How to Keep Giant Dog Breeds Healthy at Every Life Stage

September 15, 2020
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Regardless of their dog’s size, every pet parent should understand the importance of behavioral well-being, yearly vet exams, and preventative medicine to ensure their dog’s quality of life.

In addition, giant dog breeds have some specific health risks that you should know about and certain needs when it comes to nutrition and care. This article outlines some of these differences and how you can make sure that your giant dog stays healthy.

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What’s the Weight Range for Giant Dog Breeds?

On average, giant dog breeds can range in weight from 80 to 200 pounds! Here are some common giant-breed dogs:

What Common Health Issues Do Giant Dog Breeds Have?

Giant dogs can be at risk for certain health issues. Some of the most common conditions seen in giant breed dogs are:

  • Bloat, or gastric dilation volvulus (GDV)

  • Congenital joint disease of the shoulders, elbows, knees, and hips

  • Osteosarcoma (bone tumor that affects the leg bones)

Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV or “Bloat”)

GDV, or bloat, is a condition that refers to a bloated and twisted stomach, and it’s commonly seen in giant-breed dogs. This condition is an urgent emergency, because if it goes untreated, the dog will die within a matter of hours.

Any large or giant dog may be affected, including mixed breeds, but the risk increases for:

  • Great Danes and St. Bernards

  • Dogs that are 6-12 years old

  • Dogs weighing more than 99 pounds

When a dog experiences GDV, their stomach fills with gas and twists on itself. This leads to a blockage of the stomach and a sudden decrease in blood supply.

Often, GDV occurs when a dog exercises soon after eating a meal. Other risk factors may include having a first-degree relative that’s had GDV; rapidly consuming a meal; eating one meal per day; being fearful, anxious, or stressed; or being underweight.

The symptoms of GDV commonly include retching, attempting to vomit (with no production of fluid or material), anxiety or restlessness, increased panting or difficulty breathing, drooling, regurgitating, distension of the abdomen or area behind the rib cage, pale or blue/gray gums, lethargy, and collapse.

With early identification, medical stabilization, and surgical correction, survival rates are as high as 85-95% in most cases.

Congenital Joint Disease of the Shoulders, Elbows, Knees, and Hips

Joint disease causes pain and discomfort to the limbs by disrupting the normal mechanics of the joints. Giant dog breeds have a wide range of joint diseases that start when they are puppies. If left untreated, these conditions can develop into chronic arthritis, or osteoarthritis, as they age.

Joint disease in giant dogs can be difficult to notice at first. The most common signs are lameness, limping, having trouble standing, an abnormal walking stance, and abnormal sitting postures.

As the disease progresses, you may notice shifting, non-weight-bearing lameness, and limping, as well as behavioral changes such as increased biting, hiding, decreased activity, decreased appetite, and even aggression towards people and other animals.

Early signs of decreased mobility and movement should be evaluated by your veterinarian. Many cases of joint disease can have a favorable outcome if treatment is started early.

Starting joint protectants as early as 8 weeks of age serves as a protective measure because of the high incidence of joint disease in giant dog breeds. As joint diseases progress, arthritis will begin to form. This condition is not curable, and medical management will be lifelong.

Osteosarcoma (Bone Tumor)

Osteosarcoma is a type of bone tumor that primarily affects the leg bones of dogs. It can affect dogs of any age and size but is seen more commonly in larger breeds, which also tend to develop this tumor at younger ages.

The tumor grows inside the bone, destroying bone tissue and causing pain as it enlarges from the inside out. Signs of osteosarcoma can be difficult to notice early on. Some dogs will start with an occasional limp or favoring of a limb that becomes worse over time.

Others may show slow and progressive swelling over the affected area. Additional signs include joint and/or bone pain or broken bones. Some dogs may show reduced appetite or stop eating altogether.

The prognosis depends on how advanced the tumor is at the time of diagnosis. Other things to consider are individual patient factors, the treatment plan undertaken, and the dog’s response to therapy.

How Long Do Giant Dog Breeds Live?

On average, giant-breed dogs have a shorter life span than most dogs and can live to be about 8 to 12 years old.

