Keeping an eye out for these common conditions in your sweet senior ensure you stay on top of your dog's health.

By Katie Mills Giorgio
May 10, 2021
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Getting old is hard to do. And dogs, much like people, need time to adjust to new routines and changes as they age. The medical needs of senior dogs can be very different from younger pups.  

Dogs age faster than humans (although not at a rate of seven human years for each year of their life.) Dogs are typically considered "senior" when they hit seven years old, with larger breeds usually having shorter overall lifespans than smaller breeds. While you may notice changes to their coat color or that their pace slows down, the biggest indicator that your dog has hit the senior age bracket is the emergence of age-related health problems. "Similar to when humans get older, we begin to see more chronic, progressive problems in our pets as they age," said Hyunmin Kim, DVM, Director of Veterinarians, Community Medicine, at the  ASPCA. "And animals are very good at hiding their symptoms when they are sick until they get to the point where they are so sick that they just can't hide it anymore."

It can be hard as a dog owner to watch your furry friend struggle. "The most important thing you can do for your elderly pet is to minimize any pain or distress they are experiencing," Kim says.

Senior black lab gets pet by young girl on face
Credit: JPRF Photos / Shutterstock

Of course, you should always consult with your veterinarian to treat any health problems your furry friend may be facing and regular wellness exams help ensure you stay on top of your dog's health.

Knowing what to look out for in terms of common health issues that senior dogs face can help you improve their quality of life in their golden years. Here are five of the most common health issues Kim says veterinarians see.

1. Arthritis and Joint Issues

The most common sign that your dog is aging is a decreased activity level. Dogs typically begin to show visible age-related changes at about seven to 12 years of age, says Kim. "Some of this is part of the normal transition from being a young puppy to being an adult. But it can also be associated with osteoarthritis and other degenerative changes."

It most often affects the weight-bearing joints, such as hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders so you may see your pup have trouble getting into and out of vehicles or be less willing to play fetch in the yard. While some of these changes are unavoidable and will get worse over time, Kim says others can be managed and pain can be eased with appropriate diet and exercise. "Senior dogs can benefit from daily joint supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin along with omega-3 fatty acids to decrease inflammation."

Kim also suggests surrounding your pet with their favorite things, like a warm blanket or special squeaky toy and being gentle as arthritis may make your dog more irritable. Since pressure sores can develop in pets with limited mobility, it's also essential to provide a warm sleeping spot with plenty of cushioning.

2. Incontinence

Some older pets may develop incontinence, or the loss of bladder control, so be sure to check your furry friend regularly for any wetness or soiling. This happens as their organs, muscles, and nerves age, making it harder to "hold it in," even if they once were able to go for long time periods without bathroom breaks.

"Depending on the type of incontinence there are medications available to help control these issues," says Kim, noting that it is important to prevent skin irritation and infection from urine and fecal scalding. Incontinence could be a sign of another underlying issue so it's important to talk with your veterinarian if it becomes a problem. If your pet needs help getting up to urinate or defecate, Kim suggests purchasing a sling or using a large towel to wrap under their body and assist them. Potty breaks may need to happen more often, harkening back to those early puppy days.

3. Hearing and Vision Loss

Dogs can suffer from vision loss and hearing loss just like humans in their senior years. Decreased vision and hearing can be disorienting for your pooch, but is not painful. "It's easy to miss the early signs of hearing loss because dogs are good at compensating and can rely on things such as floor vibrations," Kim explains.

Your dog may lose the ability to hear particular frequencies first. Early signs of vision loss include bumping into things and hesitancy to navigate certain areas like steps. "And with vision loss it's important to consult with your veterinarian to determine the cause because certain underlying conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma can be treated," added Kim. If your dog begins to lose their vision or hearing, make sure not to rearrange the furniture in your home as they will have trouble navigating new layouts.

4. Growths, Tumors, and Cancer

Older dogs are likely to get lumps and bumps, not all of which should be cause for concern. They can be benign warts, moles, or fatty tumors called lipomas. But, as with humans, as a dog gets older they are more likely to face a cancer diagnosis. In fact, according to the Veterinary Cancer Society, one in four dogs will be diagnosed with cancer, and it's the leading cause of death in pets who are beyond middle age.

"A longer lifespan increases the odds of aberrant cell growth and cancer formation," says Kim, noting that any mass or growth should be monitored for rapid changes in size, shape, color, and consistency as this can be an indication of malignancy.

A consultation with your veterinarian may result in simple testing such as a fine needle aspirate to examine some cells from the mass or complete removal and biopsy which will provide a more definitive answer. Treatment options depend on the stage and type of cancer your dog has, such as lymphoma, so the earlier the diagnosis the better. Regular veterinary check ups and periodically feeling your dog's body for lumps at home can help catch issues early on.

5. Obesity

Weight has a significant impact on your dog's overall health throughout his lifespan. But older dogs have been shown to progressively put on body fat despite consuming fewer calories.

"This change in body composition is inevitable and may be aggravated by either reduced energy expenditure or a change in metabolic rate," says Kim. "Either way, it is important to feed a diet with a lower caloric density to avoid weight gain, but with a normal protein level to help maintain muscle mass." Obesity in senior dogs will worsen arthritis and decrease mobility resulting in a cycle that can lead to even more weight gain and make them more prone to illnesses like diabetes.

Always check with your veterinarian for nutrition and diet advice that may change over your pet's lifetime to ensure optimal health for your senior pup.

Caring for Your Senior Dog

Aging is a part of any pup's life and you as their companion can help make your dog's older years some of their best. "You can help your pet by being patient and giving them time to get acquainted with their new normal," encourages Kim. "Depending on what challenges your pet might be facing as they age, there are many steps to make your home safer and more comfortable."

Remove any wires and other items from the floor that could cause your pet to fall or trip. You'll also want to move plants and fragile objects to a safe area that is out of reach for your dog. Create a safe space in your home for your pet to be away from any additional stressors.

Routine care for older dogs should involve a consistent daily routine and periodic veterinary examinations and lab work to assess the presence or progress of any chronic disease or other effects of aging, Kim adds. "Stressful situations and abrupt changes in daily life should be avoided."

If a drastic change must be made to an older pet's routine, try to minimize stress by introducing the change in a gradual manner.