Time passing has its effects on everyone. With dogs having shorter lifespans than humans the effects of time start to show themselves quicker than we’d like. Changes to their body and their health are expected, although the hope is that they won’t make that much of a detriment to our pets’ happy lives. Here are some common changes that occur in a senior dog’s body as they age.
It is super common for older dogs to see changes in their dental health, and the threat of dental disease becomes much more prominent as they age. Making sure to pay attention to changes in your pup's oral health can be very beneficial for them in the long run.
Signs that your dog may be developing dental disease include tartar buildup, gingivitis and tooth decay. As an attentive dog parent you can keep an eye out for early signs of dental health problems and how they may be affecting your pet on the day-to-day. Some of these signs can be behavioral changes as well as physical markers that you can see by checking in on them. Look for signs of dental health changes by regularly checking your senior dogs’ teeth and gums for any bleeding, loose teeth, shrinking gums, or drastically bad breath. And pay attention to their behavior around mouth-related activities: when they eat, do they chew on one side or the other; do they try to choke down their food without chewing at all?
Dental disease or gum infections can cause a serious strain on your dog’s body if found later in its development. If your dog has the patience to let you brush their teeth, try and add that to your daily routine. The more often you are able to get a good look at their teeth to check for anything out of the ordinary and clean up some unhelpful bacteria and plaque, the better off your pet will be in the long run.1
One of the most common changes brought with age is a loss of vision. While not as serious a threat to your dog’s overall health in most cases, it is a change that requires a lot of understanding and assistance from you as an owner.
There are many different reasons that a dog can lose their vision, and they can happen over different lengths of time. While some are noticeable to an untrained eye, like cataracts—a cloudy film over the eye that limits vision—others may be more gradual and it may take a while for you to notice that your dog may be having vision problems, like chronic dry eye.
Dogs are, luckily, significantly less reliant on their vision than we are, and are very adaptable as their vision starts to fade. Signs that your dog may be losing their sight could be something as simple as them becoming more clingy than in the past, and not being able to find things. You may also notice that they start tripping over obstacles when locations change, or perhaps they are not as confident in getting on or off furniture. While these are subtle hints, if you notice any signs that your dog may be losing their vision, there are a few different things you can do to make their life easier and keep them safer in the long run.
If it’s possible, try not to move any furniture. Dogs have the amazing ability to memorize their spaces. If a piece of furniture moves over even a few inches, you may end up with a disoriented pooch running into it. When you need to rearrange furniture or bring your dog to a new area, it would be best to give them a guided walk-through of the space a few times. Keep them on a leash and lead them through the safe areas of the space to let them get it memorized.
Textures can help your dog get around too. If you have stairs, adding a textured rug or mat at the bottom and tops of stairs can help your dog know that they’ve made it to the end and reduce accidental falls. Having textures outside can help as well. Setting up a textured border around something that could be an obstacle for your dog, like wood chips around a tree in your yard, can help to reduce injuries.
Hearing loss is another one of the most common changes in senior dogs’ lives. It is often caused by the nerves inside of the ear degenerating with age and causing sounds not to process the way that they had in your dog’s youth.
Many pet parents notice hearing loss when their dog starts to “ignore” commands. Most often, an older dog just doesn’t have the capability to hear the command well enough to respond. It’s safe to check if your dog has hearing loss by making sounds that often excite them, like grabbing the treat bag or squeaking a toy. If your dog doesn’t respond to the sounds, or just responds inconsistently, it may be time to incorporate some hearing loss assistants.
With communication becoming limited, it can be helpful to bring in hand gestures when giving your senior pup commands. Teaching new tricks can be incredibly difficult for a dog with hearing loss, but those commands that your dog has known their whole life should still be in use. If you trained exclusively with verbal commands, teaching your dog hand gestures to cue the command may take a bit more effort, but as long as you are consistent they should be able to pick it up and remain the obedient pup they’ve been—even with hearing loss.
