Our dogs give us so much throughout their lives, including love, companionship, loyalty and protection. As dogs age (in general, dogs aged seven years or more are considered senior), they rely on us to provide a little extra patience, attention and care to accommodate their changing needs.
By letting your senior dog set his own limits, he will help you understand his new needs for care. Avoid pampering him, and allow him to maintain his independence and dignity wherever he can.
Have your veterinarian examine your dog to rule out any age-related underlying health problems. Ask your vet about what to expect with your aging dog and how you can help your dog continue to feel relaxed and comfortable; for example, canine massage, aromatherapy or a specially tailored training program.
Below are some tips for understanding and managing the changing needs of your senior companion:
Loss of hearing
- Age-related deafness in dogs is relatively common and is often one of the first changes owners often recognize in their senior dog.
- Tune in to his other senses, like sight and smell, to communicate with him. Introduce hand signals to convey simple commands. Be sure they are always consistent, obviously different from other signals, and visible from a distance.
- Try to get your dog's attention with a high-pitched whistle or a hand clap.
- If your dog is totally deaf, try using light to communicate with him, such as flicking a lamp on/off or using a torch.
Loss of sight
- As dogs age they can develop sight-related issues, such as cataracts.
- Dogs with poor or no vision can learn to adjust quickly if they continue living in familiar surroundings. Avoid rearranging your furniture so your dog can continue to navigate in your home.
- Use your voice to guide your dog to you.
- Realise that your senior dog will likely sleep longer and more deeply.
- A senior dog may startle more easily if his hearing and sight aren't what they used to be.
- To awaken a heavily sleeping dog, gently stroke his shoulder or place your hand by his nose to let your scent gently rouse him.
- Allow your dog a little extra time in the morning or after a nap to stretch his legs and work out the stiffness in his joints.
- Avoid fawning over your dog or coaxing him with treats to get up. He'll get up to go outside as best as he is able.
- Don't over-exercise a dog with stiff joints.
Less able to cope with stress or changes to his routine
- All dogs, but especially older dogs, thrive on structure and routine. Keep your senior dog's routine in place as much as possible to keep him stress free.
- Separation anxiety, aggression, noise phobias, and increased vocalisation can develop or worsen in older dogs.
Increased sensitivity to temperature
- Because he may feel the heat or cold more intensely, your dog may change his usual sleeping locations.
- Place thick, soft beds in his crate and around the house so he can nap more comfortably.
Visitors and household activity
- Elderly dogs may not enjoy the extra hustle and bustle around the holidays or if workmen come to your home.
- If your aging dog is cranky around visitors, lead him to a quiet place in your home where he won't be bothered and can feel secure. Be sure he has a soft bed to lie on.
- Remind children to be respectful of your older dog. Due to their achy joints and loss of hearing or sight, older dogs are sometimes more wary of children and their high-energy activities.
- Always provide supervision when dogs (of any age) and kids are together.
Avoid discipline for aging-related behaviours
- Your aging dog can't help himself if he accidentally soils in the house or is crabby around children.
- If he makes a mistake, just tend to the situation (i.e., take him outside to toilet more frequently or guide him to his quiet place in the house) and take steps to avoid such occurrences in the future.
Increased dryness of his coat and skin
- Brush your dog's coat more often to help stimulate the production of natural oils in his skin, and use a shampoo specially formulated for dry skin.
- Ask your veterinarian about dietary supplements (such as fish oil) to help his skin and coat.
Changing dietary needs
- As his body ages, your dog will need different amounts of proteins and other nutrients. Talk to your vet about feeding your dog a "senior" diet or one which can meet your dog's changing nutritional needs.
- Avoid letting your dog gain weight. Excess weight can put strain on joints and internal organs. Keeping him trim will keep him healthy and comfortable in the years ahead.
Barriers for safety and protection
- A secured baby gate will prevent your unsteady older dog from risking a fall on stairways and will protect areas of your home from toileting accidents.
Keep his mind, body and spirit sharp
- Take time to work with your dog on basic obedience a few times a week to help keep him in shape both physically and mentally.
- Take him on shorter walks and outings to keep him active and encourage his sense of fun.
- Never push your dog to exert himself more than he is able. Watch his body language and breathing patterns for signs that he may be getting tired.
Many people think that bringing a puppy into the home will help make your older dog feel young again. While this may be true in some cases, remember that your senior dog may not be able to handle stress or new situations very well, and a puppy brings new levels of activity and changes to routine that affect everyone.
Your aging dog deserves your unflagging affection, understanding and love. As you continue to care for him, remember that you are giving back to him as much as he has been giving you.