From Diet to Lifestyle: How to Care for Your Senior Dog
There’s something innate about how quickly our dogs work their way into our hearts. It’s a truth evident to every pup parent: the moment you first held them, you knew they were the one for you.
That kind of unconditional love comes with challenges of its own. It’s some sort of cosmic injustice that our dogs don’t live as long as we do, and it can sometimes feel terrifying when you see signs of them aging. But there’s another way to look at it: instead of dreading your dog getting older, you can see it as a privilege and an opportunity to usher them into their golden years in comfort and health.
This week, let’s look into how we can meet our dogs where they’re at and adapt how we live with them as they progress through their senior years.
When does a dog become a senior?
When Does a Dog Become a Senior?
The formula for a dog’s age is widely known (7 x actual years, if you were wondering), but this is only a loose rule of thumb. Dogs age differently depending on their breed! Here’s another (still loose, but more accurate) guideline for what age your dog becomes a senior based on their breed:
Small breeds (Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Jack Russel Terriers, etc.): 10–11 years
Medium-large breeds (Retrievers, Labs, etc.): 8–10 years
Giant breeds (Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, etc.): 5–6 years.
Of course, this is only a “ruff” estimate; your dog’s genetics, environment, and nutrition can play a huge role in how they age, just like it does in people!
Additionally, remember that some breeds are more likely to encounter age-related issues than others, like German Shepherds and hip dysplasia or mitral valve disease in Chihuahuas. Make sure to research your dog’s breed or breed mix (e.g. Labradoodles are Labrador Retrievers crossed with Poodles, so look into both those breeds). Knowing ahead of time means you can keep a particularly sharp eye out for specific conditions to which they may be predisposed.
Time comes for all of us (and our pets), but there are things we can do to slow down its progress. These preventative measures have no time limit or scheduled start time—it’s better to implement them early, but it’s also never too late to start.
1. Keep them Fit
Your pet’s muscle mass is the main driver of their metabolism. Since obese or frail dogs age faster, it’s essential for their long-term health to keep exercising them! When you notice your dog starting to slow down with age, don’t stop exercising them—just find exercises they can manage. This might mean going from 1–2 longer walks a day to multiple 5–10-minute walks; this also lets them get out to the bathroom more often, which may become necessary as they age.
2. Take Care of Their Teeth
Prioritizing dental care at any stage of your dog’s life is one of the best things you can do for their health. This also “feeds” (pun intended) into their dietary health and weight management; if their teeth hurt when they eat, they may choose to eat less and lose weight in an unhealthy way.
The best way to manage your dog’s dental health is with dog-safe toothpaste and daily brushing. If your dog doesn’t tolerate brushing, then raw meaty bones may be another option to reduce plaque buildup. However, take care with senior dogs, as their teeth and jaws may be frailer, and introducing bones to an older dog that is not used to them may lead to digestive issues (e.g. constipation). You’ll also want to ensure you’re getting their teeth cleaned professionally at least once a year, which leads us to…
3. Regular Vet Visits
If your dog isn’t visiting the vet at least once a year, starting sooner rather than later can make a huge difference in how well they age. You may think your dog is 100% healthy (and maybe they are!), but your vet can be an invaluable early-alarm system for catching diseases, genetic issues, or other conditions before they progress too far to be effectively treated. Once your dog reaches its “senior” age, it is recommended to have wellness veterinary visits every six months or more, as there may be things that need close monitoring, and things can also change fast as they age.
An Age-Appropriate Diet
As your dog ages, their caloric needs will change, too. Continue to evaluate their Body Condition Score (BCS) as they age and be prepared to adapt what and how much you feed to control their weight. However, you’ll want to work closely with your veterinarian when adjusting their food to ensure your puppy-at-heart is still getting all their necessary nutrients.
To prepare for your dog’s golden years or support them when they’re already in them, you may consider adding supplements to their meals. Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), particularly Omega-3s high in EPA and DHA, can assist your dog in supporting mental cognition, cardiovascular health, joint health, vision, and reducing inflammation. Here are a few wholefood options high in EPA and DHA:
Raw or canned fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, or mackerel—make sure they’re unsalted and packed in water, not oil.
Organic, free-range egg yolks
In addition to taking more frequent, shorter walks, look into other ways to engage your dog and work around their reduced energy and mobility. You may have to change some of your regular routines to adapt to your senior dog’s new sensitivities.
Keep their brain active: practice tricks, use puzzle boxes, hide & seek, scent/nose games, or go on walks in new areas with new smells.
Avoid extreme temperatures: like elderly humans, older dogs can’t regulate their temperature as well, so don’t leave them out in the summer heat or cold winter days; pay close attention to shivering or panting and attend to it quickly.
Be aware of potential mental decline: dogs might become confused, fearful or aggressive as they age, and hearing and/or vision loss may mean they get startled more easily.
Accommodate New Needs
Sometimes, it’s the little things that can make your dog’s life so much easier. As they slow down with age, consider setting up some ways to make them comfortable in their own home.
A soft, orthopedic bed; you may also want to get a pet-specific heating pad to place under it and soothe their creaky bones.
Put down rugs or carpeting on hard flooring to provide traction—it’ll make it easier for them to get up from lying on the floor.
Ramps for furniture: if your dog is a couch or bed snuggle bug, but they haven’t been joining you lately, it may be that they just can’t jump up that high anymore! Consider getting a pet ramp for some of their favourite elevated spots so you can still get in some quality snuggles.
Put a nightlight by their dishes so they can find their water bowl easily at night; for larger dogs, you might also want to get an elevated dish stand so they don’t have to bend down as far.
Holding bathroom visits until the next walk can become challenging with age; you may want to get a doggy pad to help tide them over when they just can’t wait. You can also get real grass pads for an all-natural option that controls odours.
Make the Most of the Time You Have
Watching our dogs grow old is arguably one of the hardest parts of being a pet parent. We can do plenty of things to prepare our dogs (and ourselves) for their golden years, but one of the most important things we can do is spend conscientious, dedicated time with them. Be a conscientious observer, too! Take note of what your pet might enjoy or dislike, as these can easily change drastically as they age. Honour your dog as an individual, respect how they feel, and adapt your routine as needed.
Remember, while your dog might be only one part of your life (albeit a fantastic part, no doubt), you are their entire world. The attention and patience you give your dog as they age can make the transition to seniorhood comfortable, enjoyable, and as enriching as every year previous.