Senior dogs

Dog with mouth open

How does getting older affect dogs?

Just like with 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. Dogs' 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 body weight 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
  • 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 vet.

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. Call your vet to make an appointment.

Find out more about feeding your senior dog.

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 day.

Finding a therapy for you and your dog

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 help 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.

Other options

Once arthritis has improved, canine medication may be needed only on bad days, and it's worth noting that nutraceutical diet supplements (such as glucosamine) may also help greatly, so discuss all options with your vet. Never offer your dog any human medications or painkillers.

Nutraceuticals are not medicinal products, but feed supplements that are designed to support the healthy function of dogs. Commonly used 'nutraceuticals' are joint supplements. A growing number of vets in the UK would recommend joint supplements such as Seraquin, as these supplements tend to contain chondroitin and glucosamine, which occur naturally in joint cartilage, alongside natural ingredients like curcuminoid (component of turmeric), a potent antioxidant.

Joint supplements can often be given as a treat alongside any prescription medicines prescribed by your vet.

Managing teeth

Ageing 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.

Managing nails

Don't forget to keep an eye on the nails of less active older dogs, as they can easily become too long, even growing into their pads.

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, keeping 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.

Article author

This article was written by Marc Abraham, a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!

We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article then please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a Vet page.