11 Ways to Help Your Dog Make the Most of His Senior Years


My friend Al is worried about his Saint Bernard, Hannah. She’s getting up there in years, and he’s already had to make several accommodations for her. He’s built a little doggie ramp so she can still get up and lie next to him on the bed, and he’s accepted her occasional incontinence. He does say, though, that they should give him shares in Proctor and Gamble, given all their cleaning supplies he’s been buying lately. He says he’s going to do the kind thing when she is no longer enjoying her life, but he’s hoping for a bit more time with her.

I have loved and lost a few dogs, and I know the sadness when you see them coming into their twilight time. Janice and Leroy are just three and two respectively, so obviously, I’m not sweating it just yet. Given that they are Boxers, however, I know that I can’t reasonably expect them to live much past age 9. The time goes by so quickly, though – it feels like just yesterday that I tucked Janice into the crook of my arm and brought her home.

If you have an aging dog, though, you’re lucky. Why? Because you’ve had a beloved companion for so many years. It probably hurts you to see him slowing down, but think of what a wonderful life he has had! Now, he’s entering his senior years, and he’s going to need a different standard of care than the one you have been used to. It can mean the difference between enjoying his golden years, and simply lying around waiting for the inevitable.

How are you going to ensure that your dog’s later years are good ones? It is going to require that you accept certain circumstances, and take a different approach to your dog’s health. If you follow these 11 steps, your dog will enjoy his old age and the loving bond that the two of you share for the time that remains.

1. Accept That Your Dog is Aging

A lot of the time, we can be in denial about the way our dogs age. “He still thinks he’s a puppy,” we say (he doesn’t), or “He’s as good as he ever was” (he isn’t), or
He’s nowhere near the end time” (he probably is). Of course sometimes life can deal us horrible surprises when it comes to aging dogs. One of my friend Neila’s Rottweilers had his routine checkup at 9 years and three months, and the vet pronounced him to be in as good shape as a dog half his age. A couple of weeks later, she thought he didn’t seem quite like himself, and took him back to the vet. Her dog was given a diagnosis of liver cancer, and within a month she had to have him put to sleep. Barring sudden and severe illness, though, you will see your dog through his senior years, and it is important to recognize that he is no longer a puppy, and his needs are no longer those of a puppy.

I have seen friends keep aging dogs long past their “best before” date. Dogs that are incontinent and horribly embarrassed by the fact that they can no longer make it outside to do their business, dogs that fall going upstairs, dogs that lick at horrible sores that are a consequence of aging, dogs that are about 90% blind, and dogs that don’t even recognize their owners anymore because they are suffering from canine dementia. Still, we want them to go on.

Frequently, the kinder course of action is euthanasia. But having said that, it’s not always the only option. Many dogs can enjoy their senior years if their owners are vigilant about the enhanced level of care that they will need. So again, accept that your dog is aging, and take some time to evaluate what he is likely to need in order to enjoy his golden years.

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2. Make Your Home Accessible

Does your dog seem reluctant to walk across certain surfaces, or have difficulty with stairs? It could be that he loses his footing on slippery surfaces, or has trouble lifting up arthritic legs. In the same way that you would have to modify your home for an aging parent, you may need to do it for your dog. Consider placing non-skid runners over slick flooring and on stairs. Carpeting is best for senior dogs, but you can also go with rattan or sisal mats if they suit your décor better. If you do decide to go with rattan or sisal, though, keep in mind that most of time mats made from these materials do not have non-skid backing. You can, however, buy adhesive-backed rubber to place on the underside of the mats.

Heights can also be problematic. If your dog is having trouble climbing stairs or getting into the car to go for drives, you might consider building a ramp, as Al did, or perhaps investing in a portable ramp. You can find them at pet stores or online, and most of them will telescope up when you are not using them. Be sure, though, before you buy one, to measure your car or stairway. Guesswork is not going to be effective, because if you buy the wrong type of ramp, you could end up causing many of the same problems you are trying to solve. If the ramp is too steeply angled, for instance, your dog could slip and fall the same way as he would on stairs or when trying to pull himself up into your car.

If your dog’s eyesight is failing, take the same measures as you would for an elderly human. In other words, make sure that your floors are clear of obstacles, and strive for consistency. While you may have the urge to switch around your furniture from time to time, try to resist it – you don’t want your dog bumping into objects because his surroundings have suddenly changed.

