If you like me have an older dog and dread the last third of your dog’s life, which is considered their senior years, you are not alone. My dog Zooey’s care is a big part of my life now. As our dog’s faithful companions we are the most important partner in our older dogs healthcare team and often faced with difficult decisions since we are on the front lines of their care.
Should we take them to the vet, how should things be managed? Knowing and understanding senior dog health issues will help us in this role and help us support our aging dogs.
How old is old any way and what is a senior dog?
As we talk about in our article When is your dog a Senior Dog and Other Facts About Senior Dogs Generally a dog is considered a senior in the later third of their life. For different dogs that may mean different times as larger dogs also have a shorter life span. Small dogs seem to age slower than larger dogs as we discuss in our article on Senior Dog Facts. In general large dogs, such as Labrador retrievers, collies, and St. Bernard’s, and a Great Dane age more quickly than smaller dogs like pugs, Scottish terriers, and chihuahuas.
You may know that Chihuahua is the oldest dog recorded at 24 years old.
Age may be just a number with dogs since they age at such vastly different but knowing when your dog is considered a senior is important so that you can watch out for issues typically faced with senior dogs but to a certain extent age is just a number.
Dogs can be all different and the passage of time plays out differently for different dogs.
Learn more about senior dog aging and dog years versus people years or human years see our article here.
Age at Which a Dog Needs Increased Veterinary Monitoring
Given that age and lifespan for each dog can vary greatly it may be helpful to follow this guide to determine when a dog needs increased veterinary monitoring:
Increased veterinary monitoring will help you identify some of the issues below.
Common Health Issues In Senior Dogs
Unfortunately there is no getting around the fact that certain diseases are much more common in older dogs. Amazingly, three in five dogs eventually die from cancer, kidney disease or heart disease and a number of conditions that are chronic and require ongoing health support also strike older dogs say the authors of Good Old Dog.
Senior Dog Health Issue #1 Slower Metabolism
Older dogs burn fewer calories than they did in their younger years. Reasons for this could be a decrease in activity and slower cell turnover and slower movement of bodily substances through the cells and like people their fat to muscle ratio may shift and fat burns calories slower.
In the largest cause of a slowing metabolism is less physical activity, which causes muscle cells to die off and their cardiovascular system being less revved which ultimately slows metabolism.
A slower metabolism is not the end of the world but older dogs will will remain stronger and fitter if they can hold on to muscle and reduce weight gain.
Often one of the first recommendations that a vet will make to senior pet dog owners it to implement strategies for weight loss which can typically be addressed by addressing the two main causes of reduced physical activity, obesity and arthritis.
Senior Dog Health Issue #2 Difficulty Adapting to Hot and Cold Temperatures
I always tend to have issues with hot or cold when visiting my 94 year old mother in law, why? Older people, like older dogs, are less physiologically tolerant of very hot and very cold weather.
Be aware of changes in temperature and ensure that you address your dog’s comfort to ensure their quality of life. Throw a blanket on at night, get a fan for the day, or a jacket for cold weather. Just watch for when it is necessary to take it off.
Senior Dog Health Issue #3 Decreased Immunity
The immune system, like other bodily systems, slows down in old age , making a dog more susceptible to diseases. Diseases like cancer and infections, according to the vets that authored the Good Old Dog.
In order to combat the issues associated with decreased immunity veterinarians recommend that pet owners maintain senior dogs vaccination schedule so that your senior dog can fight unanticipated exposure to vaccine preventable viruses.
Senior Dog Health Issue #4 Decrease in Heart and Lung Function
Another of the more prevalent common senior dog health problems is a decrease in heart and lung function. As a dog ages she does not respond as efficiently to physiologic stress like a necessary increase in heart rate from hard exercise because your older dog may not have the needed cardiac reserve.
Additionally, lungs efficiently also has the tendency to be diminished for oxygen capacity.
This may necessitate the need to take it a bit slower but most importantly just to be aware of these potential medical conditions so you can always make adjustments to how we hang with our furry friends.
Senior Dog Health Issue #5 Hormonal Changes
Changes in the hormone system that naturally occur with degeneration of the endocrine system, the network of hormones and glands in your dogs body, do not automatically translate to disease states in dogs.
However, aging dogs have to be watched more carefully for hormone mediated conditions like hypothyroidism and diabetes both of which are heavily impacted by hormone changes.
Senior Dog Health Issue #6 Changes in the Dog Reproductive System
There is no menopause in the dog world, female dogs can bear puppies until for their entire life, however, fertility does decrease with age resulting in smaller and fewer litters.
