If you are fortunate enough to share life with a senior dog, you’re in great company. According to the latest statistics, over half of the dog-owning households in America are home to a dog over the age of 7. And we’re pretty sure all 26.5 million of them would agree: There’s a lot to love about senior dogs!
By the time your canine companion has reached senior status, they’ve grown into their personalities, have developed a strong bond with you, and tend to be rather easygoing. In short: Senior dogs rock!
That doesn’t mean that taking care of a senior dog is always a walk in the park. Like people, elderly pups often face unique health challenges and higher care costs than their younger canine companions.
That can make the prospect of caring for a senior dog somewhat daunting — and downright expensive — for some pet parents. To help you prepare, we talked to leading veterinary experts about what you need to know to keep your aging pup healthy and happy in their golden years.
How to Help Your Senior Dog
When my own Cocker Spaniel, Dexter, started showing signs of snowy white around his muzzle, it caught me by surprise. I knew Dexter was getting older, as we all do. But he always acted like a puppy until his final breath, and I am forever grateful for that.
Still, it made me wonder if he knew he was slowing down before I was able to admit it. When we welcome a dog into our lives, we know we will likely outlive them. However, it can be hard to face that fact head-on as they get older.
Instead of fearing the hands of time, Dr. Sharon Daley, DVM, of Bunn Animal Hospital in North Carolina, recommends embracing them. She urges her clients to consider ways to care for and prepare senior dogs for old age long before it happens.
A big part of that plan is working closely with your veterinarian to stay a step ahead of your senior dog’s changing health needs, some of which may be unexpected.
“We do very extensive physical examinations, especially since our patients can’t talk,” Daley says. “Something we pay closer attention to on a geriatric dog is odor, which can tell us about infection, kidney health, diabetes, and more.”
8 Key Things Your Senior Dog Wants You to Know
If your senior dog could talk, here’s what they’d want you to know about them in the years ahead. (After letting you know how much they adore you…and treats, of course).
I Might Act Anxious and Forgetful Sometimes
According to Daley, as dogs age they may exhibit reclusive behavior or signs of forgetfulness or dementia, such as staring at the corner or forgetting which way the door opens. Some dogs may have more indoor potty accidents, circle the house, or get stuck in odd places. A dog with dementia may also exhibit symptoms in their sleep-wake cycle.
These may all be signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), a condition that often affects senior dogs. And though these behaviors may be worrisome, it’s essential to remain calm and patient with your senior pup. Expressing your frustration could make them even more nervous, depressed, or confused.
If you’re concerned that your senior dog has CCD, talk to your veterinarian about testing for the condition, which can also eliminate other potential diagnoses that can mask CCD symptoms.
I Can’t See or Hear You As Clearly As I Used To
Even if your dog is not suffering from CCD, age-related hearing and vision loss may also prompt signs of confusion or behavior changes.
Like people, aging dogs may be affected by cataracts, glaucoma, dry eye, or any number of ocular issues. Similarly, hearing impairment — both temporary and permanent — may be a part of your dog’s aging process. So don’t take it personally if your dog doesn’t respond to you right away.
Some visual anomalies may be more noticeable (clouding of the eyes, discharge, bumping into things), but others may be less conspicuous. That’s why updated guidelines from the American Animal Hospital Association recommend semi-annual veterinary visits for senior dogs, including a thorough ocular examination.
While many vision and hearing conditions can be treated, a reduced capacity to see or hear may be an unavoidable part of old age for many dogs. As a parent of both visually- and hearing-impaired dogs, I can tell you that many accommodations can make life easier for such pups.
For example, if your dog has poor vision, be sure to block off stairs to prevent slip and fall hazards. And if their hearing is diminished, teaching hand signals in conjunction with daily commands (e.g., come, dinner, potty, etc.) can help you communicate.
It May Seem Like I Sleep All Day
Though dogs do tend to slow down and require more rest as they get older, many pet parents worry if their senior dog sleeps all day.
Studies show that domestic dogs tend to sleep between 7.7 to 16 hours per day, with older dogs skewing to the higher end of the range. However, if your senior dog is spending more time curled up in bed, it may also be a sign of pain caused by degenerative joint disease, hip and elbow dysplasia, or osteoarthritis (OA).
In addition to sleeping more, Daley says that pet parents can look for other subtle signs of these conditions, such as awkward movements or postures a senior dog may adopt to alleviate joint pain.
“Funny stances may seem human-like or goofy, but older dogs sitting this way may be experiencing painful joints,” Daley notes.
If you suspect pain may be keeping your senior dog in bed, talk to your veterinarian about your concerns. With a proper diagnosis, they can recommend a dog arthritis treatment plan, which could include prescription medication, ramps, physical therapy, proper bedding, and complementary therapies such as nutraceuticals, laser therapy, and acupuncture.
My Choppers Could Use Some Extra TLC
Dental health is important for all dogs, but especially for seniors, who face a greater risk of developing dental disease. Not only can dental disease cause tooth pain, breakage, and loss, but it has also been linked to kidney disease, heart disease, and liver disease in dogs.
Some types of dental disease can remain undetected until the disease reaches an advanced stage. So prevention — in the form of a consistent dental care routine and regular checkups — is key, as is examining your senior dog’s mouth regularly. Keep an eye (and nose) out for bad breath, broken or loose teeth, abnormal chewing, refusal to eat, inflammation, or any other signs of oral distress.
