A little gray on the face, a slower stride, a few more naps through the day—all signs our sweet fur babies are getting older. Just when do they reach senior status? Since all dogs age differently, it depends. Larger dogs typically age faster than smaller dogs, so seniors can range between age 7 for dogs like Great Danes to age 12 for dogs like Chihuahuas.
Specific health conditions can vary from dog to dog—and breed to breed—but there are overall strategies to keep senior dogs living healthier, longer lives. Veterinarian Dr. Katie Kangas, founder of The Pet Wellness Academy, has some important tips and tricks for senior dog health.
Identifying Breed Issues
Each individual breed is prone to various diseases over time. Dr. Kangas says it’s difficult to narrow it down, but gives this list of top-5 breed-related issues:
- Golden Retrievers: High rate of cancer. Around 60-70% of goldens get some type of cancer. Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, German Shepherds, Great Danes, Boxers, and Labrador retrievers are also more susceptible to cancer.
- Boxers: High rate of mastocytoma, known as mast cell tumors.
- Cavalier Spaniels: High rate of heart/cardiac disease.
- Yorkies: “They are the poster child for periodontal disease, with Toy Poodles, Chihuahuas, Mini-Dachshunds, and other small-breed dogs under 15 pounds right behind them,” Dr. Kangas explains.
- Bulldogs and pugs: brachycephalic issues. “Short airway issues can lead to numerous problems and higher risks for fatigue, heat exhaustion, or surgical anesthesia complications,” Dr. Kangas says.
Research your dog’s breed for common genetic disorders so you can take preventative measures. Check out this slideshow for common problems of two dozen breeds.
Diet is Key
The quality of the food you give your dog throughout his life is of the utmost importance in keeping him healthy into his senior years. According to Dr. Kangas, nutrition is the foundation of good health.
“It is literally the most important thing we can do to support and promote the health of our pets,” Dr. Kangas says. “The food we put into our pet’s bodies provides the building blocks needed for all bodily functions.”
Fresh, unprocessed or minimally-processed foods make a big difference compared to heavily processed diets like kibble.
“Heavily-processed foods are known to contribute to chronic inflammation and degenerative disease—the breakdown of the body,” Dr. Kangas says. “Not only are these foods ‘pro-inflammatory,’ they usually contain preservatives and additives that are at some level toxic—even if the toxins are measured at ‘non-toxic levels per meal,’ these things add up in the body over time, leading to illness and disease.”
“These things add up in the body over time, leading to illness and disease.”
The quality of ingredients is important as well, but the level of processing impacts the quality and the bio-availability of the nutrients.
“I have seen many senior dogs benefit with a dramatic increase in overall energy level and vitality from dietary changes alone,” Dr. Kangas adds. “Seeing and experiencing this makes pet parents very happy—and it sure makes the pet happy, too.”
Some high-quality, low-processed brands include: The Honest Kitchen, Stella and Chewy’s, Primal Pet Foods, Acana, and Orijen. Rover also brought you this expose on dog food, including a site that reviewed more than 115 brands—like Natural Balance, Purina, Hill’s, Nutro, Blue Buffalo, and Innova—and narrowed it down to 29 approved brands. See if your dog food made the list by scrolling down to the section “Brands and Recalls.”
If you’re not sure if your dog’s food is up to par, consult a holistic expert like Dr. Kangas, who offers in-person and phone consultations.
Remember, it’s not a “senior dog food” formula you’re looking for, but the quality of the ingredients and the level of processing. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is also important, as it eases strain on joints.
Yes, Doggy Vitamins
You can’t always rely on diet alone—sometimes you have to give your dog supplements. Like humans, some dogs can benefit from supplementation that supports bone, joint, heart, and brain health.
Remember each animal is an individual, so there is no “one-size fits all” supplement. But in general, Dr. Kangas often recommends omega fatty acids like fish oils. Once again, quality is king.
“Product quality varies enormously between brands, and I am very choosy,” Dr. Kangas explains. “Poor-quality fish oils are bad news because fats and oils become rancid quickly and can do more harm than good in that state.”
Dr. Kangas also often recommends 1-TDC, a supplement for joint and periodontal (dental) health.
“Many pet parents don’t realize how much dental health impacts the rest of the body,” Dr. Kangas says. “Not only are the organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys affected by dental disease, but the pet’s overall energy level also declines with oral disease. Many pets will act several years younger after a proper dental cleaning under anesthesia removes infection and chronic inflammation.”
“Many pets will act several years younger after a proper dental cleaning under anesthesia removes infection and chronic inflammation.”
Senior dogs may be a little slower, but they still need exercise. Your dog should ideally be walked every day, even if you think he has an ailment that should keep him still.
“Studies have shown arthritis gets worse with a sedentary lifestyle, and getting dogs out for short walks of at least ten minutes 1 to 2 times a day improved arthritic symptoms,” Dr. Kangas says.
Not only is exercise beneficial for good health, it provides mental stimulation, too.
“It’s boring to lay around all the time, which offers no brain stimulation,” Dr. Kangas explains. “In terms of ‘use it or lose it,’ that applies to brain cells, too.”
“In terms of ‘use it or lose it,’ that applies to brain cells, too.”
In fact, the mental benefits—like socialization and stimulation—and physical benefits of exercise are a one-two punch.
“It helps minimize the onset and progression of senility and cognitive decline,” Dr. Kangas says.
Take it easy with your senior, though. Try a low-key, slower walk, allowing your dog to sniff and mosey along. Remember senior dogs need to sleep more than puppies, too.
If you have a dog with back issues—like Dachshunds—you may want to limit their jumping. Doxies are prone to back injuries in senior years, so jumping on the couch or bed should be prohibited. Or your could make your house a senior dog safe-zone by getting a doggy staircase so your senior can easily climb up instead jumping.
The Bottom Line
Taking the time to know what ailments your dog may face in her life can help you tackle the problem before it even starts, which will keep older dogs comfortable as they age. As always, check with your veterinarian to see if these tips and tricks could benefit your senior dog.
Top image via courtesy of photographer Amanda Jones from her time-series book Dog Years: Faithful Friends, Then & Now.