Older Pets: What You Need to Know

UPDATED: Nov 14, 2013

Fall is a time when we start thinking about slowing down and changing. Leaves are doing it, I tend to do it, bears do it, frogs go underground and spend the cold months in their little mucus tubes…

It is also a time of year that we start to think of transitions and accepting the gradual wearing away of youth, trading youthful vigor and hair for the wisdom and baldness that the years bring. In a three-part series, I have brought forward a few questions that I have been asked over the years about senior pets.

Q: At what age is my dog considered old?

He’s only as old as he feels! The old rule of thumb of one dog year to seven years of human life just doesn’t apply anymore. We see some dogs in our hospital that are pushing the late teens and are still going strong, while others seem to slow down once they hit age eight or nine. There is a lot a variation, just like in people. As a general rule, the bigger the dog, the shorter the expected lifespan. For example, we see Great Danes that unfortunately succumb to certain diseases much earlier than we would expect in a smaller breed.

Certain other breeds are at higher risk for serious diseases that can pose a hazard to a lengthy lifespan. Boxers are sadly prone to heart conditions that can lead to illness and even death at a young age and German Shepherds have a higher-than-average risk of serious cancers as they age. Mixed-breed dogs tend to live and love longer due to the magic of ‘hybrid vigor’ – no, this doesn’t mean you should expect Rex to be driving a Prius anytime soon! It just refers to the fact that the mix of genetic material from many types of dogs dilutes out genetic predispositions to disease we see in purebred dogs.

For any dog weighing more than about 40 pounds, I consider them to be mature and at risk for ‘adult’ diseases like cancer and heart disease around age 8 – this almost always comes as an unpleasant surprise to many pet owners. However, this age may be just the end of adolescence for some smaller breeds like toy Poodles, Shih-tzus and Maltese.

If you are lucky enough to have a dog that lives to 16, you can bet that the word ‘geriatric’ applies no matter what breed or size your dog. But with good medical care and an abundance of love, affection and creature comforts, your dog can live for a very, very long time indeed.

Q: What are some of the physical signs that my dog is getting older?

Slowing down and decreased activity level are commonly seen as dogs age. Once again, bigger dogs get the short end of the stick here. Arthritis (inflammation of the joints) and the associated diminished mobility that goes along with it are very common ailments in older dogs. Because of their lighter body weight, smaller dogs are typically not as badly affected as large-breed dogs are (although they may benefit from treatment, too). Giant breed dogs such as Mastiffs and St. Bernards can be struck down in their prime and flat-out unable to walk due to degeneration of the joints – this poses a huge problem for their owners who must care for a 200 lb dog that cannot walk. Your family veterinarian can help you determine if your older dog has arthritis and go over some options for treatment. You may also want to think about using joint supplements, much as humans do, to help maintain joint health. They can be started early – you don’t have to wait until pain and problems start. Joint Eze Plus is an easy one to pick up and very tasty for dogs. They’ll think it’s a treat, you’ll know it is helping to keep their joints healthy.

Some older dogs will lose some weight as a part of the aging process. To some degree this is normal, but it may also be a sign that some serious problems are brewing behind the scenes. Dogs are very adept at hiding the signs of illness until they are very advanced. In addition, some common older-dog medical conditions (like diabetes, cancer and heart failure to name just a few) can manifest as progressive weight loss. If you think your dog is losing weight, your family veterinarian can help you track your dog’s weight and find out if there is a medical cause.

Some of the more common age-related changes you can expect are:

  • Lower activity level
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in haircoat color or texture
  • Lumps and bumps on the skin
  • Changes in eating and drinking habits

Q: What are signs that something more than just aging is going on – that something is wrong with my pet?

It can be a challenge to figure out what are normal things that happen as your pet ages and what is a sign of disease, but there are some sure signs that something is amiss that you should not ignore. Some of them include:

  • Dramatically increased thirst (usually accompanied by increased urination or accidents in the house). This is often a sign of diabetes or kidney disease.
  • Visible weight loss – losing weight is a common sign of aging, but if your pet’s ribs are showing, or you can feel their spine when you pet along their back, it is time for a visit. Various conditions can cause this – many of them treatable.
  • Loss of appetite. Every pet has their days where their appetite is just not there, but if you are staring to notice that they are turning their nose up at food, or you are having to refill the food bowl more often, something could be wrong and visit to your family veterinarian is in order.
  • Increased appetite. This is primarily a cat issue, but if your pet’s appetite starts to resemble that of a high school athlete (but not a mathlete – those guys don’t eat much) then they could be suffering from hyperthyroidism. A series of blood tests can help pin down the problem in most cases.


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