Puppies born to older dogs often have congenital issues and there can be issues with labor and delivery. This won’t affect many female dogs as many female dogs are spayed between 6 and 12 months.
Spaying in and of itself has many benefits including reduced risk of cancer of the mammary glands as we discuss in our article Ten Facts About Spaying and Neutering Your Pet.
Male dogs also get affected by changes to the reproductive system and are prone to prostate issues resulting from enlargement which can lead to susceptibility to infections.
Read More About Spaying and Neutering Including Cost to Spay and Neuter Your Dog or Cat Plus the Ultimate List of Low Cost Spay and Neuter Clinics Near You
Senior Dog Health Issue #7 Gastrointestinal Slowdown
We have all experienced “dog breath” but did you know that a dog’s bad breath is a result of dental disease that may be a result of gastrointestinal slowdown action in the mouth, the beginning of the GI tract in older pets?
Specifically, there is a decreased production of saliva, which helps clean the oral cavity and the less clean the mouth the more opportunities for issues with the teeth. Almost universal in the golden years is the development of dental tartar, gum and periodontal disease.
Senior Dog Health Issue #8 Decrease in Liver Size
The liver has two main functions, manufacture proteins, the building blocks for all tissues in the body, and break down toxic substances and deposit them in the bile which makes it through the intestinal tract. As a dog ages liver cells are lost which results in decrease in liver function.
A decrease in liver function in turn results in a diminished capacity to detoxify, this includes the ability to metabolize drugs and dietary supplements.
Veterinarians need to take the liver function into account when prescribing drugs and when you consider supplements you would do the same.
Certain supplements are already difficult for dogs to metabolize for instance oil based CBD products as we discuss in our article on water soluble and nano CBD. CBD is often provided to dogs to support many issues with aging including for arthritis in old dogs and young.
As your dog metabolizes differently as they age water soluble CBD like Relieve Plus and Calm will be more effective for your dogs and other types of supplements and dosages should be reviewed as well to ensure that they are at the correct dosage to metabolize properly.
Senior Dog Health Issue #9 Decrease in Kidney and Bladder Function
If you have ever noticed that your older dog is dripping and peeing in their sleep it is likely that they are suffering from urinary incontinence.
This can be frustrating and is a leading cause of people taking dogs to a shelter or having a professional cleaning company on speed dial. In our house it has become a real problem as our senior dog Zooey ages and I hear it from many others with older female dogs mostly.
Kidney and bladder function decreases with age in both dogs and humans and unfortunately it is difficult to test, most lab tests cannot detect a decrease in kidney function until there is more than 75% of the kidney function is lost. Whereas, older females dogs particularly ones that have been spayed are the ones mostly afflicted with incontinence.
Another issue that may occur as a result of impacts to bladder is a urinary tract infection, a very painful infection affecting the bladder. Regular supplements of kidney and bladder supporting supplements can be very helpful as your dog ages.
A dog may also dribble or pee as a result of canine cognitive decline even when they have a healthy bladder.
There are now treatments for incontinence from a decrease in bladder function that you may be able to implement with your vet.
Senior Dog Health Issue #10 Bone Loss
Like people an aging dog will also experience bone loss. Due to their shorter life span there are rarely an issue. If a dog does get a fracture it is more likely a disease at that specific location.
However, bone loss can also affect a dog’s teeth and you may notice that teeth become loose and fall out which is associated with bone loss due to your dog’s age.
Senior Dog Health Issue #11 Neurologic Decline
As anyone ages including our dogs there is neurologic decline. This can be a decline in the function of brain cells and a decline in the senses, sight, hearing, and smell.
Eye disorders and hearing loss can be a result of neurologic decline and the two should not be confused.
When Zooey cannot hear me and I am yelling instruction behind her I could think she has lost her mind and experiencing canine cognitive dysfunction a doggie version of Alzheimer’s but really she just simply cannot hear me due to neurologic decline affecting her hearing.
Neurologic decline may also affect a senior dog’s comfort in the night. Check out our article on What to do if your senior dog is restless at night
Dog’s may also run into things when experiencing vision loss from neurologic decline which may be mistaken for other issues.
The best way to understand what is impacting your dog is a visit to your vet for a screening so you can help them however, as always early diagnosis is the key and knowing some of these more prevalent health issues of senior dogs will help identify the issues early so you can assess various treatment options. As adult dogs move into later stages of life you may note behavioral changes which may actually be associated with aging and some of these issues identified here.
You may also be interested in Easy Dog Treats for Senior Dogs