Your older dog requires more attention as he enters his senior years, which occurs around 7 years of age for larger breeds and up to about 10 for smaller breeds. The aging process affects every organ system, so you'll want to devote careful observation to your aging pet to detect chronic diseases such as kidney disease, thyroid disease and diabetes. As he ages, plan on doting on your best buddy.
The aging process is slow; without knowledgeable observation, you may not notice your pooch entering his senior years. Not all dogs gray, but if they do, it is usually noticeable first around the muzzle area. Hearing becomes less sharp. If you call your dog and he doesn't respond, it's not necessarily because he is ignoring you if he's an older dog. He may not hear you. Observe your pet when he stands from a resting position: If it takes him longer to stand, it's probably because of aging joints. You may notice that your dog sleeps more and tires more quickly when playing, further evidence he's past his peak.
Once you have established that your dog has entered his senior years, watch for symptoms such as incontinence, constipation or diarrhea, coughing, weakness, weight loss, excessive drinking, shortness of breath, limping and uncharacteristic aggression. Dogs that are hurting may snap or growl. Weigh yours periodically and record his weight to share with your veterinarian. Another means of noting whether your dog's losing weight is to take note of how palpable his ribs are beneath your fingers; as weeks go by note whether you can feel them better. A healthy dog's ribs are palpable under the coat with your fingers. If you don't feel ribs, the dog's overweight. If you can see his ribs, he is underweight.
Besides monitoring the aging process in case of chronic illnesses, it's important to start your pooch on kibble formulated for senior dogs. A senior diet will maintain health and body weight as well as help to slow or prevent chronic diseases. A senior diet has a lower caloric density but provides the protein needed for muscle mass. Senior kibble tends to have antioxidants to boost an older pet's immune system, fiber to promote intestinal health and glucosamine for joints.
Making Him Comfortable
Keep your pooch inside more now that he is aging. Extreme heat and humidity will bother him more. If your dog is arthritic, consider ramps, extra blankets or even an orthopedic dog bed. You may need to carry him more, if his legs begin to drag. If he can still walk, plan on two or more slow walks each day as well as extra play for mental stimulation. If his eyesight is failing, keep obstacles out of his path. Feed him smaller meals throughout the day instead of one or two big meals. Keep his routine normal and avoid stressful situations, such as bringing a new pup into the house.
Senior dogs tend to have increased anxiety and related disorders. Whatever behavioral problems a dog had prior to old age, such as thunderstorm phobias, panic attacks and separation anxiety, will likely heighten. He will need comforting -- in the form of your presence and your touch, to control the panting, shaking and trembling. In many cases, a geriatric dog will want to be with you all the time. Even leaving the room while the dog's awake may be enough to trigger a panicked barking, howling or whining episode. Cognitive dysfunction becomes more apparent at this point in a dog's life. He may walk in circles, pace back and forth or forget to eat even while standing over his dog food. You may have to prompt him to eat. Part of dementia includes soiling, so you can expect to clean up more as the dog ages, particularly an arthritic, anxious or mentally unstable dog. It's likely you'll have to carry your dog more; some lame dogs need help eliminating, walking and standing from a lying position. Some dogs, in their twilight, want you to hold them nonstop. Consult your vet for help managing an older dog's quality of life.
By Pauline Gill
ASPCA: Feeding Older Dogs
Michigan Animal Hospital: Senior Pet Care
Iams: Special Nutritional Needs of Older Pets
Westwood Animal Hospital: Behavior Problems in Geriatric Dogs by Wayne Hunthausen, DVM
About the Author
Pauline Gill is a retired teacher with more than 25 years of experience teaching English to high school students. She holds a bachelor's degree in language arts and a Master of Education degree. Gill is also an award-winning fiction author.