“Dogs’ lives are too short. It’s their only fault, really.”
Since American novelist Agnes Sligh Turnbull wrote those words in the sixties, dogs’ life expectancies have doubled. But, as any pet parent knows, it’s still not long enough.
These days, thanks to modern veterinary care and frontline research, we are better equipped than ever before to help our senior dogs live healthy, happy lives.
Here’s how to maximize the last years you spend together.
What Age Is Considered Senior for Dogs?
You may be wondering why the definition of “senior” is an important one for dogs. Recognizing that your dog has entered their senior stage is your cue to watch out for any changes in their health or behavior that need to be addressed. This will help to ensure your pup’s happiness and comfort during their golden years.
The age at which your dog is officially considered a senior depends on their size and breed. Larger dogs tend to have shorter life spans than smaller breeds, so many veterinarians consider dogs seniors when they reach the last 25% of their lifespan.
Depending on the size and breed of your dog, this roughly translates to the following ages:
- Small breeds (below 20 pounds): 11 years or older
- Medium-sized breeds (20-50 pounds): 10 years or older
- Large breeds (50-90 pounds): 8 years or older
- Giant breeds (above 90 pounds): 6 years or older
While these ages are good guidelines, many other factors affect whether or not your dog is considered to be a senior. These include overall health, lifestyle, and individual genetics. Generally speaking, if aging is affecting your dog’s daily life, they are considered a senior.
How Do I Know if My Senior Dog Is Suffering?
So, your senior dog is aging like a fine wine (obviously); but because dogs are remarkably tough and hide pain and discomfort well, you might not know that they’re suffering.
Therefore it’s important to assess your dog’s quality of life using multiple categories. This is best done by your veterinarian, but some things you can look out for include:
🤕 Pain and/or reduced mobility. Age-related pain and mobility issues tend to have very subtle signs at first. Initially, your dog may be reluctant to engage in everyday activities, like jumping on the sofa or using the stairs. Over time, this can progress into an inability to perform the activity at all.
Your dog may also change their gait when they walk, be reluctant to go on walks, or become disinterested in play. Similar to us when we are experiencing pain, a dog’s mood may also change; they could become more irritable if disturbed or when being touched.
Keeping an eye out for these physical and behavioral changes can help you to assess whether your senior dog may be in pain. Your veterinarian will advise if medication is necessary to help keep them comfortable.
💩 Issues with pottying: Incontinence or changes in pottying behavior can be indications that your senior dog is suffering. Even constipation can be a sign of hip or back pain: dogs need to posture very specifically for a bowel movement, and if it hurts too much for them to do this, their feces can build up and cause significant discomfort.
If your older dog is having accidents in the house, experiencing regular constipation or diarrhea, or is struggling to posture when pottying, you should get them checked out by your vet.
You can also proactively help your dog maintain healthy bowel movements so they’re as comfortable as possible. Ways to achieve this include giving them specific probiotics to prevent or treat diarrhea, and including tasty daily chews for better stool consistency and frequency.
💤 Poor quality of sleep: Sleeping well is vital for your dog’s wellbeing, especially as they age. If your dog is restless during the night or constantly rearranging themselves in their bed, it could be a sign they can’t get comfortable due to pain.
If their discomfort isn’t addressed and they continue to struggle with sleep, any health conditions they have may worsen more rapidly.
🧠 Anxiety and dementia: Just like in humans, cognitive dysfunction such as anxiety and dementia becomes more common with old age. Increased panting when at rest, during the day or night, is a particularly common sign of cognitive dysfunction in distressed senior dogs. Other signs of anxiety may include pacing, vocalizing, or not wanting to be alone.
Dementia usually manifests in similar ways to anxiety, but may also include your dog “acting strange.” For example, appearing as if they don’t know where they are, getting stuck in tight areas such as corners, or becoming more withdrawn.
Senior dogs with cognitive dysfunction require extra care to ensure their comfort. Your veterinarian will guide you on the options available to your dog.
🎉 Inability to experience joy: Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is, “is my dog still able to experience things that bring them joy?”
Think about what makes them happiest. Walks? Chasing squirrels? Playing tug? Going on car rides? As your dog ages, they won’t be able to do all the things they’re used to doing. But it’s crucial to assess if there is still some element of joy left in their lives. If there is very little or none at all, their quality of life may be poor, and it could be time to see your veterinarian.
Once your dog has entered their golden years, your vet will walk you through similar categories and perform a physical examination to help you know if your dog may be suffering.
What Are the Best Ways to Take Care of a Senior Dog?
Once you have minimized any discomfort they may be experiencing, you can focus on maximizing your older dog’s health and happiness.