How to Keep Giant Dogs Healthy at Each Life Stage

Three important factors in dog health care are preventative medicine, behavioral welfare, and evidenced-based nutrition. The goal of every pet owner is to have a happy, healthy pet. These factors ensure early detection of disease, good health, and quality of life.

This guide will help keep your giant dog healthy at every life stage.

Giant-Breed Puppy: 0-18 Months

During the first few months of life, giant-breed puppies are not very different from any other breed. From birth until 22 weeks of age, all puppies should have regular veterinary examinations because they are at a high risk for exposure to and transmission of parasites and viruses.

Such parasites and viruses can exist in the body long before you notice symptoms, and they can be transmitted between the puppy, the mom, and other puppies.

The most common clinical signs include: lethargy, dehydration, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, pale mucus membranes, and even death. If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Nutritional Needs

Do your research about the companies that produce your pet’s food. Choose a food company that employs a full-time veterinary nutritionist to formulate their diet and continuously performs quality control checks.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against certain types of diets for dogs, including raw, home-prepared, paleo, and grain-free, unless instructed to feed them by your veterinarian. Speak with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist before considering a nontraditional diet.

AAFCO Statement

Check for an official Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement on dog food packages.

The statement should be written as: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that *insert diet name* provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth of puppies and maintenance of adult dogs.”

This confirms that a diet has gone through clinical feeding trials and is safe and formulated to feed not only to puppies, but to adults as well.

Giant dog breeds should be fed a large-breed puppy diet until 1 to 2 years of age. Diets that favor joint health will contain glucosamine, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and omega-6 fatty acids.

Here are some options for giant-breed puppy diets:

These bowls can help your puppy avoid bloat:

Supplements

One of the most common clinical diseases that afflicts giant dogs is joint disease. It is never too early to start your dog on supplements for joint care and health, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and MSM.

Consider oral supplements (fish oil or joint chews) or feeding a large-breed puppy diet that contains these supplements. Starting your puppy on supplements to support joint health at 8 weeks has great benefits and limited risks, such as vomiting or diarrhea.

Ask your veterinarian which products are right for your pet. Here are some options:

Medical Needs

Taking care of your giant-breed puppy’s preventative health needs should be your top priority from the moment you bring them home. Here’s what you need to know.

Veterinary Care

Between birth and 18 weeks, puppies should visit their veterinarian every two to four weeks. Veterinary examinations give you the opportunity to ask an expert about questions and concerns you have about your new puppy.

Consider the exam to be more than just getting required vaccines for your puppy—it’s time to learn the best way to care for your pup and set them up for a long, healthy life. Consider getting a notebook to write down questions, concerns, and answers so you don’t forget them.

This is a great time to discuss vaccinations, monthly preventatives for external and internal parasites, training and behavior issues, and nutritional questions and concerns. Ask your veterinarian to discuss the most common diseases that affect giant dogs and the signs and symptoms to look for.

Here are some questions specific to giant dog breeds to ask your veterinarian:

  • When should we spay/neuter?

  • Is my dog high-risk enough to have a gastropexy to decrease the risk of GDV?

  • Can we start joint supplements and which ones do you recommend? 

  • What nutritional plan is recommend based on my puppy’s lifestyle?

  • What behaviors are normal or abnormal at this age?

Vaccines

Vaccination is critical during puppyhood. The most common viral diseases in puppies are distemper, adenovirus 1 and 2 (hepatitis), parainfluenza, parvovirus, and rabies.

These viruses can cause various clinical signs, including seizures, blindness, bloody diarrhea, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. They are highly contagious to other dogs, especially those that are not fully vaccinated.

For this reason, the DHPP vaccine and rabies shot are considered core vaccinations. These vaccinations should only be administered by a licensed veterinarian to ensure quality control and safety.

Your puppy’s health certificate should have a complete vaccination history from a licensed veterinarian ensuring that they have started their core vaccination series. If adopting from a rescue or shelter, the adoption paperwork will have vaccinations listed in the medical section.