3. Don’t Forget Exercise

As your dog ages, exercise becomes even more important. Obviously, you are not going to be heading out for ten-mile runs or signing up for a dog sled race, but don’t allow your dog to ease into a sedentary lifestyle. Depending on the breed of dog you have, you might find that he is less enthusiastic about exercise (English Mastiffs, for example, are notoriously lazy even in their younger years), so you may need to adjust your routine accordingly. Perhaps try two or three short walks in the run of a day instead of a single long walk. If your dog loves to swim, that’s great exercise for an aging dog. It works all the muscles in the body, and may even help to slow the progress of arthritis.

The importance of exercise for the senior dog really can’t be overstated. If your dog doesn’t get regular exercise, his muscles will begin to atrophy. Obesity can also become a problem. Regular exercise also makes for a calmer, happier dog, and this is true at any age.

4. Use Seat Belts

This is actually good advice for dogs of any age, but if you haven’t been in the habit of using a seatbelt for your dog, you really should start. An arthritic dog could easily fall off the seat of your vehicle, and if you have to brake suddenly, could even be injured. If you suspect that your dog is developing dementia, it is even more important to confine him when in the vehicle. He could be easily startled, and if he panics, the outcome could be very unfavorable for both of you. Even if your dog is still in full possession of his faculties, and has become increasingly mellow as he ages, don’t make the assumption that you don’t have to keep him safely buckled in when on car rides. Even the calmest dog can panic when something goes wrong.

5. Limit Outdoor Time

I really hope that you’re not one of those people who says, “He likes being outside, so it’s not the end of the world if I tie him next to his dog house all day long.” This is abuse, pure and simple. Dogs are social creatures, and not meant to be left alone for long periods of time, no matter how much they love the great outdoors. And if your dog is elderly, then he will feel the heat and the cold to a greater extent than a younger dog.

In the summer, your dog has to have access to shade and cool water. In the winter, he has to be warm.It is your job to make sure that this happens, and the best way to do that is by having him inside with you. Of course it’s fine to give him his time outdoors, but go out with him. This is especially important as dogs age, because, like elderly people, they sometimes develop a tendency to wander, and could easily get lost. Make sure that your senior dog is always wearing a tag engraved with your address and phone number, just in case this should happen.

In the hot weather, hose your dog off. In the cold weather, bring him indoors. You can make use of cooling and warming beds and blankets – there are several on the market – to ensure your dog’s comfort. Let me stress again, though, that generally speaking, the best place for your dog to be is in the house with you, where there is air conditioning in the summer and enough heat in the winter.

6. Get a Better Dog Bed

When they are young, dogs will usually be quite content to lie on the floor. As a dog ages, though, lying on a hard floor can become uncomfortable. You can make your dog far more comfortable by investing in a thick dog bed. It will provide joint support and ease aches and pains. If your dog is very large, or if there are incontinence issues, you might also consider a crib mattress. The plastic covering makes for very easy cleanups if your dog wets the bed. Of course, you should also provide a blanket on top so that your dog’s feet don’t slip when he is climbing on and off the mattress, and remember that self-adhesive rubber I told you about earlier on so that the mattress itself does not slip on the floor.

7. Consider Alternative Therapies

In the same way that humans can sometimes benefit from unconventional treatments, so can dogs. They are not a substitute for veterinary care, but can serve as an enhancement.

If you have an aging dog that is limping, you might consider asking your vet about cold laser treatment. Vets often use cold laser treatment to treat injuries. The treatment is also used to promote healing post-surgically, to ease the aches and pains that come naturally with age.

Hydrotherapy is another treatment that can work to ease your dog’s discomfort. It involves having your dog swim in a pool of warm water, offering exercise without stressing the joints, and improving cardiovascular health. I’ve already mentioned the benefits of swimming for aging dogs, and this is really just another way of delivering the benefits of the exercise, but in a structured environment.

Acupuncture may also be used to help your dog to feel better. It works on musculoskeletal issues, neurological disorders, gastrointestinal issues and respiratory problems. Although you might think that a dog would not react favorably to having needles placed, the fact is that most dogs react very well to acupuncture. Some even fall asleep during an acupuncture session.

Physical therapy is another approach that has become very popular. With this approach, a physical therapist considers your dog’s condition and devises a treatment program accordingly. It could include massage, joint mobilization, hydrotherapy, and more. You will learn techniques from the therapist, and then use them at home.

