Senior and Geriatric Life for Dogs

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Senior Dogs and Canine Lifespan

Domestic dogs live 10 to 12 years on average. Small breeds often exceed that norm, and giant breeds seldom achieve it. At the low end, some giant breeds may have a life expectancy of only 6 years.  At the high end, some small breeds regularly live to 14 or 15.  That may sound lower than you expected, but the truth is most breed clubs and individual owners tend to overestimate longevity in their breed, probably because they are overly influenced by just a few exceptionally long-lived dogs.

See our Breed Guide for more specifics on your pet.

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Senior Dog Life & Health

The point is, the senior years occur at different ages in different breeds, and probably occur much earlier than most people realize for their pet. Some breeds, such as the Great Pyrenees, live longer than their size would suggest; and some, such as the Japanese Chin, French Bulldog, Bulldog, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and Flat-Coated Retriever, sadly, live shorter.

As a general rule, 7 years is considered senior, and regardless of breed, any dog over age 9 years is considered geriatric.

Many dogs, like many people, are fortunate and enter their senior years in good health. But no matter how healthy we are , or our dogs are, it’s not the same as being a youngster. Seniors have less energy, less stamina, less ability to recuperate from vigorous activity, injury or illness.

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Obesity can continue to be a problem in senior dogs. If your dog is obese, it’s still important to get his weight down in order not to stress joints and internal organs. In extremely old dogs, weight loss and lack of appetite can become a more serious problem. These dogs must eat enough protein to slow muscle wasting, but as with very old people, they often just don’t want to eat or may not metabolize food as efficiently. In addition, many may be on special diets for heart disease, kidney disease, allergies or inflammatory bowel disease, and it’s very common for them to want to eat anything except what they should be eating. It’s often more important they eat something than that they eat the right thing. Pain may be at the root of their lack of appetite, so check for other illnesses as well as periodontal disease. Be sure to include antioxidants in the diet.

Certainly any dog with a congenital joint problem, like hip dysplasia or patellar luxation is going to see more pain, inflammation and other effects from their progression over time. Likewise any degenerative joint disease (DJD) or joint or mobility problems that may have begun in middle-age will usually have worsened. Orthopedic conditions that caused slight or occasional lameness in middle-age may now be severe and persistent. Arthritis that was once evidenced by some stiffness upon rising may now be debilitating. Increased joint wear and inflammation along with decreased muscle mass and tone lead to lameness, weakness and instability. It may hurt for the dog to rise, walk or climb stairs, so he remains lying down or apart from the family he’d like to join. Pain leads to even less desire to exercise, which becomes a vicious circle as more muscle mass and range of motion is lost.  Alleviating or lessening your dog’s pain may enable him to again participate in activities he once enjoyed.

Rear end lameness is very common in older dogs. It can be due to muscle wasting or one of several neurological disorders such as degenerative myelopathy or cervical spondylomyelopathy (wobbler’s syndrome).

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Heart disease and kidney disease are especially common in older dogs. Unfortunately both can cause lack of appetite and muscle wasting. Heart disease can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, resulting in persistent coughing and difficulty breathing. Always have your veterinarian check out any coughing.

Kidney disease causes toxins to build up in the blood, causing nausea and loss of appetite. In addition, it can eventually cause a condition called hyperparthyroidism (“rubber jaw”) which is an extremely painful condition of the jawbone. If your dog is drinking and urinating excessively, he should be checked for kidney disease as well as diabetes and Cushing’s. Pancreatitis is more likely in older dogs, and is extremely painful. Intact male dogs are more likely to have an enlarged prostate, which can lead to pain and straining to defecate.

Autoimmune diseases, allergies and inflammatory bowel disease tend to emerge in middle age. Some may have been treated successfully but others will require lifetime treatment or care to see they do not re-emerge. Removing any triggers, including those causing inflammation, from the dog’s environment should continue to be a way of life.  Antioxidants should remain a part of the diet.

Glaucoma can emerge secondary to other eye disorders in later life, and must be treated by alleviating the cause when possible. The affected eye may need to be removed if the condition and pain cannot be controlled. Cataracts may become severe; the affected lens can be removed and replaced if the cataract interferes greatly with vision.

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As with humans, dogs are susceptible to a number of cancers in old age. Some can be treated with surgery or chemotherapy. Palliative care, in which the goal is simply to alleviate pain and make the pet comfortable for as long as possible, may be the only choice for many cancers.