Booster vaccines should be administered every two to four weeks depending on your puppy’s risk factors. Immunity is completed between 18-22 weeks of age. Depending on your pet’s individual needs and risk factors, booster vaccinations will be needed every one to three years.

Ask your veterinarian which vaccines your dog needs. Risks and side effects of vaccination (injection site inflammation/bumps) are rare, and in the majority of cases, the benefits outweigh the costs.

If you are concerned about vaccination side effects or risks, talk to your veterinarian. Ask which types of vaccinations they use and how often they are needed. Vaccinations are a critical component of your pet’s overall health and longevity. 

Dental Care

Yearly physical examinations are crucial to your dog’s oral health. Deciduous (baby) teeth show at 4 weeks of age. Adult teeth will start to show at 3 months and continue until 5 months of age.

Retained baby teeth can cause an increase in dental disease; if this occurs, they should be removed around 1 year of age.

Start daily teeth brushing by using positive reinforcement. Look for products that are sponsored by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) to help combat dental disease. It is important that a complete oral examination, dental cleaning, and radiographs be performed yearly to decrease the risks associated with dental disease.

Do not wait until you physically see evidence of dental disease. Prolonged exposure to dental calculus can lead to secondary heart disease and bacterial infections. These infections can be painful and can lead to changes in behavior (biting, pain during petting, aversion to touching the head), decreased eating, bleeding, tooth root infections, weight loss, gingivitis, fracture, and in severe cases, when left untreated, death.

Here are a few highly recommended canine dental products:

Spay/Neuter

Spaying or neutering before 6 months of age is a debated topic in veterinary medicine. While there are many benefits to be considered, limited studies exist that discuss downsides for early alteration, such as an increase in joint diseases. These conditions are seen regardless of spaying/neutering, but they should be taken into consideration.

These are the many benefits to spaying and neutering before 6 months:

  • Spaying your female dog before the first estrus cycle reduces the risk of mammary neoplasia.

  • You won’t deal with heat cycles and the risk of reproductive tract diseases such as hydrometras, false pregnancies, and pyometras.

  • There is a considerable cost difference in altering your pet before 6 months of age. It is more affordable based on weight and size.

  • The procedure is easier for your dog with fewer complications and quicker recovery times.

  • Marking, spraying, roaming behaviors, and aggression in male dogs will decrease in the majority of cases.

  • Spay/neuter efforts keep your pet from contributing to pet overpopulation; because of spay/neuter, the number of stray, homeless, and unwanted dogs has decreased dramatically.

The best way to determine what is right for your pet is to consult with your veterinarian about the pros and cons to early spay/neuter.

Parasite Prevention

It is important to start parasite medication at 6 to 8 weeks of age to protect against most external and internal parasites.

External parasites, such as fleas and ticks, not only cause itchiness and discomfort but expose your pets to dangerous diseases. Some of these diseases (Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, typhus, and plague) can be transmitted to humans.

Internal parasites (roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and heartworms) can make your new puppy very sick and may even require major medical intervention, as severe infestations can be life-threatening. Year-round, monthly preventatives are a cheap alternative.

Speak to your primary care veterinarian about an inclusive external and internal parasite preventative. Regardless of climate, geographical location, or housing, all dogs need to be on monthly parasite prevention.

The majority of parasites cannot be seen, including fleas, which not only live on your dog, but primarily live in the environment. Preventatives not only protect against transmitted diseases but also prevent other medical conditions, including hair loss, dry skin, itchiness, allergies, redness, diarrhea, vomiting, decreased appetite, weight loss, anemia, and more.

Speak to your veterinarian about choosing the right preventative for your pet. If you are concerned about side effects and safety, look for a product that’s approved by the FDA.

Behavioral Needs 

Socialization and training are crucial parts of puppyhood that can help prevent issues later on.

Socialization

Socialization for giant dogs begins with their littermates and should continue throughout puppyhood. Introducing your puppy to new things every day can go a long way in decreasing anxiety and stress in the future.

Make sure your dog is comfortable and that the new things and people are introduced in a controlled, safe manner. Consider the “10 rule:” introducing your puppy to 10 new things every day. It can be as simple as turning on the TV; this helps with socialization and decreases fearful behavior as dogs age.

