checking them through feeling, listening, or looking at them.

Do you do glaucoma checks and tear tests and blood work to see how they've changed?

Beyond the physical exam, the tests that we routinely recommend are blood pressure and eye pressure for glaucoma. Some pets can have dry eyes, so we give them the tear test, and blood work is always a good idea.

If I want to adopt a senior dog, what kind of things do I need to know?

Know that a senior dog could be at higher risk for certain diseases or problems, but they might not be. Just because you're a senior dog doesn't mean you have any issues or problems, but you need to know that there could be a bit more care involved. They may need more attention. If you're adopting, you don't know their history, so you might want to try to find out if they're not used to being alone or having separation issues or anything like that. And if you can get a medical history on them, that would be great, but many times our rescues or shelter adoptions don't have the privilege of having those records. That's why the initial physical exam by a veterinarian and some routine lab work would be good to know. Do they have heartworm disease? Are their organs functioning well? Does their heart sound good? And then, of course, we look at their weight and all those things that would help to determine their quality of life.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Dog Senior Care - FAQs 1


Dr. Nichola Gaither
Animal Hospital of Statesville

What is the difference between a mature dog, a senior dog, and a geriatric dog?

Great question. So the general definition is where the dog is in their life. Our mature dog is no longer a spring chicken, but they are mature, so, for example, a small breed dog may be between the ages of five to seven. A senior dog for a smaller breed (because they tend to live a little longer) would be about 10 to 13. And then our geriatric would be more like 15 to 18. So I know I didn't align those up precisely, but that's the basic timeline.

Our mature, large or giant breed dogs would be more like three to five years old. And so you think about a three-year-old being young, but in a giant breed dog, that lifespan might be 9 to 10 years, so that would be mature. The senior would be more like the six to eight years old, and then the geriatric is 9 to 10 or 11.

Should I encourage my senior dog to exercise and, if so, what kind of exercises and training would be good for them?

Yes. It is good to continue exercising regularly with your dog. Hopefully, your dog would have been conditioned to do that all alone. So that would be good to continue with a normal range of motion, low impact exercises like walking or swimming. We don't want to do a lot of high-impact jumping, twisting, or turning, because that can be a little harder on the joints. So you want to be a bit careful with that. Let them be the judge of that. You don't want to push them beyond their limits, but encouraging your dog to exercise is very good for them.

What kind of nutritional or dietary changes do I need to make for my senior dog?

For our senior dogs, a lot of it goes back to their lifestyle. Think of it like people—if we're a little bit more sedentary, if we're watching movies a little more or sitting around the house a little more, our dog is also likely inside more than outside and not getting quite as much exercise. In this case, the dog will need fewer treats and fewer calories to take in, so we need to be aware of that. We can spoil them a little bit too much with treats. But if they are an active senior pet, then they still might need the appropriate calories. What you want to make sure in general is that they don't gain too much weight. And then we think about our giant or large breed dogs needing joint supplements, that's something nutritionally we can add in, and we often do recommend adding that into the diet along with, perhaps, an omega-3 or fish oil supplement.

Do you need to feed a senior dog senior food?

Yes. That would be a great idea if your pet needed that, and the softer the food, the better. Of course, we would want to address the dental disease directly.

And also, there are senior diets that are marketed to be a little lower calorie. Some have more of the antioxidants and nutrients that our older pets would need, which is why we often recommend transitioning to senior dog food as your dog gets older.

How can I make my home more senior-friendly?

Great question. Again, I go back to thinking about that low-impact lifestyle for senior dogs, so one thing might be adding a ramp to your home if it has many stairs. You want a good grip, as dogs lose their grip. You'll see them splay out, or their limbs or their back end will collapse. If you have carpeted areas, that's usually great traction for them. If you have rugs, you want to make sure there are non-slip surfaces underneath and make sure any stairs have a good footing on them.

Some people will add steps to their bed if their pet likes to sleep with them, so they don't have to jump up or jump down. Also, avoid creating a giant obstacle course for them. If you do have many things in your home, make sure they have a clear path to the door. Sometimes as our dogs age, they can lose vision or hearing. Making those pathways nice and clear for them can help them out, too. If you have a taller dog, raising their dog bowls can also help, as that's less strain on their neck and can help them out overall.

What are some things I can do to make my aging dog a bit more comfortable?

On top of adding the supplements and adjusting the steps in your home, make sure they have a nice, cushy bed to sleep on. I have clients tell me that they have this orthopedic bed right here, and then the pet sleeps right here on the hard floor. Just like us, some dogs prefer different things. But allowing them nice cushioned areas helps because, as they age, their muscle mass may decrease, and they have more joint issues. If your aging dog isn't used to being an outside pet, be careful about how much time they spend outdoors in hot summers and cold winters because they may not regulate their body temperature as much, notably smaller breed dogs.

What are some things that I can do to help extend my senior dog's life?

One important thing would be regular well checks, regular preventative care by keeping them on appropriate heartworm prevention, keeping the appropriate vaccines up to date, having the exam, and then having blood screened. We do all this so, if there are any problems, we can detect those early, and doing so often carries a better prognosis.

You also want to be present and really pay attention to them. I often say I wish our pets could talk to us. And in some ways, they do in those subtle ways. They let us know that they're not feeling well or that they're changing things they're doing at home. Being aware of your dog's behavior changes lets you know if they're having trouble with something.

