How to care for old dogs: geriatric dog care advice

February 16th, 2008
Caring for old dogs: geriatric dog care tips for your senior pet

Your dog’s golden years are special years. It’s a time for togetherness, a time for gentle understanding, and a time to show your lifelong companion just how much you care about them. We find out important information about geriatric dog care.

We’d all love our dogs to live as long as we do, but of course that’s just not possible. However, thanks to advances in science and health care, dogs are now living longer. In the 1970s, a dog over the age of five or six was classified as geriatric, says Dr Angus Ross from Ku-ring-gai Veterinary Hospital. Now that’s all changed. “Gradual improvements in animal health prevention, diet and health management has seen these figures increase well past eight to 10 years,” he says.

There are no hard and fast rules about which breeds are prone to greater longevity, but a number of factors do play a part. It’s generally accepted that the smaller the breed of dog, the longer the lifespan. So big breeds such as an Irish Wolfhound or St Bernard probably will not live as long as a Chihuahua or a Jack Russell. Indoor dogs generally live longer than those who live outside and a genetic predisposition to disease will also affect a dog’s longevity. For example, a medium-sized dog such as a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has a genetic predisposition to mitral valve disease, so may not live as long as some larger breeds.

So does the old adage of one dog year equals seven human years still apply? To a point, yes. One theory suggests at first, dogs age faster than the 7:1 rule. Consider that a one-year-old dog, although still a puppy, has reached sexual maturity; the same is not true of a seven-year-old human. In the middle years, it tends to follow the 7:1 ratio then slows down in the senior years.

Common signs of ageing

Just like humans, some dogs will age more gracefully than others. Many will remain playful and active during their early senior years and others will yearn for a comfy bed and lots of quiet time. Some dogs may even turn prematurely grey, just like humans do. Here are some common tell-tale signs that indicate your pet is nearing his senior years, according to Dr David Sprott from Caboolture District Animal Hospital.

  • Greying around the muzzle.
  • Hair may become coarse and sparse.
  • Eyes can change colour. They may turn blue opaque because of cataracts.
  • Increased sleeping.
  • More sedentary behaviour.
  • Reduced appetite.

Medical problems

Aging is inevitable, but you can delay its onset by setting a good standard of geriatric dog care. “The use of appropriate preventative measures beyond worming, heartworm and vaccination are part of a good health program for all dogs,” says Dr Ross. As dogs age, some illnesses become more likely so caring for a geriatric dog is all about prevention. Early detection of disease can dramatically improve the outcome. For this reason, regular vet checks are crucial.

Some of the following diseases are prevalent in senior dogs:

  • Thyroid Disease (under active)

  • Symptoms may include – overweight, poor exercise tolerance and seeks warmth.
    Treatment – Blood testing will detect the condition. It can be treated easily with an oral thyroid supplementation.

  • Liver Disease

  • Symptoms may include- Diarrhoea, jaundice, vomiting, weight loss and lethargy.
    Treatment – This disease can be of little significance if properly managed. Low-grade cirrhosis and immune changes within the liver is considered by some to be normal and once more serious types of liver disease are ruled out, a dietary alteration may help.

  • Cancer

  • Symptoms may include – Presence of a lump or mass, weight loss, lethargy, poor appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea.
    Treatment – Benign skin cancers (warts, moles, dermal lumps) and fat cell cancers (lipomas) are common and just a consequence of getting old.
    Malignant cancer treatment can involve surgery, medical, dietary, chemo, and radio-therapeutic methods.

  • Arthritis

  • Symptoms may include – Pain, swelling, lameness, muscle wastage and decreased range of motion. Most commonly affects hips, elbows and knees.
    Treatment – Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is one of the most common diseases that face geriatric patients. Treatment is aimed at pain relief and delaying progression of the disease. Medical therapy steroidal (cortisone) and non-steroidal preparations provide pain relief and reduce inflammation. Cartilage protecting and stimulating agents such as poly-sulphated gylcosaminoglycans can assist in repairing damaged cartilage. Surgery may be recommended.

