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Common health issues in senior dogs that pet parents need to know

March 25, 2021

As pets are beloved family members, we want our dogs to be with us as long as possible. But as dogs enter their senior years, it’s important to keep a close eye on the signs of changing health conditions. As your dog’s coat grays, be aware of these common health issues in senior dogs, along with things you can do to best support them at this stage of their lives.

When is a dog considered a senior?

You’re familiar with that old formula that equates seven dog years to one human year. Most likely, this was loosely based on a simple ratio that compares the average lifespan of dogs (10 years) with that of humans (70 years). But dogs and humans are not only living longer now, scientists are also uncovering a more accurate way to tell your dog’s age in human years.

A 2020 study of Labrador retrievers reveals that, no, 1-year-old dogs are not equivalent to a 7-year-old child. A 30-year-old is more like it. As you likely suspected, the labs accelerate into adulthood, but from there, aging becomes a slow and steady process, according to the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

Here’s a quick comparison of the dog-to-human timeline:

  • A 1-year-old Labrador retriever is equivalent to a 30-year-old human.
  • A 4-year-old lab is equivalent to a 54-year-old.
  • A 9-year-old lab is equivalent to a 65-year-old.
  • A 14-year-old lab is equivalent to a 72-year-old.

[Check out segment three of episode 77 of Raising Your Paws podcast titled “How old is your dog in human years” and download and subscribe on your favorite podcast app.]

Now, as you may know, smaller dogs often outlive larger dogs. More studies will be needed to see how dog size and breed influences canine aging, and that will give us humans a more precise measuring stick to know when our pup has entered their senior years. Until then, here’s how vets define the age where dogs reach senior status:

  • Small dogs: 11 years old
  • Medium-sized dogs: 10 years old
  • Large dogs: 8 years old
  • Giant breeds (e.g., Great Dane): 6 years old

How often do senior dogs need vet care?

When your dog enters his senior years, he could very well not be showing signs of aging yet, other than a graying coat. But your pet’s vet will likely want to increase the annual visit to twice a year. This will give them a baseline of your canine friend’s health and condition so they can catch problems and emerging conditions early.

4 senior dog health issues and what to do

As dogs advance in years, these are some of the common medical issues they face, and how to help them.

1. Joint pain and stiffness

One natural effect from aging is damage and the wearing down of cartilage that’s found between two joint bones. If your dog seems to be feeling stiff and sore after his nap, or is walking with a limp or tucked leg, they may be feeling the effects of age-onset arthritis. One in five dogs develop arthritis in their senior years.

[Check out Does your dog need a lift? A ramp or a set of pet steps may be the answer]

To help your arthritic dog

  • First and foremost, diet. Instead of choosing foods formulated for mobility, look for foods with adequate levels of glucosamine and chondroitin, components that provide cushioning for your dog’s joints. Also, talk to your dog’s veterinarian about supplements to optimize your dog’s health.
  • Exercise. Staying active keeps the stiffness and pain at bay. Yes, this is counterintuitive because they’ll be less enthusiastic about their walks. Leash up anyway.
  • Manage their weight to keep extra pressure off the joints.
  • Use ramps and stairs with good traction to make it easier for your furry friend to join you on the couch and other elevated spaces.
  • Helping up old dog can be tricky, because you don’t want to cause more pain. Especially if they’re suffering from hip dysplasia, which can be accompanied by muscle weakness. A lift harness lets you give a gentle assist that doesn’t put pressure on inflamed leg and hip joints, so they can stand up, or make it up the stairs.
  • Applying heat improves blood flow and brings relief to stiff, aching joints. A heated pet mat that goes right into their bed can be just the thing to make an old dog cozy and content.

2. Incontinence

Incontinence can come with the territory when you’re living with an older dog. When you start noticing your dog is having more indoor accidents — it’s happening while he’s asleep or seems to be unaware that he’s “going” — try and pinpoint the underlying issue.

Don’t limit your dog’s water intake. Incontinence isn’t caused by excessive water. It’s involuntary.