Dogs also need that mental stimulation of going out for a walk, going somewhere different, going for a ride if they can get in the car, instead of "vegging" in place.

Are there environmental changes I should make as my dog grows older?

Yes, you should offer a more secure location for them to sleep and bedding. If they're not an indoor dog, you may want to have a warmer area for them to sleep in in the evening or at night. As we mentioned, elevating their bowls can help if they have arthritis. You also want to ensure they have easy access to bowls to not have to walk a long way to the water or food bowl.

What behavior changes could I notice in my senior dog?

As your dog ages, they can lose some of their hearing, so you may notice that they don't respond as quickly to you. They may not come. If you're outside, you want to be aware when you're driving that you don't put your car in reverse quickly so that your pet has time to get out of the way. Even if they can hear, they may be slower to rise. Greetings might change too. You could see them wagging their tail and looking at you happily, but they don't get up as quickly to greet you.

Another thing to think about is adding another pet when your pet becomes a senior. Some people want to think about getting a new dog, a new puppy, or even a cat. Consider how your dog might interact with that new addition. Doing so brings some senior dogs back to their puppy stages, and they get active and happy. Some are less thrilled about the new addition, so that's something to think about, and you may even want to do a trial run before you commit to adopting or getting another pet.

Why would my senior dog yowl at night?

There's not just one answer to that. That could be for many reasons. Sometimes, it is because they are a little disoriented. We sometimes see some cognitive dysfunction as pets age, and they may do things that they didn't normally do. Sometimes, things bother them. Things that didn't bother people do so more as they age, and the same thing for pets. A pet that didn't care about thunderstorms may suddenly get more excited, so the vocalization can be one way that they express that.

While we associate vocalization with pain, and that can be accurate, it just doesn't always go hand in hand. Because if you think about it, a lot of times, pets hide their pain. So if a dog's in pain, again, it may be more reclusive or stay in one area versus getting up and getting around. And the crying out or the yowling may be more of a cognitive reaction versus a pain response. Sometimes, it's attention-seeking. They may become a little bit more attached and have more separation issues.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Dog Senior Care - FAQs 2


Dr. Nichola Gaither
Animal Hospital of Statesville

How can I evaluate my senior dog's quality of life?

The clients that I interact with are the best judge of their pet's quality of life because they're with them every day. I get asked whether a client's pet is doing well or if I know what the quality of life is. And the things that I talk about is your experience at home. I see a skewed version of that when they're here because they may not be getting up at home, and then the dog comes in the exam room, and they're walking around constantly in the room. And that can be due to anxiety or their adrenaline being up. So what you experience at home and how you see their day-to-day life is an excellent way to judge that.

What are the signs that my dog is dying?

That can be a tough question to answer, but your pet may change their breathing habits; they may go into labored breathing. The dog may not want to eat or drink, or they may not want to move around. Those would be signs that your pet isn't doing well.

How can I tell if my dog is in pain?

Pain can be exhibited in multiple ways. We often think about our pets being vocal. As humans, we may be vocal if we are in pain, but often dogs hide it. Because dogs hide pain, you're looking for more subtle changes from their normal behavior. If the dog is slower to rise when they get up, they could have some arthritic pain. If they change their eating habits and only eat soft food, they may have dental or mouth pain. If your dog no longer greets you when you come in, they don't jump up like they used to, don't sleep on the bed with you, or they sleep on the floor; these could be signs that they're uncomfortable and don't want to move around.

What's the difference between hospice and palliative care?

Palliative care is more trying to keep your pet comfortable while still trying to treat your pet, and hospice, in general, is thought of as more keeping them comfortable for that end-of-life stage.

What is euthanasia for a senior dog?

Euthanasia is, in my opinion, making a kind decision love your dog enough to let them go—an end-of-life decision.

What is involved in euthanasia?

We have a conversation about that with you first, and we make sure that you feel that that time is right. I have many of those conversations with my clients about concerns over not wanting to make that decision too soon. But sometimes, the bigger regret is they didn't make that decision soon enough. And so that's a tough call to make. And through that conversation and a physical exam, we may be able to come to the best decision for you and your pet.

The way that we do euthanasia here at the Animal Hospital of Statesville is to make it as painless and as pleasant as possible for something that's not pleasant to think or talk about. We give them a sedative first that just calms them and all but puts them to sleep, and then we give them the final injection.

How can I tell if it's time to euthanize my dog?

There can be many changes. We often associate eating with feeling good, but that's not always the case, especially for our larger breeds. Some large breed dogs - like labs - will eat until the very end. But I tend to say their back half is kind of shut down, as those are the dogs that often can't get up to use the bathroom, and they can't get up to move. They may have pressure sores. They may not have control of their bowels or their bladder, making that a personal decision for everyone. Some dog owners may tolerate more nursing care than others. It ends up being a summation of all those things that diminish the dog's quality of life.

Would it be better to let my senior dog pass away on their own?

That's not an uncommon question. When that time comes, many of us want to think about being able to pass away in our sleep, or I hear many clients say, "I wish they would just go in their sleep," when they know that their dog is uncomfortable and at that end-stage. And again, I believe that's a personal decision. For veterinary medicine, we're able to decide on humane euthanasia when that time comes, so I think that's more of a question directly for the client to talk about personally. But I do feel that humane euthanasia is a kind decision we can make for them.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

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