My Appetite and Eating Habits May Change
Don’t be surprised if your elderly dog isn’t as enthusiastic about mealtime as they used to be. A dog’s preferences and palate may change as they mature. And, sometimes, age-related changes, like losing their sense of taste or smell, can play a role.
However, loss of appetite or changes in eating habits could also indicate that your elderly pet is dealing with an underlying health condition, says Daley.
She recommends a thorough veterinary checkup to determine if your senior dog’s eating issues are a symptom of something else. If that’s the case, as part of the treatment plan, consider switching to a diet specific to the health issues your senior dog is facing.
And even if there’s no underlying health reason, Daley suggests switching your dog to a senior diet that’s easier to digest and better matches their changing energy and nutritional needs. Watch for weight gain, however, as extra pounds can exacerbate age-related conditions, such as osteoarthritis.
If your senior dog still doesn’t want to eat, consider adding some excitement to mealtime by mixing in a flavorful food topper, rotating their protein, or adding some wet food in with kibble. And if you decide to try a home-cooked dog food route, be sure to talk to a veterinary nutritionist first to ensure the proper amount of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and proteins.
Keeping Me Healthy Could Cost You More
According to one recent report, the average cost of veterinary care over a dog’s lifetime ranges between $20,000 to $55,000. And, because senior dogs require more frequent and potentially more expensive care, there’s a good chance you could spend most of that during your dog’s golden years.
Once your dog becomes a senior, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends they undergo at least two in-depth veterinary exams per year instead of one, to stay ahead of age-related health issues. However, even early diagnoses and treatment may not be enough to keep the increased cost of senior canine care at bay.
While there’s no way of knowing exactly how much your senior dog’s care could cost you, there are ways to help pay for unexpected veterinary costs, such as flexible financing with the CareCredit* credit card. You can use the CareCredit health and wellness credit card for a wide range of pet care services — from routine veterinary appointments and grooming to emergency care and surgeries, at locations in the network — so you can pay for the care your senior pup needs when they need it.
Healthy Grooming Habits Are More Important Than Ever
Though some dogs balk at the mention of bathtime or shrink at the sight of nail clippers, now’s not the time to relax your grooming standards. For senior dogs, good grooming practices are as much about maintaining good health as they are about maintaining your aging pup’s good looks.
Grooming your elderly dog gives you the perfect opportunity to bond, while also checking for subtle signs of health issues, age-related or otherwise.
- If your dog is having a hard time climbing in or out of the tub, that could be an early warning sign of osteoarthritis.
- While bathing or brushing your dog, it’s easier to notice important changes in their skin or coat, which could indicate parasites, thyroid issues, or hormonal imbalances.
- Grooming also gives you the opportunity to check your aging dog’s skin for lumps and bumps. While not all growths are serious, Dr. Sue Ettinger, DVM, DACVIM, the Cancer Vet, urges pet parents to take note of every mass on their dog’s body using a canine skin map and talk with a veterinarian about early detection options, such as aspiration or biopsy.
You may require extra help from a professional groomer if your dog has arthritis or is too large or stiff to place into a tub. Be sure anyone handling your senior dog’s grooming needs is aware of any pre-existing conditions.
Love Me Enough To Let Me Go When The Time Comes
No one ever wants to think about their dog passing away. But for senior pet parents, preparing for this inevitability is crucial. And that means staying alert for the dreaded signs that it may be time to say goodbye.
Think about how loyal and loving your dog has been over the years, Daley says. “As our dogs age, it is our chance to repay that loyalty with patience and awareness of the challenges they may face,” she notes.
It’s a good idea to decide in advance how you will handle your dog’s end-of-life care and final arrangements. This could include talking to your veterinarian about how to recognize signs of declining quality of life in your sick or aging dog, what kind of palliative care you might consider, whether at-home euthanasia is an option, and how to pay for all of your dog’s care needs.
Taking these essential steps now, including applying for the CareCredit credit card to help pay for your dog’s end-of-life care, can help provide you with much-needed peace of mind, so you can make the most of the time you have left with your senior dog.
Prevention: The Best Medicine for Senior Dogs
Caring for your senior dog starts long before they achieve senior status. Do your best to provide the best preventative care throughout your dog’s life, so they can enjoy health and happiness long into their sunset years.
And that same advice applies, no matter what health issues your dog develops as they get older. Staying on top of routine veterinary care is the key to identifying and treating potential health issues before they become serious health emergencies.
Keep in mind that all dogs are different, so be sure to tailor your senior dog’s care to their specific needs.
Make their lives more comfortable with age-appropriate exercise, proper diet, veterinary care, mental stimulation, and any special accommodations for aging joints and muscles.
“Stay active,” Daley advises. “But don’t take your dog out for a mile run if he hasn’t exercised in three years.”
Low-impact exercises like walking and swimming are great ways to keep your senior dog moving along with daily, positive interactions.
Finally, don’t forget the special quiet, bonding time together. Your senior dog wants you to know they appreciate those moments most of all.
*Subject to credit approval
This information is shared solely for your convenience. Neither Synchrony nor any of its affiliates, including CareCredit, make any representations or warranties regarding the products described, and no endorsement is implied. You are urged to consult with your individual veterinarian with respect to any professional advice presented.