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  • Jamie F., CVT

Pups At Heart: Tips on Caring for Your Senior Dog

Dogs have truly become members of the family over the years and are living longer lives now more than ever! This is mostly due to better and more routine veterinary care, as well as, excellent, more individualized nutritional care. Caring for your senior dog is a lot different than your brand new puppy or even your middle aged adult!

When is a Dog a Senior?

Chart comparing dog age to human age

So when does your dog become a senior? Well, it really depends on the size of your dog. The chart below is from the American Veterinary Medical Association that breaks it down for us:

As you can see, the larger the dog the faster they age. The key to prolonging your best friend’s life is adjusting their care as the years go by.

Veterinary Care for Older Dogs

Did you know senior pets should be evaluated by their veterinarians at least every 6 months versus the standard annual wellness check? This helps to catch any significant changes to their health early so that we are able to intervene to keep them happy and healthy. Our senior dogs are at risk for many of the same things senior humans are such as arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, dementia and more. Your veterinarian may recommend more frequent lab work (blood panels and urinalysis), radiographs or other diagnostic tests as your pet ages.

Our dogs’ nutritional needs change as well when they enter their senior years. Their calorie requirements will change as their energy levels decrease and they often need diets that are more readily digestible. Weight gain is something that tends to be more common in our senior pets and can be detrimental to their overall health. Healthy amounts of age appropriate exercise is extremely important to help maintain your dog’s mobility and muscle mass.

You may need to adjust your dog’s environment as they age. Such as relocating your pet’s food or bed to an area more accessible to him/her. Consider the use of a doggie ramp to help your dog get in and out of the vehicle, on and off furniture, or up and down the stairs.

Enrichment for Senior Dogs

Keeping your dog's mind engaged is even more important as they get older! They may not be able to run and play as much but there are still plenty of way to keep them entertained.

Mental stimulation

Food puzzles and toys are a great, low impact way to spice up your dog's day! Hide a treat under a few cups, mix the cups around, and have your dog find the treat or use a snuffle mat for one of their meals. Another great option is to play hide and seek with treats by placing their favorite treats around the house and encouraging them to “find them .”

Environmental stimulation

As our dogs age, their whole world starts to get smaller and smaller because they can’t be as active in as many places as they were before, but keeping their environment stimulating is another way to keep them happy longer. Some ways to do that are to go to a park with a bench, a beach, or any area outside the home and just sit and let the noises, smells, people, and surroundings stimulate their brain. You can start doing sniff-safaris; let your dog lead on a longer leash and smell from object to object. You can do this around your neighborhood, yard, or even in a new location like a park, hiking trail, etc. Allowing them to sniff makes it slow-paced and not too physically taxing but still mentally stimulating.

If your dog likes the car, you can go on short car rides with the windows rolled down to change the scenery and smells.

Physical stimulation

Massaging your dog is a great way to physically stimulate them and help that human-animal bond. When your dog is relaxed on the floor, you can gently massage down the sides of the spine from the neck to the tail, working each side equally. This helps release any tension. Next, you can gently massage the muscles on the back side of the front limbs between the elbow and the trunk on the body or the front side of the hind leg between the knee and where the hind leg meets the trunk. Releasing the tension from their aching muscles can help them feel instantly happier. If you dog, pulls away or seems uncomfortable, stop and contact your veterinarian.

Most senior dogs can benefit from some arthritis-friendly home therapy. Check with you vet to see if these exercises might be right for your dog. Two exercises that can help but that aren’t too strenuous and help physically stimulate their muscles are:

Weight shifting

Standing behind your dog, gently pushing on their hips from side to side. Don’t push too hard or too long, but it activates muscles to shift their weight back and forth.

Tripod stands

While your dog is standing on all four legs, lift the back right leg slightly off the ground, then replace, and repeat with all the other legs. Practice extending the time the leg is up.

Again, make sure you speak with your veterinarian before starting any new activities to make sure they are healthy enough to do them! Be alert for behavior changes, changes in appetite or drinking, any pain or discomfort, decreased energy, or abnormal elimination such as accidents in the house, more frequent urination, changes in urine color or smell. If any of these symptoms develop, it is time for a trip to the veterinarian. Early intervention and treatment is so important for any disease process. We all want our dogs to live their best LONG lives! Be sure to speak to your veterinarian about how to care for your dog’s individual health care needs as they age!


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