Caring for your geriatric dog: 6 pointers

November 27, 2023

Drawing on his personal and veterinary experience, our collaborator shares suggestions for looking after older dogs and making them happy and comfortable.

I was away on business this summer when I got a panicked call from my wife.

Walter, my 11 year old Cockapoo, couldn't get up and the vet wanted to refer him to a neurologist for evaluation. I was devastated. It was the first time I had been near tears at an airport. I rushed home, preparing myself for the worst. That night, I slept with him at the foot of our bed, remembering the many years we had together and hoping that the specialists could save him.

Fortunately, the fine doctors at the vet college informed me Walter had a herniated disk and a 90% chance of recovery, if we elected surgery. Walter recovered fully, but this incident made me realize that he is getting up there in age, he is slowing down and won't be with us forever … so I want to do everything I can to make sure that he is as happy and healthy as possible.

The definition of a geriatric dog varies based on breed and size, but there is a commonly used chart that relates the age of your dog with human age:

Dog age analogy and classification chart (adapted from Fortney 2012).

How dogs age

Pets age in much the same way as humans do. For instance, hair starts graying and the senses, like eyesight and hearing, start failing. Digestion, metabolism, immunity, and the functions of the kidney, heart and brain all decline with age. Older dogs are at higher risk of developing various cancers, arthritis, diabetes, dental disease, kidney disease, heart disease and behavioural dysfunction. How can we ensure that our aging dogs live as fully as possible?

6 ways to improve care for your senior dog

1. Yearly or bi-yearly visits to your veterinarian

Your veterinarian will conduct a thorough physical exam and run some routine laboratory tests. This is all about establishing a baseline—an understanding of what “normal"looks like for your dog. How are their organs functioning? Have there been any changes in health signs over time? Monitoring these things regularly ensures that any change in function that may be associated with disease is detected early and promptly treated.

2. Watch for warning signs

Be on the lookout for signs, such as:

  • Weight change (especially if your dog is losing weight)
  • Increase or decrease in food and/or water consumption
  • Changes in urination or defecation
  • Any new lumps or bumps
  • Persistent cough
  • Changes in breathing (e.g. difficulty breathing, heavy breathing, or breathing faster than normal)
  • Sudden falling episodes or periods of weakness
  • Difficulty climbing stairs or jumping
  • Foul mouth odor and/or drooling
  • Seizures
  • Pain

If you notice any of these signs, take your pet to your veterinarian immediately.

3. Keep your dog (moderately) active

Just like with people, an active lifestyle can help your dog maintain a healthy weight. Obesity can contribute to many health disorders and aggravate arthritis.

4. Keep your dog stimulated

Providing novel toys, play, exercise and training sessions can help stimulate the brain and slow any cognitive decline in your geriatric dog.

5. Give them the right diet

Talk with your veterinarian when deciding the type, brand and amount of food to feed your geriatric dog. Your older dog is less active and needs a few key nutrients that younger pups don't need. A balanced diet at the right amount will also promote a healthy weight.

6. Make your dog's environment comfortable

Make sure you geriatric dog is happy by considering extra bedding, ramps (if they're having trouble with stairs), rugs and carpets to help them keep their footing.

With a little TLC and effort, you can do your part to make your geriatric pet happy and comfortable during their twilight years!


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