10 Ways to Make Your Dog's Golden Years as Good as Gold
We don't just want our dogs to have long lives. We want them to have good long lives. And with a little extra effort and understanding, your dog's senior years can be as good as gold.
We asked Brandi Whittemore, DVM, of Hancock Veterinary Services in Pineville, Mo., to provide us with advice on how to make a dog's golden years more golden. From your routines to your home, to even your mindset, there are simple changes you can make to improve your senior pet's quality of life.
When Are a Dog's Golden Years?
According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Senior Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, determining the age at which a dog is considered to be a "senior" is a bit complicated. Organ systems and breeds of dogs age at different rates, so there isn't a sweeping age standard that can be applied to every dog.
Instead, AAHA recommends treating a dog as a senior when they are in the last 25 percent of their predicted lifespan. Thus, if your dog has a predicted lifespan of 12 years, they would enter their golden years on their 9th birthday. Your vet can help you determine your dog's predicted lifespan based on their size, breed, and other factors.
If your dog has entered their golden years (or you're thinking of adopting from this age group), here are some steps you can take to make their life more comfortable and enriching.
1. Don't Skip Vet Visits
Preventative veterinary medicine remains an important part of your pet's care as there's still plenty to prevent in their golden years. AAHA guidelines recommend wellness exams every 6 months for healthy senior pets. Whittemore notes that at around age 7, she begins recommending annual lab work, which includes a complete blood cell count and chemistry profile. And depending on the pet, she may also advise a thyroid screening and eye tests to check for dry eye and glaucoma.
2. Polish Their Pearly Whites
Even if you diligently brush your pet's teeth at home, annual dental cleanings and exams should ideally start by age 3 (the age at which most pets have some degree of dental disease) and continue into your pet's golden years, Whittemore says. However, she adds that some dogs–particularly small breed dogs that are prone to dental problems–may need more frequent cleanings.
3. Ponder What's on Their Plate
"A dog's digestive tract changes as they get older," Whittemore explains, "as does their nutrient and calorie needs. Diets marketed for senior dogs can be helpful for meeting these different nutrient needs, but it's still important to read the labels to evaluate calorie and nutrient densities." If you aren't sure how many calories your dog needs or which nutrients to watch for, ask your vet for advice.
4. Strike up a Supplement Discussion
Speaking of nutrition, diet discussions are the perfect time to bring up supplements with your vet. Whittemore says that joint supplements (e.g. Dasuquin, Cosequin, Flexadin, Movoflex), omega supplements, and probiotics may be helpful for older pets, but always talk to your vet before giving your dog a supplement to ensure it's safe—especially if your pet takes medication.
5. Fit in Physical Fitness
Senior dogs still need (and enjoy!) daily exercise, though you may need to adapt to your dog's changing mobility and energy levels. For example, while a young dog may thrive in a fast-paced dog park setting, a senior dog may prefer a more leisurely leashed walk or a joint-friendly swim. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. If one half-hour session seems to be too much for your pup, try breaking it down into three 10-minute sessions or two 15-minute sessions.
6. Make Intellectual Investments
Your senior dog's brain needs regular exercise, too. If you aren't sure where to start, try giving your dog the freedom to sniff and explore when on walks. Other simple ideas include playing games (such as hide-the-treat), teaching a new cue, and investing in a rotation of interactive toys.
7. Get Grooming
Did you know that good grooming habits can have an effect on your senior pup's mobility? Nails that are too long can be a source of pain and can make it difficult to walk. If you can hear them clicking on the floor when your dog is walking, it's probably time for a trim. Fur can also prove problematic for getting around, which is why you should regularly check your pet's paws for toe hair that's grown long enough to interfere with their grip.
8. Explore Environmentally Friendly Options
View your pet's environment through gold-colored glasses. Make sure their aging joints have a very soft, quiet spot to land (i.e. an orthopedic bed), preferably on the first floor so they don't have to use the stairs. And if your house is home to slippery surfaces like tile and wood flooring, consider putting down rugs so it's easier for your pup to get traction. Elevated food and water bowls can put less of a strain on your pet's neck and back, and a ramp can be helpful for easing your dog into the car or the couch.
9. Bring Up Behavior Changes
Dogs can develop dementia, or canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), as they age, resulting in disruptive behavior changes. "Cognitive decline may be difficult to notice in the early stages," Whittemore explains, "but pets may become less social, develop anxiety, have abnormal sleep/wake patterns, seem confused or easily lost in familiar places, or start having potty accidents in the house." If you notice any of these changes in your senior pet, don't assume it's normal aging or that your dog is acting out. Schedule an exam to see if your veterinary team can help.
10. Be Proactive About Pain
Pets tend to hide pain, so while you may see limping or shyness about being petted in certain areas, Whittemore says that subtle signs are more likely. She lists decreased appetite, slowness to rise from a sitting or lying position, sitting or lying in new positions, and hesitancy to jump or use the stairs as possible signs of pain. Again, don't assume what you're seeing is normal aging and beyond help. Reach out to your veterinary team to talk about options.
Remember, these tips offer a great starting point, but this isn't an exhaustive list. Your veterinary team is in the best position to partner with you in giving your pet the care they need to thrive in their golden years.