    Problem early warning signs

    • Diabetes or kidney problems
    • Drinks and urinates excessively, weight loss
    • Hormone imbalance
    • Incontinence
    • Arthritis stiffness and lameness
    • Heart disease, coughing, short of breath, reluctant to exercise
    • Cataracts: hazy whitish appearance to the eyes
    • Gum disease, bad breath, bleeding mouth, dropping food
    • Tumours or cysts: large lumps on or under skin

    How changing behaviour affects geriatric dog care

    Occasionally owners may notice changed behaviour in their older dog, says Dr Gaille Perry, Veterinarian Animal Behaviourist. “For example, your placid dog has become aggressive, nipping a child who jumped on her back. Your dog could be suffering from arthritis and simply can’t cope with the pain,” says Dr Perry. If you notice behavioural changes in your dog, take it to the vet for a thorough health assessment.

    Some senior dogs may also become clingy and anxious, following their owners from room to room. It’s important not to reward their anxiety with extra attention as this may only reinforce their behaviour, advises Registered Veterinary Specialist in Animal Behaviour, Dr Kersti Seksel. If your dog is suffering extreme anxiety, the problem can be treated with a plug-in dog appeasement pheromone. It has a calming effect, emitting a synthetic replica of what the mother dog produces after her puppies are born.


    While age-related Alzheimers affects millions of elderly people across the globe, it’s now widely accepted dogs can suffer from a similar condition. The illness is known as canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).

    Dr Seksel refers to the condition as ‘dogzheimers’. “It’s not breed specific, but it is specific to older dogs so there’s a stronger likelihood that it will affect small dogs because they generally live longer,” she says. Dogs with CDS may exhibit the following signs:

    • May not recognise family members. This can be one of the most distressing symptoms of the condition.
    • Frequent “accidents” inside the house as the dog forgets it needs to go to the toilet outside.
    • Can appear disorientated, wondering aimlessly around the house. May walk into doors as it forgets which side the door opens.
    • Decreased interaction and play drive.
    • Sleep-wake cycle changes. The dog may wonder around the house at night, and sleep all day.

    Dogzheimers is a slow deterioration. At 10 years the dog may exhibit one symptom, at 12 years two symptoms, and at age 16 all symptoms of the condition, often at varying degrees. Keeping your dog physically and mentally stimulated throughout its life may reduce the likelihood they will suffer from dogzheimers.

    If your dog is showing some of the symptoms of dogzheimers, don’t lose heart. Symptoms of the condition can be managed with prescription antioxidant medication available from your vet. “The medication works by scooping up the free radicals — it’s been proven to slow the progress of the condition and control the symptoms,” says Dr Seksel.

    Taking care of your senior dog

    Although aging is inevitable, there are some things dog owners can do to ensure their older dogs have happy, healthy senior years.


    A healthy diet is important for your senior dog. As they age, their metabolism will generally decrease. “They also don’t require the same amount of kilojoules as a younger dog, because they aren’t expending the same amount of energy,” says Dr Sprott. Food for senior pets should also contain higher amounts of fibre and lower amounts of protein. “It’s also important that the food is of good quality – poor-quality food won’t provide the nutritional benefit your older dog needs,” he says. If your dog is carrying extra weight, it may be a good idea to cut down on fatty snacks and treats.


    Exercise is important to keep your dog in tiptop shape, no matter what his age. Your senior pooch might seem content curled up on his bed but he’ll probably live longer if he gets active, especially if he’s carrying extra kilos. Obesity in dogs can work the same way it does in humans. Extra weight puts pressure on the heart and other vital organs.

    Of course, it’s important not to overdo it. Old dogs may tire easily. When planning exercise for your older pet, choose a comfortable walking pace and a route that is not too challenging. “If you have both an older and a younger dog, take them out together for a gentle stroll, drop your senior pet back home, then take your younger dog for an invigorating walk,” suggests Dr Perry.

    Dental care

    Regular dental care is important throughout a dog’s life, but it becomes crucial as he enters his later years. Infected gums and plaque-encrusted teeth are not only painful for your dog, they can lead to even bigger problems. “The mouth is the gateway to your dog’s body. If a dog has dental problems this may lead to secondary infections in other areas such as the kidney, liver or heart valves,” Dr Sprott says.