Rather, take your dog to the vet to rule out an underlying medical issue. One of the causes of incontinence can be a urinary tract infection, but it can also be kidney disease, spinal issues and cognitive decline.

Caring for your elderly dog’s incontinence

  • Scheduling more potty breaks can help. Some pet parents set an alarm in the middle of the night or have their pet sitter make an extra visit during the day.
  • Make cleanup easier. Experiment with waterproof covering on their bed along with potty pads on the floor. Doggy diapers can be helpful in a pinch.
  • Bathe your dog’s “diaper” area more frequently to reduce odor and irritation. (Working with a groomer to keep the hair shorter can make cleanup easier.)

3. Cognitive decline

Like humans, a dog’s brain function can diminish in old age. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is also known as “dog dementia,” and it’s a neurobehavioral syndrome that occurs in aging dogs that leads to a decline in their cognitive function. Cognitive decline in canines can start out as a mild case, but worsens over time. At the early onset, you may notice changes in your dog’s behavior. The important thing to understand is cognitive decline affects canine cognition in three ways:

  • Changes in awareness of their environment.
  • Changes in how they respond to stimuli.
  • Changes in memory and learning.

For example, if your older dog is panting and restless for no apparent reason — he hasn’t been exercising, or it’s bedtime and he’s up and awake at night when he’s normally snoozing in his cozy bed — that can be an important marker of a declining brain function.

Cognitive brain function is complex, and no two experiences with cognitive decline will be alike. Watching your older dog — your best friend — go through these experiences can make you sad. But keeping your older dog as comfortable and safe as possible during this time can bring new meaning to your relationship.

There’s no single test that cognitive decline, but a complete examination and blood work with your pet’s vet can rule out other causes of their symptoms, and get you on the right path for treatment.

[Learn more about canine dementia and download episode 38 of Raising Your Paws podcast, “Signs Your Older Dog May Have Alzheimer’s]

Support for your elderly dog’s dementia

  • Set up night lights around the house to keep your restless dog from getting disoriented, confused and fearful.
  • Maintaining an enriching environment, one that offers plenty of interaction, exercise and stimulation, can slow the onset of cognitive decline in canines. It’s important to remember that enrichment helps, but it’s not a cure. Explore new parks, play games that engage your dog’s senses (like letting him use his nose to find a hidden treat) and interact frequently. Bottom line, enjoy your time with them.
  • Schedule regular vet visits, so you can monitor your pet’s progress and catch new problems early.

For more information and support to help your dog through cognitive decline, visit dogdementia.com.

4. Cancer

As dogs age, their risk of cancer increases, and accounts for half of the deaths of dogs ages 10 and older, according to the Veterinary Cancer Society. That’s why those twice-annual vet visits are a smart idea.

The signs of canine cancer can be similar to signs of cancer in humans.

  • Rapidly growing bumps and lumps under the skin
  • Weight loss and reduced appetite
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Difficulty with eating, swallowing and breathing
  • Lameness or injury in one of their limbs.

Sometimes there are no physical outward signs at all, and it’s discovered through your pet’s annual bloodwork — which is why regular vet visits are a great idea.

What do you do if your pet gets cancer?

  • Consider your options.
  • Do your research and ask plenty of questions.
  • Consider consulting a veterinary oncologist, which is a growing specialty.
  • Make a complete list of treatment options.
  • Set your goals for treatment. Not all canine cancers are fatal, but it’s important to consider the quality of life for your pet.

May your dog live a long, happy life!

It’s tough going through the aging process. But you can help your dog get super immunity and boost his natural defenses against aging and disease. Oxidative stress leads to degenerative health conditions, while also causing cell and DNA damage linked to aging. Family-owned NutriSource Senior diet contains Good 4 Life with organic selenium yeast that fights oxidative stress and inflammation. It also helps the body fight harmful infection.

Kick free radicals to the curb and find NutriSource at your local, independent pet retailer.