Dogs are social creatures and thrive with the companionship of their own kind, too. In other words, dogs need dog friends! Pheromone therapy is a great way to help decrease anxiety and encourage positive introductions. Adaptil collars are great for this purpose. Keep in mind that you may not notice results for three months.

Training

This is the time to start training your puppy to learn basic cues as well. Ensure positive training techniques with a trainer that is certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers  or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Stay away from shock collars as well as choke or prong collars, as these can harm your pet, inhibit a positive learning environment, and damage the human-animal bond. Instead, consider a gentle leader or martingale collar that encourages engagement with you but is not damaging and painful.

Mental and Physical Stimulation

Environmental enrichment is critical to your puppy’s well-being, such as short 5- to 10-minute walks that encourage sniffing fun. New smells are great for enrichment. Longer walks are great for exercise and to decrease excitability and energy.

Change out your puppy’s toys regularly and try food-stuffer and interactive food toys. It is very important that you monitor your new puppy as they play. Stay away from toys and chews that can break or can be easily swallowed, as this can become a choking hazard.

Here are some suggested products to try:

Adult Giant-Breed Dogs: 18 Months – 7 Years

Giant dogs have an increased risk for particular heart diseases, stomach torsions, and joint disease. Speak to your veterinarian about your dog’s individual risks and changes to their care as they enter their adult stage of life.

Here are some guidelines for caring for your adult dog.

Nutritional Needs

Nutritional changes should occur between 1 and 2 years of age. Perform a slow transition between puppy and adult food, even if you are using the same brand of food. This will decrease gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting, diarrhea, and decreased appetite.

Using a probiotic (for example, Purina Pro Plan FortiFlora and Nutramax Proviable-DC) during the first week of food transition can help decrease upset stomach and flatulence. Monitor your dog’s body condition score to ensure that your dog is not gaining or losing too much weight, as their actual weight will be difficult for you to monitor at home.

Consult with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to determine what is best for your individual dog.

AAFCO Statement

There are multiple factors to consider when choosing an adult dog food for giant dog breeds. First, check for an AAFCO statement to ensure that the diet has been properly balanced and formulated for an adult dog.

Second, choose a maintenance diet from a pet food company with diets that are formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. If your pet has special nutritional needs, consult with your veterinarian to determine the right diet for your pet.

If you are considering a nontraditional diet, speak with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to determine the right diet.

Here are some diets that are formulated for joint support or large/giant dog breeds:

Supplements

Joint care supplements should be continued throughout the adult life of your giant dog.

If your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with osteoarthritis, a multimodal approach should be considered when managing joint care and joint disease. Consult with your veterinarian about surgical and medical management of joint disease.

Here is an option for supplemental joint support for giant dog breeds:

Medical Needs

Continued veterinary care and getting core vaccines are crucial for your adult dog. Here’s a guide for keeping your giant dog healthy through adulthood.

Veterinary Care

Annual physical examinations allow your veterinarian to check all of your dog’s body systems. These appointments also allow you to ask any questions you might have.

Complete bloodwork including complete blood count, chemistry panel, and urinalysis can assist your veterinarian with early detection of diseases and management.

As your dog ages, your veterinarian also plays an important role in nutrition management. Evaluate the pros and cons of each dog food product you are considering with your veterinarian. If you are considering a nontraditional diet, a consultation with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist can help you create a complete and balanced diet for your dog’s needs.

At your dog’s annual appointments, ask about preventative procedures to prevent GDV (commonly called bloat). It is also important to continue supplements and medications that ease the pain from joint disease and arthritis.

Vaccines

Core vaccines are considered essential to the health and safety of your dog. Due to the risk of exposure, severity of the disease, and potential transmission to people, distemper, adenovirus 1 and 2 (hepatitis), parainfluenza, and parvovirus (DA2PP or DHPP), as well as rabies vaccinations are considered core vaccinations.

There are many commercial noncore vaccinations, like Bordetella, leptospirosis, and Lyme disease, which may be needed depending on your dog’s risk factors and state laws. Ask your veterinarian whether your dog should have any noncore vaccinations.

