How does getting older affect dogs?
Just like us the ageing process affects dogs. They can become
weaker and more vulnerable to infections. Some dogs may slow down,
being less keen to exercise and more prone to putting on weight.
Some dogs' moods can change, whilst others age gracefully.
Dog's hearing and eyesight can deteriorate with age leading to
raised anxiety levels, so always be cautious around oldies as they
may be more prone to panicking - being surprised by a fast
approaching friendly hand, for example.
What happens during the ageing process?
During the ageing process less energy is used up, with fat
deposits often increasing - this is the reason we see more fatty
lumps on older dogs, called lipomas. Your dog's bodyweight may go
up from lack of sufficient exercise and being fed too many treats,
or down due to poor digestion or disease. Skin changes often
include loss of elasticity, less shiny coat, and the occasional
white hairs appearing on and around the muzzle.
What are the signs my dog is getting older?
Signs of old age (with common causes) can include reduced
appetite; increased drinking (which may indicate diabetes,
liver/kidney failure); smelly breath; losing weight; lumps or
bumps; lethargy; exercise intolerance and increased tiredness
(hypothyroidism); coughing; difficulty passing urine or faeces;
becoming dull, disorientated or having trouble with balance; or
even smelly discharge from the vagina (pyometra). Sadly, cancer can
also affect older dogs. Urinary incontinence affects many elderly
female dogs; nerves controlling the bladder neck deteriorate with
age, meaning the outflow valve doesn't fully close, resulting in
unplanned urine discharge and wetness where they're lying.
Dogs with heart murmurs may possess a leaky heart valve, often
asymptomatic for years, but occasionally developing into
breathlessness and coughing. This requires further investigation,
such as ultrasound and X-rays.
Behavioural effects of old age
Dogs can experience brain changes like those seen in people with
Alzheimer's, having similar effects on behaviour. If your dog's
behaving strangely - seems dull, isn't keen to venture out or greet
you, even sits staring at the wall or seems confused - call your
Managing weight of a senior dog
When choosing a suitable food for your oldie, your vet may
advise you to pick a senior diet as these are lower in calories,
reducing the chances of weight gain. Advances in diet research mean
specially formulated diets can help manage age-related medical
conditions too, but always ask your vet which one to offer first,
not forgetting to make any changeover gradual. Most vets also offer
free weight checks so there's no excuse not to weigh your dog
regularly, as weight loss/gain may indicate early signs of illness,
so call your vet to make an appointment.
Managing joint problems
One of the most common complaints from owners of old dogs is
obvious signs of joint stiffness first thing in the morning,
especially in colder, damper weather. With joint function
deteriorating with age, and arthritic changes occurring in one or
more joints, weight control is even more important with carefully
planned exercise to help ease most clinical effects. Your vet may
tell you to try to maintain a constant level of daily exercise, as
random strenuous activity often guarantees soreness the following
By exercising your dog little and often, your dog will keep both
mentally and physically fit. Dogs showing lameness or discomfort
should be checked by your vet, as a range of treatments may be
recommended. Modern drug treatments can be extremely effective too
in reducing pain, as well as improving quality of life and
activity, all of which helps to control body weight. Some
treatments suit certain individuals better than others, so be
prepared for your vet to explore a few different options in order
to find the best therapy for your dog.
Once arthritis has improved, canine medication may only be
needed on bad days, and it's worth noting that nutraceutical diet
supplements (such as glucosamine) may also help greatly, so discuss
all option with your vet. Never offer your dog human medications or
Aging dogs suffering bad teeth and infected gums will be both
uncomfortable and at risk from serious sources of blood-borne
infection potentially damaging internal organs, like the heart and
liver. Most owners find dogs with bad teeth are much happier and
eat better after dentistry, so ask your vet for details as general
anaesthetics are much safer for oldies nowadays too.
Don't forget to keep an eye on the nails of less active older
dogs as well, as they can easily become too long, even growing into
How can old age effects be treated?
In the last few years there have been massive advances in
veterinary treatments meaning safe long-term drugs are available to
help reduce some of these old age effects to keep our dogs happy,
exercising and living longer, healthier lives.
Finally, please don't forget older dogs need regular boosters
for vaccinations, plus flea and worming treatments too.
To view our information guide on looking after senior dogs,
please click here.
Who can I contact for further advice?
The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable
to provide general or case specific veterinary advice. If you
have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this
article then please contact your local veterinary practice for
This article was written by Marc Abraham and was originally
published in the Crufts Magazine - www.thecruftsmagazine.com.
Marc Abraham is a vet based in Brighton. He regularly
appears on UK television. For more information about Marc
please visit www.marcthevet.com.