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5 Tips for Caring for Senior Dogs

We've had so many, our place resembles a canine geriatric home. Here's what we've learned.

 |  Nov 15th 2013  |   93 Contributions


We have had a senior dog household since 2003, when our chocolate Lab, Sally, turned eight. At the time we had another dog, Tino, who was just a year younger. Tino and Sally have passed within the past few years, and we’ve debated whether we should adopt a puppy, a young adult, or a senior to add to our family. We've opted for seniors.

The first senior we adopted was Becca. She was a beautiful black Lab and an owner-surrendered service dog. She was 10 years of age, and given that our other dog, Tino, was blind, we thought Becca’s calm demeanor and near-perfect service dog behavior would be well suited for him. A rambunctious puppy just wouldn’t work. Becca was the right match.

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Sweet Sally Brown, Age 12

When Tino passed a few years later, we again debated the pros and cons of puppy vs. adult vs. senior, but we had seen firsthand the benefits of an older dog, and we knew that once dogs are past a certain age, they are much harder to adopt out and tend to languish in the shelters. Everyone wants a puppy, no one wants a senior citizen. Except us, I guess. We’ve adopted three senior citizens so far -- our latest being Jack, a big yellow Lab, and Maggie, a black Lab –- both with estimated ages of eight to nine years.

You could say we’re running a canine geriatric home of sorts, but we find that senior dogs fit into our quiet lifestyle, and they are usually very calm and well-behaved. Combine that with the fact that they are easily overlooked at the rescues in favor of the bouncy puppies or strong young adults, and it was a win-win for us all. Over the course of the last 10 years, we’ve learned a great deal about caring for older dogs, recognizing their special needs and making the required adjustments, both mental and physical, to accommodate them. 

For those of you just entering this phase of your dog’s life, or for those considering adopting a senior, here's a few tips we've learned:

1. Scale back exercise

We are big on exercise, for ourselves and for our dogs. Our dogs have always run with us at least three to four times a week and then been walked on the off days. As your dog gets older, the amount of activity should be scaled back to accommodate natural aging as well as any orthopedic issues or arthritis that may develop. Several shorter walks are better than one long one. Skipping days is also an option. Playing fetch may be another area where you may need to scale back. Dogs will let you know when they are tired.

Our Becca used to pick up her ball and go back in the house when she got tired from playing fetch. Follow your dog’s lead and make sure you adjust appropriately. In addition, try other low impact exercise options for your senior, including swimming and balance/core exercises, even Pilates.

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SlimDoggy Jack works his core on the Pilates Balance Ball.

2. Adjust nutritional needs

Dietary adjustments should be made as your dog’s nutritional requirements change. Your dog’s digestive system is aging and your dog may not be able to digest the same types or volumes of foods she did when she was younger. We switched all of our dogs to a senior food diet around age eight. It's usually a bit lower in calories, and since we have Labs, weight is always a concern. If you feed your dog treats or table scraps, be more careful about what you give them. Maggie has had a couple of her teeth pulled, so she can't chew on hard bones or treats -- she prefers the softer ones. Again, watch your dogs' behaviors and take cues from them. If they are leaving things uneaten, or are taking twice as long to get through something they used to gobble up, you might want to rethink and adjust.

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Try a food trial to determine whether your dog is allergic to ingredients in his food.

3. Start annual vet checks, and watch for signs of trouble

Most vets suggest an annual senior checkup once a dog reaches age eight. They do a blood panel, urinalysis and exam, checking on all the basic bodily functions. Your vet will keep records of their weight as well as the lab results that show how their internal organs are performing. Older dogs tend to develop lots of lumps and bumps. Usually they are simple lipomas (a simple fatty lump), but sometimes they can be more significant lymphomas or mast cell tumors. Any new lumps you detect should be checked by your vet immediately. Labs have a tendency towards these fatty lumps, but our vet keeps a record of the ones that have been checked to help defray the expense.

You also want to watch for shortness of breath, fatigue, upset stomach or changes in bathroom habits -- the same signs you watch for in an elder human. Know the hereditary diseases your breed of dog may be susceptible to and what the symptoms are so you can catch potential problems early. Follow your instinct and check with your vet if you are suspicious. 

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Maggie would rather be sitting in the sun than at the vets. Age 8.5

4. Don't overlook rehabilitation -- and even prehabilitation

Like humans, dogs benefit from many different rehabilitation modalities. There are more and more canine rehab and physical therapy facilities available these days, such as water treadmills, electrical stimulation, laser therapy, and exercise modalities using balance balls. Labs have a tendency towards orthopedic problems, and Becca, being a service dog who carried a pack, had severe spinal issues. We have used rehab/prehab to help our older dogs recover from injury, as well as prevent injuries from occurring in the first place by building strength. Being Labs, they love the whole water treadmill idea, and Becca used to play fetch while on the treadmill! We've also used acupuncture for pain relief and arthritis.

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Becca walks on the water treadmill and plays fetch at the same time.

5. Watch for changes in your dog's mental state

Yes, there is such a thing as doggy dementia. Our dog Tino, who passed when he was almost 15, developed dementia. He was blind from age nine, so at times it was hard to tell whether it was due to the blindness or the dementia when he was acting weird, but as he aged there were noticeable indications. Dementia signs to watch for include a sort of restlessness or agitation, circling the room, circling in place, and disorientation. Your dog might forget where he is or where he is going -- and maybe even forget who you are.

Tino would frequently get stuck in corners or behind furniture -- and this was one of those areas where his blindness certainly didn't help! Loss of bowel and bladder control is frequently observed, so be prepared to purchase with some doggy diapers (yes, they have those). These developments can be disturbing to some people. I will be honest and admit that Tino's declining mental state was a contributing factor in our decision to finally euthanize him. The good news is that there have been many developments and advancements in recent years in treating canine cognitive dysfunction, so be sure and discuss these options with your vet.

Our current dog pack, Jack and Maggie, feel almost like youngsters to us, given their relatively young ages of eight-plus years. We haven’t begun to experience too many of the issues on our list, but I expect there will be lots more learning in the next few years as they grow old with us.

What’s the good part of having senior dogs? That’s easy –- just look at that loving face in the picture of our Sweet Sally Brown at the top of this story. Do you think you see that loving wisdom in a puppy’s eyes? No way. Do you think she chewed my shoes or dug up my yard or ran from me when I called her? No way. What she did do was lie comfortably on the sofa and wait for me to join her for some snuggles and belly rubs.

Oh, yeah, and senior dogs do a lot of this:

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Tino asleep in the sunshine, Age 14

Do you have other tips for caring for senior pets? Share your experience in the comments!

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