Dental Health

Dental health and hygiene are very important as your dog ages. A complete oral examination, dental cleaning, and radiographs should be performed yearly to decrease the risk associated with dental disease.

Signs of dental disease in dogs include decreased eating, pain, sneezing, coughing, eye discharge, facial swelling, bleeding from the mouth, or changes in behavior.

Toys, treats, and food do not replace yearly cleanings. Support your dog’s dental health with daily teeth brushing to decrease the risks of dental disease between cleanings. Consider toys, chews, food, and treats endorsed by the VOHC.

Spay/Neuter

It is important to consider the increased risks associated with not spaying or neutering your dog as they enter their adult stage of life.

For male dogs, these include: marking, spraying, roaming, increased risk for prostate hyperplasia (increased tissue), neoplasia (cancer), perianal herniation (weakening of the muscles near the anus), increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, and increased aggression due to hormone changes.

For female dogs, these include: increased risk for uterine and mammary cancers, mammary development with cystic formation, continuous estrus cycles, hydrometras, pyometras (a serious and deadly condition that, if left untreated by not spaying your dog, can cause sepsis and eventually death), false pregnancies, and increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and cancers.

Parasite Prevention

You will need to continue parasite preventative medications for your dog for the remainder of his life.

External parasites (fleas, ticks, and mites) and internal parasites (roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and heartworms) are very common and potentially contagious to other dogs and humans as well.

Heartworm disease can cause many complications for your dog and can eventually lead to irreversible heart damage and death. Fortunately, heartworm disease is completely preventable by ensuring your dog is on an effective monthly preventative.

Aside from being protected themselves, dogs on heartworm preventatives cannot transmit this disease to other dogs through infected mosquito bites.

When a dog has heartworm disease, a mosquito can bite that dog, and then bite an uninfected dog. If that uninfected dog is not on an FDA-approved monthly preventative for heartworm disease, then he will also become infected.

Many other clinical diseases can be caused by parasites. Anemia (low red blood cells), weight loss, diarrhea, lethargy, vomiting, and skin disease are the most common symptoms of parasite infestations in your dog.

The majority of dogs with skin disease have allergies due to increased flea bites. Remember, fleas actively live in the surrounding environment, which decreases our chances of seeing them. If you notice flea dirt or fleas, there are likely many more fleas (in different life stages) in the yard or in your home.

Finally, ticks (as well as fleas) carry numerous blood-borne parasites and can transmit diseases to both pets and humans. The risk of flea infestations, heartworm disease, and ticks are prevalent regardless of your geographical location. Outdoor dogs are significantly more susceptible to such infestations.

Behavioral Needs

Sudden changes in your dog’s behavior may be early warning signs for underlying diseases.

Monitor any changes you notice, such as decreased eating, increased drinking, abnormal weight gain, decreased activity level, increased agitation, increased barking or arousal, and sudden aggression to people and other animals.

Write down when these behaviors occur and the frequency, and inform your primary care veterinarian. Early intervention is best way to ensure a good outcome.

Keeping a consistent daily routine throughout your dog’s adult life will help decrease anxiety and fear. Sudden changes to their normal environment can create abnormal behaviors and stress that can even induce certain diseases.

If you are considering making any changes to your home environment, such as moving, adding a new member to your family, or making changes to your daily routine, talk with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist to ensure a good, smooth transition.

Here are some products that can help with stress and anxiety in dogs:

Mental and Physical Stimulation

As your puppy becomes an adult, nurturing their mental well-being needs to be a part of your daily routine because it plays a direct role in their physical health.

Physical exercise and “brain games” increase the heart rate and stimulate the brain to promote your dog’s mental well-being and health. Continuing to encourage new, exciting challenges and events in a positive manner will help keep your dog mentally stimulated and encourage exercise.

This can help reduce stress, keep your dog at an ideal weight, and decrease the risk for certain diseases.

Leash Walks

Walking your dog encourages physical and mental health. Increasing your dog’s heart rate and weight loss are just two of the many benefits from daily exercise. Walking also introduces new smells and stimuli to your dog, which helps with mental acuity.

