Even though your dog may be slowing down a little, there’s no reason why his later years shouldn’t be some of his most rewarding. After all, he’s wiser as well as older, and with regular veterinary attention, daily care and proper nutrition, your senior dog can still experience a very happy, healthy life.
However, you can’t ignore the fact that your dog’s body condition will change as the years go by. Important bodily functions, normally taken for granted, may start to slow down or malfunction.
Just like humans, the senses eventually start to deteriorate, leading to impaired vision, hearing, taste and smell. Appetite may decrease and very old dogs often get thinner, with the shoulders and spine becoming more prominent.
How old is your dog?
Dogs are often older than we think they are, especially when we’ve had them as puppies and have always been used to their energetic behaviour. It’s always hard to guess-timate the age of a dog, especially when there are considerable differences between breeds. Generally speaking, small dogs live the longest, while large breeds have relatively short lifespans (a Great Dane, for instance, is considered ‘old’ at six).
In addition to a dog’s breed, specific lifestyle factors – such as diet, exercise and medical history – affect how long a particular dog will live.
The signs of doggy aging
The most practical way to tell if your dog is growing old is to observe his or her behaviour and appearance. Simply put, how old does your dog act, look, and feel?
Energy levels start decreasing.
Experiencing apparent stiffness in the joints and difficulty getting up after lying down, or after a long walk.
Thicker, less pliable skin. Rougher and thinner coat, with bald patches or white hairs.
Deafness, revealed by a failure to respond to commands or calling their name.
Tooth and gum conditions – look out for food being dropped or excessive salivation and pawing at the mouth. Swellings below the eye may be signs of tooth root abscesses and need vet attention.
Warts, fatty lumps and even tumours may appear. Check these out with your vet, as early detection may save your dog’s life.
Excessive thirst and frequent or uncontrolled urination.
Confusion or failure to recognise their surroundings.
Depression, disobedience and occasionally destructive behaviour.
A hazy, bluish cast on the eyes, which is normal and usually does not hinder the eyesight. However, the hazy, whitish growth of cataracts can lead to blindness. Your vet can help you distinguish the difference.
A tendency to sleep more during the day but sleep less at night. Some dogs may prowl around the house at night because of sore joints, senility or even loneliness.
Weight gain – a particular problem with senior dogs.
The day will come when you’ll start spotting the signs of old age [see box], but that doesn’t mean you have to wrap your dog in cotton wool and start to worry. You just need to adjust your routine and take a few precautions.
Proper medical care
Regular check-ups are a must for older dogs. In addition to annual vaccinations and examinations, talk to your vet about special geriatric screenings for your dog. Also, try to keep a record of any warning signs and report them to your vet.
Obesity and arthritis are two of the most common problems experienced by older dogs, so regular exercise is very important. However, if your dog has arthritis, consult your vet before beginning an exercise program.
A consistent daily routine is important to your older dog’s physical, mental and emotional health, providing comfort and a reassuring framework.
Healthy skin and coat
As part of your regular routine, you may want to schedule a special grooming session at least once a week. Bathing your older dog regularly is also very important. This is another great opportunity to give your dog that loving attention he needs.
Healthy teeth and gums
Routine dental care from your vet is very important, as older dogs are more prone to gum disease and tartar build-up. In addition to regular visits to a professional, it’s always a good idea for you to check your dog’s teeth and gums regularly.
Try to be sensitive to what your older dog is going through and understand that a lot of psychological changes are taking place. Daily care of your older dog requires a little more patience on your part. Your loving care and commitment really helps create true quality of life during these senior years.
Nutrition for older dogs
Aside from ensuring regular veterinary care, understanding the changing nutritional needs of your senior dog is one of the most important things you can do.
In general, dogs of seven years and older start taking life a bit easier and, as a result, their nutritional needs start to change once more. Senior dogs are less active and have a slower metabolism, so fewer calories are required. But high-quality, easy-to-digest protein becomes more important than ever, to help maintain overall body condition.
A good senior diet should provide:
Concentrated, high-quality, low-fat protein
Easy-to-digest carbohydrates for energy;
Key minerals to support ageing joints;
Vitamins that, along with the protein, help fight infections that the body may become vulnerable to as the immune system declines.
Manufactured senior dog foods are formulated to reflect these changes in nutritional requirement and feeding habits, meaning your dog can continue to enjoy mealtimes to the full without compromising on the essentials.
You should feed your dog once or twice a day, but may find your dog prefers to eat smaller meals more frequently. This is quite normal, as it’s easier to digest several small meals than a few large ones.