Be mindful that your dog may not hear you coming. Whether your pooch suffers hearing loss alone or in tandem with vision depreciation, there’s a chance that you coming to pet them without enough warning can cause them to become irritable or anxious. Coming up to your dog and making your presence known through vibrations and smell can ease your dog’s surprise. Step heavily when near your dog so they know you’re around. Before petting your dog, especially if they are asleep, place your hand where they can smell you.
Keep an eye on your surroundings when out and about on walks, things may surprise your dog more than they used to, so plan for that and try to minimize the effects. Surprising things to your hearing-impaired pup could be a cyclist, a car coming from behind, other dogs, and more.
Stay patient with your senior dog, they aren’t trying to be difficult, though it can be hard to recognize that all the time. Understand that there will be a transition period as both you and your dog learn how to navigate this newfound obstacle.3
A lot of things change when your dog gets older. Losing access to two of their main senses is a big change for a lot of dogs, and maneuvering the world with those changes can be really stressful. A lot of senior dogs may experience more anxiety than they had in the past over different situations.
Anxiety can present itself in many ways in your dog. Symptoms can be shaking, panting, pacing, becoming clingy, restless or lethargic, excessively licking or biting themselves, and in some cases becoming aggressive.
Depending on the source of your dog’s anxiety, there are different ways that you can navigate it.
For general anxiety that doesn’t seem to be caused by anything other than age, keeping as many things consistent as possible can make your dog more comfortable and feel better about their environment. Not moving anything or changing the times that certain activities happen, like walks or meals, can help alleviate some of that stress.
For dogs with separation anxiety, making the home feel less empty can help them feel less alone. That could be something as simple as turning on the TV or radio; there are several YouTube channels and playlists on Spotify that have music designed to help dogs feel less alone and anxious. Playing something loud enough that they can hear from their normal hang-out spot in the house can be the perfect distraction to keep them calm.
Giving them practice with short departures can be beneficial as well: leave the house for 10 minutes and come home a few times to show them that you are coming back when you leave the house. You can also change your normal routine for leaving home. Perhaps if you normally put on your shoes moments before you walk out the door, start putting on your shoes when you aren’t planning on going anywhere. Or grab your keys but don’t leave the house. This gradually desensitizes your dog to the cues that you are leaving the house while minimizing their fears over being left alone. This, in tandem with short departures, can condition your pet to suffer less anxiety when you really do leave.
As for anxiety from loss of senses, some of the solutions have already been covered in the sections above, such as keeping furniture in the same place for vision loss, and guiding your pet through the new space until they get comfortable. For hearing loss, become more obvious and announce yourself with smells when possible.4
For some dogs, supplements may be a beneficial addition to help limit their anxiety in certain situations. Be sure to discuss the problems you’re having with your vet and get their recommendations before adding anything to your pet’s diet.
Incontinence is a long word for losing control over bodily functions. It’s caused by muscles getting tired or worn (called atrophy) in the neck of the bladder, and is common in senior female dogs slightly more than male dogs.
Aside from the obvious sign of having accidents more often, there are some more subtle signs of incontinence in senior dogs like damp legs, a consistent smell of urine on your dog or around their bedding, and an increased tendency to lick their private parts.
Though this can be a symptom of aging alone, there are several more threatening health issues that can have incontinence as a side effect, so if this becomes a problem for your senior dog be sure to check in with your vet to make sure that there is nothing else going on in the background.
The simplest solution is to give your dog ample opportunity to empty their bladders. This can mean taking them outside for more bathroom breaks or setting up a bathroom station inside with potty training mats.
Changing bedding to a more absorbent kind may take some of the side effects like skin irritation and smell away from your pet, making both them and the mess easier to clean.
There are some supplements that are designed to help dogs manage incontinence, but be sure to discuss any additions with your vet before changing your dog’s diet.
There are also some medical procedures that can help if incontinence is the main problem and not a side effect to a bigger health issue. Those are something you’d want to discuss with your vet as well, but a majority of the options are 100% effective in solving the problem.
Be sure that you never try to treat incontinence with limiting water intake, as incontinence is not caused by overconsumption of water, it is a muscle problem. By limiting your dog’s water intake, you can cause more health problems in the long term.5