Try walking your dog at least twice a day for 15 minutes. You can increase the times and the intervals depending on your dog.

If your dog gets too excited when walking, or you are worried about pulling, try using a Gentle Leader harness. They may look like muzzles, but your pet can drink, eat, and breathe with them on. They not only help you engage with your dog during stressful situations, but you are able to gain control of your walks without pulling or causing pain for your companion.

Also, try carrying a high-value treat that is only used during walks in a treat pouch, or give clicker training a try. If you are still having trouble with walking your dog, try reaching out to a certified professional dog trainer or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

Treat Training

Mental stimulation with training goes a long way, even if you only exercise 15 minutes a day or three times a week. Training takes patience and understanding but can be fun for both you and your pet.

Keep in mind that dogs learn through trial and error, so encourage the behaviors you want by praising and rewarding them. Never use punishment. Discourage unwanted behaviors by not rewarding them.

Interactive Treat Toys and Weekly Cycling

Consider changing out your pet’s toys weekly. Try using different types of materials and types of toys to help create excitement. You can also use treat toys, which encourage dogs to use their minds to find the treats and get them out of the toy.

Treat toys can be filled and frozen with peanut butter and other dog-friendly ingredients. These can be used during times that usually cause your dog stress, such as when you leave the house.

Puzzle Feeders

Make mealtime fun with puzzle feeders. This not only helps with learning but also slows down fast eaters. Puzzle feeders encourage learning and to help mentally stimulate your dogs during feeding.

Scent Enrichment

Consider stimulating your dog’s sense of smell by using canine-friendly scents (such as lavender, coconut, and vanilla) that can be changed out weekly or monthly. You can spray them on your dog’s blankets or toys. You can also try canine pheromone sprays, diffusers, and collars (such as Adaptil) to help decrease stress and anxiety.

Dog-Friendly TV and Music

Playing classical music or talk radio at a low volume can help increase your dog’s mental stimulation while you are away from the house. There are many apps and DVDs that are made for dogs to increase visual stimulation as well.

Interactive Playtime

Start playing fetch or tug with your dog! This one-on-one time encourages bonding and provides physical exercise for you and your pet.

Dog Friends

One of the best sources of enrichment and mental well-being is having interactions with other dogs. Dogs are inherently social creatures and thrive when they can safely interact with each other.

You can try walks and playdates with dog friends if you do not have another dog at home. This encourages exercise and provides a great source of mental stimulation and joy for your dog.

Here are training products and toys to try with giant dog breeds:

Senior Giant-Breed Dogs: 7-16 Years

As your giant dog ages, it is even more important to monitor any changes in behavior, as these may be early signs of disease. Senior dogs also require more daily enrichment and environmental modification to assist with the signs of aging.

Here’s how you can keep your senior dog healthy.

Nutritional Needs 

As your pet ages, certain nutritional changes may need to be made. Speak with your veterinarian about choosing a diet that assists with any underlying medical conditions.

It is also important to monitor your dog’s body condition and weight. Ask your veterinarian for a calculation of daily caloric intake and ideal body weight for your dog.

If cognitive dysfunction is noted, or as your dog approaches a geriatric age, choose a diet that is has increased omega-6 fatty acids, DHA, eicosapentaenoic acid, antioxidants, and B vitamins. These supplements act as neuroprotectants that can help with cognitive dysfunction.

Here are some diets that can help support your dog’s cognitive health:

Supplements

Giant-breed senior dog supplements are the same as adult dog supplements. If your pet has arthritis, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication may also be needed for additional pain management.

If you are noticing increased issues with mobility, speak with your veterinarian about a recommendation for a supplement that can help.

Ask your veterinarian about these prescription options for joint support and pain relief:

Medical Needs

Your senior giant dog breed will need a higher level of care, including more frequent vet visits and diligent monitoring at home for signs of health issues.

Veterinary Care

As your giant-breed dog approaches 5 years of age, it is critical that they see the vet once or twice a year for an exam. The examinations should include senior blood panels (complete blood counts, serum chemistries, thyroid, and urinalysis), orthopedic examinations, and oral examinations (evaluation of dental disease and neoplasia).

