Old Dogs: A Guide to Making their Senior Years Comfortable

September 7th, 2018
old dog

Old age can be a difficult time for our pets, but there’s plenty you can do to put a smile on your dog’s face and a wag in his tail. Tim Falk reports.


Watching your young and energetic pet slow down as he progresses into old age can be a heart-wrenching experience. While older dogs are beautiful, loyal and loving, it’s hard not to wonder whether your pooch longs for the days when he used to have the energy and strength to go at full speed all day long.

But watching your dog grow old doesn’t have to be a sad experience. In fact, there’s plenty you can do to increase your pooch’s comfort and quality of life, helping him stay happy well into old age.

According to Dr Joanna Paul, veterinarian from creatureclinic.com, there’s something very rewarding and relaxing about caring for an older pet. “The puppy stage is a special time, but it’s also very challenging,” she says. “Older dogs are wonderful and comparatively ‘easy’. They have outgrown all the issues of young puppies, such as mouthing, chewing up shoes, and the boisterous over-excitability that is part of being young.”

After all the years of love and companionship your dog has brought to your life, you’ll want to do whatever you can to keep him feeling great.

Start with the basics

Diet and exercise are the key building blocks of any healthy dog, whether it’s a 12-week-old pup or a pooch approaching its 12th birthday. “Good nutrition is as important for our dogs as it is for us,” explains Dr Jo. “As a general rule of thumb, the cheaper the food, the poorer quality its ingredients. In most cases, you get what you pay for.”

For most breeds, any dog over the age of seven is classed as a senior. Senior dogs do have slightly different requirements to those at other life stages, so feeding a diet correctly balanced for weight maintenance and joint health is a good start.

For dogs with specific health issues there can be other specialised nutritional requirements. If you’re ever in doubt about what’s best to feed your pet, discuss your dog’s diet with your vet.

Continuing to exercise is also important for older dogs. “A sedentary lifestyle isn’t healthy, and moving every day is great for maintaining appropriate body weight, muscle strength and joint health among many other things,” Dr Jo says. However, remember that the amount and intensity of exercise needs to be tailored to the individual. While some dogs will still benefit from a good run around the park, for others a gentle 10-minute walk around the block is all they will need.

“Exercise can be great provided it is at an appropriate level,” says applied canine behaviourist Cat Saunders from The K9 Company. “Check with your vet or your dog trainer for ideas that will be appropriate for your individual dog. A simple walk to the letterbox may be enough for some but not enough for others. It all depends on your dog’s health and fitness levels.”

And while we’re on the topic of physical health, don’t forget that regular vet check-ups become increasingly important as your dog gets older. “Age is not a disease, but unfortunately as our dogs get older things are more likely to go wrong. Joints can wear out, organ function can decline, and cancer can rear its ugly head,” Dr Jo points out.

Regular vet check-ups are more important in the senior years than during any other part of a dog’s life. Six-monthly check-ups and yearly blood work are a great way to ensure your older dog gets the care he deserves and that any health problems are picked up early.

Mind over matter

When we think about health matters it’s sometimes easy to focus only on the physical side of things. But a dog that’s truly happy and healthy needs more than just a body in excellent shape; it’s just as vital that you take steps to look after your dog’s mental wellbeing.

“The majority of dogs over the age of 10 have some degree of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. This is basically doggy dementia,” Dr Jo says. “When it comes to mental function there is a big element of ‘use it or lose it’. Since dogs can’t do crosswords or Sudokus, we need to find other ways to keep them thinking. “Mental stimulation is important for dogs of any age — it helps keep dogs happy and entertained. Just make sure that any mental stimulation is age appropriate and safe,” Cat says.

If your dog is physically capable, a regular walk is an excellent way to provide mental stimulation. The chance to experience new sights, smells and sounds can work wonders for your pet’s mental wellbeing, as will the opportunity to interact with new people and other dogs.

Training is another great way to challenge your dog and boost his brain power. “The old saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is nonsense. Learn new tricks together. Practise old ones. Have fun,” Dr Jo says.

Whether you’re teaching some canine behaviour basics or helping your dog learn complex tricks, regular training sessions will make sure he puts his grey matter to work each day. Remember that sessions should be short and sharp, reward your dog for doing the right thing, and never get frustrated or angry if training doesn’t produce the results you want.

As your dog starts getting on in years, his declining cognitive abilities can at times make the world a scary and confusing place. With this in mind, sticking to a regular routine and minimising unexpected upheaval can be a big help. “Keeping a dog’s environment the same as it gets older can help reduce stress, especially if the dog has limited vision or vision impairment. Dogs, as do we, like to feel safe so anything you can do to support your dog will only benefit him,” Cat says.

Dr Jo also points to the fact that older dogs often have declining senses and they may not be able to see or hear as well as they used to. “They might also be prone to a little confusion or anxiety. A regular, predictable routine can help our senior dogs feel secure and relaxed,” she says.

Doing everything you can

While all this advice is a great start, there’s still plenty more you can do to improve your older dog’s quality of life. One crucial step is to give your pet somewhere safe and secluded where he can retreat to if he ever feels a little overwhelmed or just needs some quiet time.

“Having a crate, bed or a quiet room your dog can go to if it would like some quiet time is fantastic. If your dog chooses to have a rest, be sure to let him enjoy it and respect this,” Cat says. “Ensure your dog has somewhere soft and warm to sleep, especially when they are older, and remember that steps and stairs may be difficult to navigate for senior dogs and may even cause them discomfort and pain.”

Keeping your dog at a healthy weight can avoid extra pressure on joints. Staying on top of his dental hygiene, something many pet owners overlook, will also ensure he can chew and digest his food correctly.

Remember, too, that dogs are often quite adept at concealing pain. The first sign of a worsening arthritis problem could be a reluctance to play or go on a long walk, so you need to pay careful attention to how your pet is behaving to help stay on top of any health issues. And if you notice any behavioural changes in your ageing dog, make sure to discuss them with your vet.

“If something doesn’t seem right with your dog, it probably isn’t,” Dr Jo explains. “Sometimes things come on gradually and it’s easy to say ‘oh, he’s just getting old.’ We need to remember that pain or other suffering is not normal at any age. A chat with your vet is easy and you might just be able to improve your dog’s quality of life significantly.”

Last but not least, never forget the importance of TLC and plenty of quality time with the family, which is crucial to the health and happiness of any dog. “We all need love and affection to thrive,” Dr Jo says. “It’s critical for wellbeing and our dogs deserve it from us.”

How fortunate, then, that spending time with your dog is one of life’s simplest and most rewarding joys.



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