How to care for an elderly dog

Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner explains how to keep old dogs healthy and give them the best possible quality of life in their golden years.

Our dogs are great companions at every age. They offer us endless loyalty and affection, and they in turn rely on us for love and care, from their puppy days to their senior years.

As dogs age, however, their care requirements change. An older dog can become less energetic than they used to be and more at risk of certain health conditions. Some dogs will experience problems with their memory and brain function, known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). But looking after an old dog needn’t be difficult if you know what to watch out for and pay attention to their evolving needs.

While your pet might be a bit slower than they used to be, their temperament is often calmer, too, and these golden years can be a hugely rewarding time for owners and dogs alike. Here is some advice on how to care for an elderly dog.

There is no simple answer to the question of when a dog has reached their senior years, as some breeds and sizes of dogs age more rapidly or have a longer lifespan. A larger breed such as a Great Dane or Bernese Mountain Dog may be considered senior at six to eight years of age, while a small breed such as a Chihuahua might not show signs of old age until they are around 10 years old.

Many factors, such as diet, exercise and medical history, can also affect your dog’s ageing process. And thanks to modern advances in pet healthcare and nutrition, our dogs are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.

Just as people appreciate a little extra comfort as we age, so too will your dog. As they start to show signs of ageing, such as behaviour changes or decreased mobility, you’ll need to make adjustments to their lifestyle to compensate. But it’s also important to maintain a regular routine that will keep your dog in good shape and benefit their physical and mental health. Some of these lifestyle changes include:

Exercising older dogs

Mobility and joint problems such as arthritis can slow down your ageing dog, while declining sight and hearing may make them less confident when getting out and about. But it is vital to ensure they stay as active as possible, to avoid obesity and other health problems.

So, how much exercise does an older dog need? This will depend on their individual breed and state of health, but gentle, regular activity sessions are usually best. If you’re not sure how much exercise your dog requires or can manage, talk to your vet for advice. A short walk every day should help keep your dog fit, but be sure to go at their pace, and bear in mind that they may need more rest than they used to! Familiar locations can be reassuring if they’re also dealing with any loss of faculties. Meanwhile, indoor activities, scent games or training sessions can also help provide them with the mental stimulation they need.

Nutrition for older dogs

As our dogs get older, their nutritional needs change. In particular, as senior dogs become less active, they will require fewer calories than their younger selves. Feed them little and often, and choose senior dog foods that are easily digestible and specially formulated for their needs. Remember that any changes to your dog’s diet should be made gradually, and in consultation with your vet.

While some loss of appetite may be natural in older dogs, if an older dog refuses to eat on a regular basis, or is losing weight, they should be checked out by your vet, in case of underlying health problems.

Senior dogs’ sleeping habits

Older dogs are likely to spend more time sleeping or relaxing than they used to, although some elderly pets may also experience more disturbed and restless nights. To make sure your dog gets the rest they need, provide them with a soft and cosy dog bed. Older dogs’ joints may start to ache with age, so a well-padded bed will help to keep them as comfortable as possible. The bed should be placed somewhere warm, quiet and accessible to your dog without them climbing any stairs. Always make sure there is a bowl of fresh water nearby, too, so your dog needn’t walk too far to rehydrate.

If your dog seems reluctant to lie down or curl up as they usually would to sleep, or is showing other signs of discomfort, it’s time to book a veterinary check-up.

Grooming your senior dog

It’s important to keep older dogs well-groomed to ensure their skin and coat are in the best possible condition, especially as any stiffness and reduced flexibility in later life may prevent them from licking dirt and debris off themselves like they used to. Gentle grooming sessions with a soft brush are best for ageing canine skin. This is also a good opportunity to check your dog over for any skin problems or mysterious lumps. Keep sessions short, though, and don’t expect your older pet to hold one position for long periods.

Be sure to keep an eye on the length of your older dog’s nails, too. If your ageing pet is getting less exercise, these won’t be wearing down as much. If you suspect that your dog’s nails are too long (listen out for them clicking on the floor), or causing them discomfort, take your pet to the veterinary clinic for a trim.

Adapting your home environment

Your dog may once have raced up the stairs or leapt onto the sofa with perfect ease – but if they’re not as sprightly as they used to be, they may find getting around more of a challenge. Fortunately, there are many ways to adapt your home for a dog with arthritis or other mobility problems. For example, portable ramps or pet steps may be useful to help them access the car, tackle high steps or reach favourite spots around the house.

Every dog should visit the veterinary clinic at least once a year for a check-up, and taking a senior dog to the vet is more important than ever. As your dog reaches old age, the vet may recommend bringing them in on a more frequent basis to monitor any health issues.

Signs that an old dog needs a check-up include appetite or weight changes, smelly breath, increased drinking or urinating, lethargy or a persistent cough. Incontinence in senior dogs can also be a cause of concern. If you notice any of these symptoms, or if any other changes in your dog are worrying you, contact your vet for advice and support.

As the owner of an elderly dog, there’s lots you can do to keep an eye on their wellbeing at home, including carrying out some basic health checks. Weighing your dog every two months can alert you to any weight gain or loss, for example, and regular eye checks and tooth inspections can help identify any signs of a problem. With your care and attention, your dog stands the best possible chance of enjoying a healthy and hearty old age.

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