These are important tools that help with early diagnosis and treatment. Inform your veterinarian if you notice vomiting, weight loss, vision and hearing impairments, food aversion, diarrhea, decreased eating, or lameness. It is important to discuss age-related changes that may be affecting your pet and what steps can be taken to manage them.

Vaccines

At this point in your dog’s life, it is best to consult with your veterinarian about the risks or benefits of vaccination. If you have recently welcomed a senior pet into your home, ensure that they are up to date on all vaccines.

Dental Health

Senior pets need to have good dental health as they age to encourage a good appetite and to decrease or prevent pain. Every six months, a dental examination should be performed by your veterinarian to determine a treatment plan.

Bi-yearly dental cleanings with radiographs should be performed for a full dental examination. Just looking at your dog’s teeth and gums does not rule out dental decay and disease. If left untreated, dental disease can lead to halitosis, pain, bleeding, tooth root abscesses, secondary heart disease from increased bacteria, and in severe cases, death.

General anesthesia is required for a complete dental prophylaxis. It can be a difficult decision for many owners to have their senior pets under anesthesia, but with a good preoperative treatment plan, including a complete physical examination and senior blood work panels, the prognosis is good.

Speak to your veterinarian about daily dental health routines, including daily or twice-a-week teeth brushing, prescription-based oral health diets, and products approved by the VOHC.

Parasite Prevention

Senior dogs are more at risk for a parasitic infestation due to their lowered immune systems. It is crucial to continue your pet on a year-round monthly preventative for external and internal parasites. Ask your veterinarian which product is best for your senior dog.

Mobility 

As your dog ages, mobility and movement may become difficult due to visual or orthopedic conditions. The resulting pain and loss of vision can create anxiety and fear of movement. If you notice behavior changes or pain with mobility, it is important to speak with your veterinarian about treatment.

Small changes to your dog’s home environment can help with these physical challenges. Rugs, runners, and carpets should be placed in your pet’s favorite areas to help with walking, standing, sitting, and getting up after long periods of sleeping. This can decrease the risk of slipping and may mitigate your pet’s fear of falling.

Orthopedic beds will be more comfortable for long periods of sleeping and can help decrease pressure sores that are caused by a decrease in muscle mass. Use dog gates near stairs or slippery hardwood floors to keep them away from those areas.

Physical therapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture can help with mobility and easing pain.

Mental and Physical Stimulation

Daily enrichment and continued exercise are important for mental stimulation and joint and muscle health.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Dog-appeasing pheromone diffusers to decrease anxiety

  • Scent enrichment with scents like lavender, coconut, and vanilla

  • Short “scent walks” with breaks for sniffing to increase enrichment (also promotes joint mobility)

  • Food toys stuffed with heavily scented foods

  • Puzzle toys

Here are some products that can help:

End of Life Care

As your pet becomes geriatric, age-related concerns may become unmanageable or unresponsive to treatment.

You may notice a few or all of the following:

  • Accidents or soiling themselves because they are unable to control their urination or defecation

  • Changes in vision or cognitive function; your pet may seem lost or disoriented while performing daily tasks

  • Having trouble walking or standing

  • Decrease in activity; being less active

  • Lack of appetite or becoming a picky eater

These changes are often precursors for underlying diseases. Speak with your veterinarian about which symptoms are normal for senior dogs to help guide treatment and long-term management. Discuss any age-related changes with your veterinarian to determine your dog’s quality of life. Age is not a disease, but the quality of life must be a priority.

A basic guide to help you understand the daily requirements of dogs is to look at the Five Freedoms, a concept that was refined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. These freedoms quantify what every animal needs to have for a good quality of life:

  • Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
    By ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.

  • Freedom from Discomfort
    By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

  • Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
    By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

  • Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
    By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.

  • Freedom from Fear and Distress
    By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Here are some products that may be helpful for your senior dog:

Resources for assessing your dog’s quality of life:

Quality of Life Scale

Lap of Love Quality of Life Scoring Tools

Lap of Love “How Will I Know It Is Time?”