    Sensory perception

    Just like in humans, hearing loss is a frequent consequence of aging, as is some deterioration of sight. If your dog’s hearing is fading, you may notice she doesn’t respond to verbal commands or come every time you call her. If your dog’s eyesight is failing, she may misjudge doorways, or is occasionally startled if you walk up behind her. Owners need to ensure they don’t take their dog unawares. Talk to them as they approach, especially if they are approaching from behind. To help your dog’s failing eyesight, try to keep everything inside in the same position. “If you move things around the house, take the old fellow on a tour of inspection to ensure he knows the new order of things,” says Dr Perry.

    Soothing aches and pains

    Massage your dog regularly to soothe his aching joints. Brush your dog often to distribute skin oils. It’s not only relaxing and soothing for your pet, it helps you to keep an eye out for any lumps or skin complaints.

    Emotional needs

    As your dog enters his twilight years, his needs may change. After all, his senses are no longer razor sharp, he’s no longer as agile, and he’s likely to suffer a few arthritic aches and pains. So how should you respond to your pet’s emotional needs as they age? Be patient with them. Give them lots of TLC and, above all, make allowances, suggests Dr Perry. “If you called your grandma, you wouldn’t expect her to leap up from her chair and sprint over to you. The same applies to your dog,” she says.

    Comfort zones

    Ensure your dog’s bed is comfortable and warm. It’s also important that the bed is easy to get into and out of. If your dog has diminished sight and hearing, place her bed against a wall so she’s can easily survey her surrounds and won’t be startled by anyone coming up behind her. Orthopaedic beds, especially designed for senior dogs, are available from most pet stores.

    Protect him from the elements. In cooler weather ensure he has a blanket and adequate padding in his bed. Invest in a doggie coat to keep his aching joints warm and comfortable in winter. “In summer, heatstroke is a problem for older dogs,” Dr Sprott says. Make sure your dog has plenty of shade and ample supplies of fresh, cool water. Try using an atomizer to help your pet beat the heat. You may also want to clip your pet’s coat to help him keep cool.

    Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

    Dogs can learn new things at any age, just like people can. Your task will be much less challenging if your dog was encouraged to learn as a puppy. The reason? “If dogs are trained using positive reinforcement when they are puppies, they’ll be far more motivated to want to learn in their senior years,” Dr Perry says.

    To keep your aging pet mentally alert, try engaging him in stimulating activities. One example is “targeting”, suggests Dr Seksel. Pick an object that is the designated “target”. It could be a stick, your finger, or any other object you choose. The idea is for your dog to successfully target the object (touch it with his nose) for a food reward. Another activity that will keep your dog mentally active is to hide his food around the yard. “It not only keeps your dog mentally stimulated, it’s also physically beneficial,” Dr Seksel says.

    The natural approach to caring for old dogs

    Herbalist Robert McDowell suggests careful attention to diet and exercise will help your aging pet. Give your dog raw meaty bones. They provide the best combination of minerals to grow bones, and they slow down the ingestion of food so that the digestive processes can be properly stimulated and operate at peak capacity. However, care does need to be taken with their teeth. Never let you dog play with a bone once hollow; this will cause havoc with their teeth.

    Minimise cooked food. “A dog’s metabolism isn’t designed for cooked food and if we condemn them to a life of commercial food, we are inviting an early old age,” Robert says. Give your dog the vegetable portion of table scraps. Boil up a combination of oats, millet and linseed, then add a little spinach or parsley and give this as the principal cereal meal.

    In nature, a wild dog would not have fed every single day. Fast your dog two days a week. For the other five days only feed once a day.

    Do not give treats. If you must, give them bits of raw offal.

    Allow your dog to set the amount of exercise it wants to undertake. It’s sufficient to take them on your daily outings and just give them opportunities to exercise if they want to. They may choose to sit in the sun, to explore, or to engage in active play with another dog.

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One Response to How to care for old dogs: geriatric dog care advice

  1. Judith Serra says:

    It’s always difficult to watch your dog get old, just like how hard it is with any loved. I think it’s important to understand that old age isn’t an illness and that there still are so many things we can do to keep our dogs comfortable even as they move on into old age. My dog has been steadily declining for the past few months and it’s been really difficult on the both of us. The most noticeable thing is her hips which are suffering from the normal wear and tear over the years. I recently got an Ortocanis rear support harness online to help be able to support some of her weight myself, meaning we can stay out for longer and go more places. It’s been a God-send and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to continue using it for some time.. Here’s where I first found it: