Depending on the size and breed, dogs live to, on average, between 10-13 years old. And smaller dogs can live even longer. Because of that, as a responsible pet parent, you should be well versed in how to care for your aging dog to help them stay healthy well into their senior years. At Brookside Veterinary Hospital, we believe that aging in and of itself isn’t a disease, and we work diligently to ensure you get the information you need to help your dog achieve quality along with quantity. Unfortunately, there are a lot of well-meaning pet parents and bloggers out there who share material that isn't factually accurate. That's why we've taken FAQs about senior dog care and answered them thoroughly and accurately—to help you keep your canine companion by your side for many years to come.
If you're looking for a highly trained veterinarian in Gig Harbor, WA, we'd love to help you care for your senior dog and any other pets you have. If your dog hasn't had a wellness exam in a while (or ever!), that ranks as the top priority, so please call us immediately at (253) 857-7302 to schedule an appointment. We need to ensure your dog is up to date on vaccinations suitable for their lifestyle, eating healthy, age-appropriate foods, and much more.
What is the most important thing to know about caring for a senior dog?
The most important thing about caring for a senior dog is to remember that they still need lots of love and likely a bit more time at the veterinarian. Sure, they're not doing as much as they used to when they were younger, but they should still be active. Their brains also still need stimulation, and they need regular exams. Catching a medical problem earlier rather than later is particularly important for aging dogs. The prognosis is almost always nearly better for the dog when you bring them in right away when you suspect an issue. If you wait, the problem may advance, making treatment more difficult and likely more expensive to boot.
What is the life expectancy of a dog?
So this is a very broad question because it can range. Depending on the breed and size of the dog, those can vary greatly. Generally, smaller dogs tend to live longer than giant breed dogs. If you have a giant breed dog, like a St. Bernard or Great Dane, the average life expectancy can be eight to 10 years. But you get down to the smaller dogs, such as Dachsunds, Yorkies, and Chihuahuas, and they can get up to perhaps 14 to 16 years.
How does getting older impact the health of my dog?
Just like people, as dog's age, their nutritional needs change. You'll want to discuss this with your veterinarian to ensure you're getting your dog the nutrients they need in their senior years. Senior dogs likely still want to be at least somewhat active because, mentally, they want to do the things they've been doing. Physically, however, they might have some limitations. Climbing stairs or jumping up on the couch (if the latter is allowed!) may no longer happen, and you might have to consider shortening walks for your senior dog.
Regarding our ailments versus senior dogs, dogs suffer from many of the same illnesses humans do, but they show it differently. In fact, they often don't show it at all because they tend to be very stoic. But one of the most common things that we see is arthritis. Maybe they need some changes around the house because they're developing this. Again, they might not be able to walk as far as they used to go. We also see eye conditions, whether it's cataracts or nuclear sclerosis. Various things affect their vision, so you might want to make accommodations, such as leaving lights on for them and not moving furniture around. Skin growths are also common. When it comes to lumps and bumps, some are benign tumors while others are malignant, so the sooner we catch those and address them, the better off we'll be.
How can wellness care extend the life and vitality of my dog?
Wellness care helps extend your pet's life because we're being proactive and preventative rather than reactive. So essentially, we want to make sure that they're doing well. We want to ensure their blood work looks good and that we're not detecting things like early kidney disease. We look for stones or underlying infections in the bladder with a urine test, and we'll listen to their heart.
By way of example, if, say, an eight or nine-year-old dog comes in, and we do a blood panel on them, and the kidney numbers are starting to escalate, we can do diet changes, and there are supplements that we give to improve the kidney function. But if that all comes in at 12 years old and the dog is in full-blown kidney failure, options are extremely limited at that point.
If it's puppy care, we want to ensure they have all their vaccines so they never suffer from distemper, parvovirus, or another disease we know we could have prevented. Next, we want to be sure to use our preventives, such as heartworm preventatives and flea and tick preventatives, which also protect against intestinal parasites. We don't want them ever to be burdened by those parasites that we could have avoided. And we want to start that puppy out with optimal nutrition. If you feed them too many calories, they could suffer from obesity or too much calcium or phosphorus, and they develop bladder stones or go into kidney disease sooner. So, those are the three most important things: vaccines, preventatives, and excellent nutrition.
Giving your senior dog proper, well-balanced nutrition will help meet their wellness needs and sometimes can even slow down some medications. It can also slow the progression of arthritis that can occur in many senior dogs. Regular dental exams will help clean the tartar and plaque and remove the bacteria that can get into the bloodstream and affect the liver, kidney, and heart. Unfortunately, many dog owners don't think dental care is necessary, but that's a big step in the wellness and vitality of the dog.
