By John Gilpatrick
When your dog starts to get up there in age, he slows down. Maybe he withdraws a bit. He might put on some weight—or lose some, depending on his eating and exercise habits and his health status.
The age at which “adult dogs” become “senior dogs” varies from breed to breed, and certainly some individuals will start to show the signs of age sooner or later than others. According to Molly Sumner, a New Jersey-based certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, many smaller breeds can live to 15 years and generally start to show their age between 9 and 11 years. Larger breeds have shorter life spans. They might live to just 8 or 10 years, and therefore, they become “senior” as early as 6 years old.
Regardless of age, as the dog’s caretaker, you owe it to him to make his golden years comfortable, healthy, and full of delight. Follow these six tips to help your older dog feel young.
Dr. Kate Creevy, an associate professor of small animal internal medicine at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, says that just like it is with our own health, the cheapest, easiest, and simplest advice is the biggest key to longer vitality. “While it is tempting to hope for youth in a bottle, the good old-fashioned advice of ‘eat less and exercise more’ remains the best,” she says.
On the diet front, Creevy says you should begin working with your vet early in your dog’s life to come up with a diet plan that’s calorically and nutritionally appropriate for your pup. You should also weigh your dog regularly to make sure he’s staying within healthy limits. Owners of small and medium dogs can do this at home monthly. Owners of larger breeds might need to go into the vet’s office to have their dog weighed. “Most practices are happy to accommodate this request outside of a scheduled appointment, and many have a scale right in the waiting room,” Creevy says.
Many older dogs will also benefit from the addition of dog supplements into their diets, Creevy says. Fish oil is perhaps the most common supplement for older dogs, and for good reason. It’s an anti-inflammatory, and it has been shown to help manage certain heart problems and joint problems and improve a dog’s skin and coat.
Creevy also says that vitamin B can be good for some older dogs, but she adds that the addition of any supplements to a dog’s diet should only be done after consulting with your vet.
Because older dogs tend to have more aches and pains than puppies or adult dogs, it’s important that you regulate exercise in such a way that it doesn’t put unnecessary strain on your dog’s musculoskeletal system. “Dogs who are walked for 20 minutes each day will be much more comfortable than dogs who get the same amount of weekly exercise by running after a ball for two straight hours on Saturday only,” Creevy says.
Additionally, Sumner says you may want to consider ways to shake up your walk and give your dog some mental stimulation in the process. “As a dog ages, walks that include more sniffing and exploring are more valuable cognitively than a brisk aerobic workout,” she says.
Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS) is a cluster of changes many dogs go through as they age that manifest themselves through loss of housetraining, loss of interest in usual activities or people, aimless wandering or pacing (especially at night), loss of normal daily rhythms, or generally seeming confused, Creevy says. “Because we don’t yet understand all of its causes and the cellular level changes that are occurring, we do not currently have specific strategies to prevent CCDS,” she says.
But keeping your dog mentally stimulated may help slow down the development of cognitive dysfunction. “Food dispensing toys and puzzles, as well as scent work, can help a dog stay sharp and reduce anxiety and the effects of canine cognitive dysfunction,” Sumner says. “When it comes to [a dog’s] brain, it’s use it or lose it.” You can buy food puzzles in most pet stores, Sumner says, or take a crack at making one of your own at home.
“Like us, aging dogs are prone to become less limber, to heal less quickly from injury, and to develop arthritis,” Creevy says.
That’s especially true for sporting dogs or those who practiced agility throughout their lives. If you find your dog is less likely (or unable) to jump up on the couch next to you, you might want to consider taking him to a veterinary physical therapist. “They have inflatable exercise equipment you and your dog can use,” Sumner says. “They’ll also teach you stretches to do with your dog.”
Not only will these visits and stretches make your dog feel more limber, they might also help with behavior problems that emerge as he gets older. Sumner adds that negative changes in personality—like fear, aloofness, and hiding—might emerge because your dog is dealing with untreated pain.
Certain physiological changes that come with advanced age—like losing sight or hearing—can bring about changes that make your pup seem like he’s becoming a grumpy old dog. If your veterinarian says that there’s not really anything you can do to reverse these changes, Sumner says it’s very important to help your older dog navigate your home and yard and more closely monitor interactions with people and other animals.
You also shouldn’t force your dog to play with you if he doesn’t want to. “If your dog seems to be withdrawing more than usual, he might be protecting himself from pain,” she says. “If he’s always been super social, he might continue that way as a senior, but dogs that seem more aloof or reclusive shouldn’t be pressured to come out and play.” If you suspect that a medical problem might be causing your dog’s behavior changes, make an appointment with your veterinarian.
If you’re unsure, take it slow. “You know your dog and his body language better than anyone,” Sumner says. “If he’s giving off signs that he doesn’t want to be pet right now, you have to respect his wishes.”