Throughout their lives, dogs give us unconditional love and support. They have rightfully earned their status as bona fide family members, particularly senior dogs.
From puppyhood to their golden years, a dog’s body matures and goes through many changes, just like our own bodies. Unfortunately, this means that dogs experience age-related health issues when they become seniors at around 7 years of age.
Learn more about common health issues in senior dogs and how you can effectively manage those issues, below.
Arthritis in dogs is a common health issue. It occurs when the soft, cushiony cartilage between the joints starts breaking down, causing painful bone-on-bone rubbing and inflammation. Senior dogs with arthritis have difficulty getting up, are reluctant to exercise and move more slowly.
If left unmanaged or poorly managed, arthritis in dogs can be quite painful, leading to a decreased quality of life. Arthritis treatments include pain medications, joint supplements and physical therapy. At home, pet parents can manage their dog’s arthritis with gentle massages and the use of an orthopedic bed to prevent painful pressure points when their dog is lying down.
Diabetes is an elevation in blood sugar. In dogs, diabetes commonly affects senior female dogs (around 8 to 9 years). Susceptible breeds include Pugs, Toy Poodles, and Miniature Schnauzers. Diabetes in dogs leads to such symptoms as increased thirst and urination, vision loss, chronic infections and weight loss.
Diabetes is a chronic disease and requires lifelong management. In senior dogs, this involves insulin administration and management of diabetes symptoms, such as vision loss and chronic infections.
Quite literally, obesity is a big problem in dogs. Nearly 60 percent of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. Senior dogs can become obese because they are less mobile, potentially because of arthritis or other health conditions.
Excess weight puts extra stress on the joints, which can contribute to, or worsen, arthritis. Obesity also puts senior dogs at risk of other health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.
Weight loss can be as difficult for dogs as it is for people. However, the formula is still the same: decrease the calories and increase the exercise. If your dog is overweight, your veterinarian can help you come up with a weight loss plan that helps your dog lose weight gradually and keep it off.
The kidneys are a major filtering organ, helping to rid the body of toxins and other waste. As dogs age, the kidneys can start to dysfunction, leading to a buildup of waste and toxins. Poorly functioning kidneys cause symptoms like increased thirst and urination, decreased appetite and vomiting. Typically, symptoms don’t show up until there has been at least a 50 percent decrease in kidney function.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) in senior dogs can cause serious illness if not managed effectively. Treatment for CKD can be complex and depends on the disease severity, as determined by a veterinarian.
Heart disease looks a little different in dogs, compared with heart disease in people. For example, dogs don’t get a buildup of plaque in their arteries. That being said, dogs can still develop different forms of heart disease that can eventually lead to heart failure. A common type of heart disease in senior dogs, particularly small breed senior dogs, is mitral valve disease; the mitral valve controls blood flow from the left atrium to the left ventricle in the heart.
Dogs with heart disease will be reluctant to exercise. They might also cough, be lethargic, or have fluid buildup in the abdomen. Like kidney disease, heart disease is complicated to manage and often requires several medications.
Who would have thought that dogs would need diapers?! Incontinence in senior dogs has several causes, one of which is weakened bladder muscles. Your veterinarian will be able to determine the underlying cause. While the underlying cause will determine what type of treatment is needed, you might need to take your dog outside more often for bathroom breaks to minimize accidents in your home.
Unfortunately, cancer does not spare our four-legged friends. The cancer rate in dogs is about the same as that in people. Dogs can get many types of cancer, including liver cancer, lymphoma and squamous cell carcinoma, just to name a few. The symptoms and treatment will vary according to the type of cancer.
As dogs age, their brain tissue can start to degenerate, leading to cognitive dysfunction. Cognitive dysfunction in dogs is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction demonstrate concerning behavioral changes, such as getting stuck behind doors or in corners, vocalizing at night, and withdrawing from family members.
Cognitive dysfunction cannot be reversed, but it can be managed with supplements and medications that can slow the breakdown of brain tissue.
By age 3, nearly 80 percent of dogs have some level of dental disease. So, it’s no surprise that dental disease is a common health issue in senior dogs. A common form of dental disease is periodontal disease, which is a disease of the tooth and tooth-supporting structures, like the gums. Periodontal disease can progress from a mild gingivitis (gum inflammation) to bone loss, loose teeth and bleeding gums.
Although dental disease is largely unavoidable, it can be effectively managed with regular at-home toothbrushing, dental treats and yearly professional dental cleanings.
This list of health issues looks long, but it certainly doesn’t mean that senior dogs are resigned to a life of illness and discomfort. Other than specific management strategies, there are some general care strategies that you can try to keep your senior dog as healthy as possible:
- Take your dog to your veterinarian for semi-annual checkups.
- Develop a senior dog wellness plan with your veterinarian, preferably before your dog reaches “senior” status.
- Observe your dog closely at home and let your veterinarian know when your dog’s behavior has changed.
Be proactive about helping your senior dog live a happy life that is as free of pain and discomfort as possible. That way, you can enjoy many memorable moments as your dog ages gracefully through their golden years.
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JoAnna Pendergrass is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with her veterinary degree, JoAnna completed a two-year research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University. During this fellowship, she learned that she could make a career out of combining her loves of science and writing. As a medical writer, JoAnna is passionate about providing pet parents with clear, concise, and engaging information about pet care. Through her writing, she strives not only to educate pet parents, but also empower them to make good health decisions for their pets. JoAnna is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America.