What are the most common problems in senior dogs?
Most veterinarians will tell you that arthritis and weight gain are the two most common issues in senior dogs. Those two things often go hand in hand because they're moving less, but their owners feed them just as much. And they tend to gain weight, which makes it worse on the joints—it's a vicious cycle.
Other diseases we'll see in senior dogs besides arthritis are:
- Kidney issues
- Heart disease
- Dental disease
- Vision loss/cataracts
As we've discussed, you'll likely see some mobility issues. Between those and the vision problems, it means there are things you should do as the owner of a senior dog. Always keep them on a leash when outside and ensure they can access what they need inside the home. You might need to do things like building a ramp if they can't get up the stairs to your home.
Does my dog still need regular wellness exams as they get older?
Yes. After the age of seven, we typically consider dogs to be seniors, with some variation depending on their size and breed. Your dog should get wellness exams every six months (biannually) throughout their life, but it's more important as they age and become seniors. Six months to them can be two to three years, sometimes even longer based on their life expectancy. And remember, dogs are pack animals, so their instinct is to hide pain, making regular wellness exams all the more critical.
These wellness checks are an ideal time for us to look at their eyes, ask the owners about their hearing, and check their teeth. Do they have dental disease? Do they have a tooth abscess? Do they have a heart murmur? Are we hearing that now? Are their lymph nodes enlarged? Are they overweight? Those are good questions we want to address as soon as we see them, and we also do a lot of early care blood work so we can perhaps pick up a problem before it becomes a known clinical sign.
Are there any signs and symptoms that my dog may be slowing down?
Again, we want to stress that aging in and of itself isn't a disease. That said, however, you will, of course, start to notice certain things as your dog ages.
Some signs that your dog may be slowing down are:
- They're slow to get up
- They don't want to play or exercise as much
- They're not eating as much
- They may drop food out of their mouths
Another thing you should be aware of in senior dogs is the prevalence of heart conditions. What you might think is a very inconsequential cough could be the beginning of congestive heart failure. If you bring them in, we as veterinarians can hear a heart murmur or fluid in the lungs. We do an x-ray and diagnose it; if we get them on meds, they often do better. So just be mindful of those seemingly subtle changes, and if you see something that doesn't look right, or maybe the dog's doing something that they never did before, it's worth getting them looked at just to be safe.
Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing if my dog is slowing down or whether they are actually sick?
People often think Dr. Google is the right way to go, but it's not. If you're even considering "Googling" a symptom in your dog, call your veterinarian and bring them in. Pets can't communicate. So as veterinarians, we're trained to help communicate what they're demonstrating to us through the physical exam. So you might be noticing very subtle changes, but we can detect things that are more critical to their health and gauge whether they are sick or not.
A vomiting dog is an excellent example, as it's one of the most common things we see in our clinics. Vomiting could be that they've found a dead something in the yard, or perhaps they found a piece of food they weren't supposed to eat. Maybe they overate. It could be any or all of these reasonably benign things. But you know what? Vomiting could also be the first sign of kidney or liver disease.
You run the risk if you try to diagnose some of these things at home and say, "Oh, it's probably nothing." Yeah, you might be right. But what if you're not? Then you run the risk that you could have treated an illness much earlier and cured that condition, but if we don't address it quickly enough or we're wrong on that initial diagnosis, then it could have a less-than-desirable outcome. If you suspect something is wrong, please err on the side of caution and call us at (253) 857-7302.
What will my veterinarian be looking for when examining my senior dog?
We'll do a very thorough examination beginning with the face/head. We take a look at their teeth. Do they have any dental disease? Are their eyes starting to get any cataracts or nuclear sclerosis, or greyness of the eyes? How's their hearing? Do they have any underlying ear infections? Do we notice any reactive lymph nodes or enlargement of lymph nodes? We continue down the body, checking their heart and lungs, listening for heart murmurs or any difficulty breathing. We palpate their belly and spleen to feel for any abnormal tumors, examine their hair coat, and move their joints and see if they have any pain and if we can isolate any arthritis. We'll also take the senior dog's temperature and ask about their history.
On top of just our physical exam, we also recommend some testing that will tell us how they're doing internally. Blood tests, urine tests, and radiographs are all part of a good senior workup. We also do regular fecal testing.
If you still have questions about senior dog care, please don't hesitate to call us at (253) 857-7302 or email us at [email protected].