8. Supplements

I talked a bit about supplements in Should You Give Your Dog Probiotics. The fact is, senior dogs frequently benefit from supplements. Just as an example, fish oil can improve your dog’s coat and offer joint support. Glucosamine and chondroitin can help with arthritis. You have to make sure, though, that your dog gets enough of the beneficial ingredients, and the dosage can vary depending on your dog’s weight. It is difficult to overdose on these nutrients, though, so generally speaking, more is better.

Don’t assume that your dog can get all the nutrients he needs from his food. You could spend a great deal of money on specially formulated dog food that claims to offer everything your dog needs, but read the ingredient list carefully. Even if your dog’s food claims to offer joint support, it may not be enough. My vet, Dr. Stephen, recommends just buying a decent quality dog food – not necessarily the most expensive, and in fact if you look at the ingredient list on the bag, you may find that the expensive stuff is not all that much higher in nutrients even than the generic variety – and supplementing according to your dog’s individual needs.

Hyuralonic acid (HA) is another supplement that can work to improve your dog’s joints. Veterinarians believe that HA can work to improve the viscosity in your dog’s bones, relieving joint pain and improving flexibility.

9. Watch Your Dog’s Diet

Often, old dogs get fat. Well, younger dogs do too, I suppose, but obesity is a more serious problem in aging dogs than it is in younger ones. When a senior dog is overweight, what hat this means is that there is more stress on his bones and joints, and he may feel reluctant to exercise. Certainly this is not an unreasonable reaction – after all, do you feel like exercising when your bones and joints hurt? If you control your dog’s weight, he will be mobile for longer and healthier as a consequence.

Aging dogs do much better on food that is easy to digest, so if you have been accustomed to feeding only dry food (which is actually best for younger dogs), you might try mixing it with a bit of wet food as well. As previously mentioned, you might also have to adjust your dog’s calorie intake to make sure that he maintains a healthy body weight as he ages. If you have to cut back on the calorie intake, though, make sure that you give your dog a supplement that will deliver all the nutrients he needs.

Also, watch your dog’s appetite for any changes. If you have been free feeding (which I do), you might need to transition to a regular schedule. I talked about this in 5 Reasons Why Free Feeding May Not Be Right for Your Dog. If it seems as though he isn’t eating as much as he should, don’t just assume that he’s become “picky.” Let your veterinarian know what’s going on. Your dog could have health issues that you can’t identify, that are manifesting in fussiness over food.

10. Good Grooming

Of course good grooming is important for all dogs, but with seniors it can become a major issue. Old dogs tend to shed more, and develop skin issues. You need to be sure that you brush and groom regularly to prevent the buildup of hair and to prevent the skin issues that can occur in old dogs. Even dogs that never needed much grooming in their early years can require it as they age. The skin usually also becomes drier more fragile in an aging dog, and can be increasingly vulnerable to becoming abraded or developing sores. Regular, gentle brushing can help to stimulate the production of natural skin oils.

If you must bathe your senior dog, make sure to use a gentle, moisturizing shampoo. You might also want to follow the bath with an application of conditioner spray.

11. Check for Lumps and Other Signs of Cancer

One of the most horrible consequences of aging in dogs is cancer. It is very prevalent in certain breeds like Rottweilers and Boxers, but also occurs in other breeds. In fact, any dog can develop cancer, although some breeds are far less vulnerable than others.

You should regularly examine your dog for signs of cancer. If you find a lump or anything else that looks abnormal, then it is imperative that you get your dog to the vet right away. If you are familiar with your dog, you will probably notice a lump as soon as it occurs, and early detection is vital. If you catch it right away, the surgery might not be all that invasive, and your dog may heal quickly. It could just be a fatty deposit, but don’t take the chance. It could also be a malignant growth.

Treatments for cancer in dogs are now essentially as advanced as they are for humans. They can also be extremely expensive. If your dog needs chemotherapy or radiation, for example, you can quickly be very much out of pocket. Often, owners of particularly vulnerable dogs opt to take out pet insurance when the animal is still young. The premiums can be high, but if the worst does happen, in the long run you will probably still spend less than you would having your dog’s cancer treated.

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The Final Word

Ultimately, you are the person responsible for your dog’s health, and how you handle that responsibility can be different for a senior dog than for a younger one. Even though your dog is entering his twilight years, though, he can still enjoy a very good quality of life. Follow these eleven tips, make sure that your dog continues to see the vet every six months for a checkup, and just keep loving him the way you always have. Remember, he trusts you to do what is best for him, and what is best will change as he ages.

I hope you and your dog have many wonderful years together. May you both live long, happy lives!