Four of the most important ways to do this are to encourage safe exercise, offer enrichment, feed them a high-quality diet, and look after their gut health.
1. Safe exercise for older dogs
Aging naturally leads to muscle breakdown in all animals. Because muscles support your dog’s joints and prevent joint deterioration, maintaining their muscle mass as they age is crucial. Additionally, joints tend to stiffen when your older pet doesn’t move for extended periods
So even if your dog appears tired or uninterested in exercise, it’s important to encourage them to stay active — as long as your vet has confirmed it’s safe for them to do so. To make physical exercise more enticing you could introduce new scents, treats, and toys.
However, be careful that your senior dog doesn’t overdo it. They certainly shouldn’t be chasing a ball all day like they used to! Choose activities that better suit their pace like slow walks, swimming, or even hydrotherapy (here’s how hydrotherapy can help your senior dog with arthritis).
2. Enrichment activities for senior dogs
A great way to keep your senior dog happy is to stimulate their mind and encourage their natural behaviors. This is known as enrichment. Common examples of enrichment include chew toys, lick mats, and puzzle feeders that allow your dog to forage for food.
Many enrichment activities are great for senior dogs as they don’t require high-impact exercise. Easy options to consider include:
- Driving your dog to a new area for their walk, so they can experience novel sights and smells
- Using DIY dog puzzle games (bonus if you use treats that boost their joint and coat health!)
- Scrunching up treats in paper, so they can shred and forage
- Teaching your old dog new tricks
- Using snuffle mats (see below)
Looking after your dog’s mental health is just as important as looking after their physical health, and enrichment is a great way to provide mental stimulation as they age!
3. A customized diet for senior dogs
Just like older humans, older dogs have unique dietary requirements. To ensure they enjoy good health, it’s crucial to stay on top of their changing needs and prevent issues like nutritional deficiencies or obesity.
Senior dogs typically need 20%-30% fewer calories compared to adult dogs to prevent weight gain. They also require more protein to maintain their muscle mass. You may need to transition to a senior-specific dog food or adjust your dog’s diet in other ways, for example by adding high-protein food toppers.
Because arthritis is common in older dogs, looking after their joint health is very important. These DoggyBiome Hip & Joint Shield Chews are a great option for all senior dogs, whether they have joint issues or not. However, if your dog is suffering from arthritic pain, you can learn about the best ways to help them here.
To determine your dog’s specific dietary needs we recommend scheduling a check up with your veterinarian, who can provide tailored guidance based on your unique circumstances.
4. Maximizing your senior dog’s gut health
Older dogs are more susceptible to illnesses, and also take much longer to recover. So, boosting your dog’s immune system is a great way to maximize their health as they age.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to do this: through their gut! Because more than 70% of your dog’s immune cells live in their gut, a healthy gut microbiome is key to protect them from any disease.
Simple, tasty ways to support their gut health include giving them immune-boosting chews, adding greens to their meals, and using probiotic treats. You can also learn more about your dog’s gut health with a DoggyBiome Gut Health Test.
Beyond exercise, enrichment, diet, and gut health, other ways to care for your dog in their senior years include:
🏠 Keeping your senior pet indoors during bad (or very hot) weather.
🛋️ Using ramps to help them get up onto couches, beds, or car seats.
🛏️ Providing older dogs with a warm and comfortable bed where they can sleep undisturbed.
✂️ Trimming your senior dog’s nails as needed to prevent overgrowth, which can cause pain and worsen arthritis.
⚖️ Weighing your dog at least every two months to track weight changes, which can signal the onset of disease.
🧽 Regularly grooming your pet to prevent matting, which can lead to skin infections and hide tumors or open wounds.
💧 Ensuring your pet has access to fresh water at all times and monitoring their consumption, as increased water intake or urination can be signs of diabetes or kidney and liver disease.
How Often Should I Take My Senior Dog to the Veterinarian?
Regular veterinary check ups for your senior dog are essential. But just how often should you go?
While annual check ups are sufficient for younger dogs, it’s recommended that aging dogs go for wellness check ups around every six months.
Senior pet exams tend to be more in depth and may include dental care, blood work, and specific checks for signs of age-related issues such as cataracts, kidney disease, thyroid problems.
“It’s always better to be proactive about the health of senior pets, as certain diseases can sneak up on owners as their pets age,” advises AnimalBiome’s Director of Veterinary Relations, Dr. Tonya Cooksey. “Routine health checks with your veterinarian can help ensure a good quality of life in your pet’s golden years.”
Thanks to modern science and a little extra care, your dog’s senior years can be some of the best years of their life. Now that you’re equipped to optimize their wellbeing, you may want to consider adding some dietary and gut health products that will support your dog as they age.