Periodontal disease is extremely common in aged dogs. Dirty teeth should be cleaned and loose teeth extracted, both under anesthesia. Owners are often surprised at how much better their dog seems to feel after a dental procedure.  Just as you’re not up to par when you have a tooth ache or infected tooth, neither is your dog. The temporary pain from extraction is far better than the chronic pain from infection.

As in middle age, seniors of different breeds have different concerns. Just because they dodged a bullet in middle age doesn’t mean they’re immune in old age. Be on the lookout for intervertebral disk disease in Dachshunds, Corgis, and other long-backed dwarf breeds; for bloat in Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Weimaraners, Irish Setters, German Shepherds, Basset Hounds and other large deep-chested breeds; for osteosarcoma in Rottweilers, Greyhounds, Scottish Deerhounds and other long-legged or giant dogs;  patellar luxation in toy dogs and some giants; hip dysplasia in heavy-bodied dogs; lens luxation and glaucoma is some terriers; allergies in West Highland White Terriers, German Shepherds and a host of other breeds; heart problems in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers and Doberman Pinschers; degenerative myeolpathy in German Shepherds, wobblers in Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes; liver problems in Bedlington Terriers—in other words, know your breed and what problems are known to emerge during these years.

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Health Maintenance and Treatment

Senior dogs should have a twice-yearly check-up that includes bloodwork.  Blood panels can detect early stages of many internal diseases such as kidney, liver or thyroid disorders. Medications or special diets may be needed to increase the dog’s comfort, health and life-expectancy. Antioxidants are always a good addition to the diet, and can be especially beneficial in cases of kidney disease, heart disease, skin problems, allergies—actually almost any ailment.  

Prolonged or recurring lameness should be checked by your veterinarian. Radiographs can detect many arthritic changes or other problems. As with people, surgery can correct many problems, but it also usually requires physical therapy. Such therapy can include passive range of motion, strength, and low-impact swimming and walking (even using underwater treadmills). Depending on the dog’s age, simply making the dog as comfortable as possible with medication, massage, acupuncture or other means may be the better option.

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Obese dogs should also have a veterinary check to make sure the weight gain or enlarged abdomen isn’t due to other problems such as hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease or ascites from heart failure. If it’s just from ingesting more calories than expending, you can feed your dog a lower calorie food, substitute vegetables for high-calorie snacks, and begin a gradual low-impact exercise regime. 

Overly thin dogs should also have a veterinary check to make sure they aren’t suffering from heart, liver, kidney or digestive problems. They should have their mouth checked for painful teeth, and should be checked overall for any signs of pain. Food should be made as palatable as possible, warming it to increase flavor, or serving it cold to nauseous dogs. Now is not the time to worry about “spoiling” him; he needs to eat, and you need to do whatever it takes to get him to eat, even if that means he gets to eat food meant for your dinner.

Some seniors have behavioral changes. A dog that’s normally housetrained but starts having “accidents” inside is telling you something. It could be that he has kidney disease, diabetes, a urinary tract infection—or even cognitive changes. Only a veterinary examination can tell you which. A dog that usually allows grooming but suddenly shirks away when you try to groom his ear may have an ear infection or even a tooth infection. A dog that normally loves crunchy food but suddenly quits eating could have kidney disease, infected teeth, or many many other possible problems. A usually friendly dog that snaps could simply not feel well, or may be achy with arthritis. Don’t punish your dog for feeling bad; find the cause and do what you can to restore his good spirits!

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As with people, senior dogs can have slowed cognitive abilities. Some drugs are potentially available that may help your dog’s mental state. Feeding a senior food designed to help cognition has been shown to help, but the most important factor found to help keep senior dogs mentally sharp is to involve them in mental tasks daily. You can—and should—teach an old dog new tricks.  He may not be able to run a marathon or play catch, but he can learn a lot of tricks, such as speak or paw or play dead, even while lying down. He can find hidden items in the house by following your scent trails, or by watching you hide them and then returning to find one or more. Chances are your senior wants to do something; you just need to find what he can still do.

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Old age is both gratifying and challenging. It’s a time when your dog relies totally on you, and you in turn must be aware of signs of pain, anxiety, distress or disease. You must also be strong enough to care for him when it’s not as convenient as it was in earlier years, and perhaps even to make the ultimate and most difficult decision when his pain is too much to control or his quality of life is no longer positive.  We all wish our dogs would stay with us forever, but the best we can do is make sure we stay with them forever.

Our pets senior years can be long and enjoyable with the proper care, nutrition, and attention.

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