Caring For Senior Dogs: What You Need To Know

senior dog with sun in background

November is National Adopt a Senior Pet Month – a month dedicated to encouraging people to adopt older pets from animal shelters. Adopting is the most popular way to acquire a pet, with 40 percent of dog owners in the US obtaining their dogs from a shelter or rescue.

Many walk into shelters in hopes of adopting a young pet, overlooking the older animals living there. The senior dogs in shelters were once someone’s loved companion, but for one reason or another, were surrendered to the shelter and are looking for a new home.

Some think it was their destructive behavior that caused them to end up in a shelter. However, this is often far from the truth. Dogs end up in shelters for many reasons, mostly on the owner’s end. Financial restrictions, relocation, death, and many life events beyond the pet’s control can lead them to be taken into a shelter.

There are several reasons to adopt and provide a forever home to a senior pet. Senior dogs know how it is to wait at a kennel in the shelter the most, as they are the ones that spend the most time in shelters. They become the most appreciative pups when someone gives them a second chance, ready to be your faithful companion for the rest of their life.

Senior dogs are just as adorable as puppies, but looking after one isn’t quite the same. Caring for a senior dog is as big a responsibility (if not bigger) and their stage of life requires different conisderations from younger dogs. This article will break down everything you need to know about caring for a senior dog, including the common health concerns to watch out for, and tips on providing them with a high-quality life in their old age.

When is a dog considered senior?

In general, the senior life stage starts at around 12 years of age for small dog breeds and ten years for medium-sized dogs. Seniorhood begins much earlier for large dogs at anywhere between 5 and 7 years of age.

Common health concerns in senior dogs

Senior dogs can live long, happy and healthy lives, but just as with humans, old age brings some negative health changes. Here are the most common health concerns in older dogs:


Dogs tend to slow down as they age, losing their overall endurance and experiencing a sharp decrease in mobility. Senior dogs are likely to put on weight if their diet is kept the same as if they were still a young pup. Reduced energy expenditure with a high-calorie intake can lead to obesity quickly, which opens the door for a lot more than just visible weight gain.

Obesity in senior dogs increases heart disease risk, joint problems, and diabetes. It is essential to provide old dogs with adequate exercise they can tolerate, such as short walks and gentle physical activities that don’t put stress on their weaker joints, and keep their diet appropriate for their age.

older dog by the lake

Joint issues

It is common for older dogs to experience stiffness in their joints. Osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease that causes loss of lubrication in the joints, is the leading reason for joint pain and stiffness in dogs. However, this is more often than not caused by excess weight and insufficient exercise. Supplementing the diet of senior dogs with omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin helps to relieve joint pain and stiffness.

Deafness and blindness

Hearing and vision loss is one of the most common signs of old age in dogs. Some dog breeds – like the German Shepherd, Jack Russell Terrier, and Maltese – are more prone to developing deafness as they age. Vision loss can affect any dog, but it is more common in Frenchies, Boston Terriers, and Pugs.

The degenerative changes in the ear and eye tissues are the reason for the gradual hearing and vision loss. This is something that happens with age, so there isn’’t any preventative care to eliminate the risks. The best you can do is to keep the ears and eyes of senior dogs clean to prevent deafness and blindness from occurring earlier than expected.

While deafness and blindness may not be preventable, the least you can do is to help a senior dog adapt to their environment. Not moving the furniture around the house, keeping them on a leash during walks, and using hand gestures when communicating is enough to help dogs feel safe during their gradual loss of hearing and vision. They should also be able to find their way through their sense of smell.

Cognitive dysfunction

The same as humans, dogs can lose their cognitive abilities as they age, resulting in symptoms similar to dementia in people. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) relates to aging in the dog’s brain. One study found that for each year a dog lives after the age of 10, the chances of developing CCD increase by 52%. Disorientation, confusion, decreased energy levels, barking for no reason, and not responding to their name are the common symptoms of dog dementia.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for CCD, but a variety of medications are available to slow down the process. Changes in diet, supplements, and an active lifestyle also help dogs with CCD. Keeping senior dogs physically and mentally healthy can prevent cognitive dysfunction.

Kidney problems

Aging also takes its toll on the kidneys of senior dogs. The kidneys lose their function slowly, starting with renal insufficiency that gradually turns into complete failure. Although there isn’t a cure for chronic kidney diseases in dogs, early diagnosis and proper treatment prolong the life of senior dogs.

The early signs of kidney issues in senior dogs are increased thirst and urination, nausea, and loss of appetite. Routine blood work can help vets diagnose an older dog with kidney disease in its early stages and improve the chances of survival. Before it gets to this, adding more fiber to their diet, reducing phosphate and sodium, managing protein intake, and ensuring they are hydrated can help contribute to healthier kidneys in senior dogs.

older dog happy being petted

6 tips for looking after a senior dog

  • Exercise: The exercise a senior dog gets should be at their pace. Demanding any form of physical activity too extensive for their aged body only leads to more problems. Keep the exercise at their level. Gentle games of tug of war and fetch, swimming, and daily walks are adequate to keep a senior dog’s body healthy.

  • Diet: A senior dog’s diet should contain fewer calories with enough nutrients that are appropriate for their age. Older dogs also need more water, as their body’s ability to balance water decreases as they age. Adding supplements is also great, especially if they have specific health problems.

  • Regular vet visits: Vets recommend taking senior dogs for regular checkups twice a year. Early diagnosis of any disease improves their chances of overcoming them.

  • Grooming: Older dogs tend to have drier skin that can cause irritation. The once shiny coat can look dull if regular grooming is overlooked. No matter the age, grooming regularly is vital to prevent unwanted skin conditions.

  • Mental stimulation: Older dogs greatly benefit from mental stimulation, especially working breeds that need a job to feel fulfilled. It keeps them mentally active and gives them something meaningful to do. Hiding treats for them to find, letting them explore during walks, teaching them new tricks, and basic nose work games are perfect ways to stimulate older dogs.

  • Spend time with them: Dogs of all ages love spending time with their humans. While a senior dog may enjoy resting the whole day, deep down, they also probably crave your attention and affection. Petting and cuddling with them throughout the day, positive encouragement, and ensuring they are comfortable in their environment makes them feel loved.

The rewards of a senior dog

As humans, we build bonds with our dogs that last a lifetime. We should be there to make sure we give our dogs the best quality of life we can, even in our dog’s old age – they’ve earned it. 

Aging can make dogs anxious, especially if the way they experience the world is changing. Even though they may not see or hear you as well as they once did, giving them attention will make them emotionally healthy. 

Witnessing your beloved pup getting old can be difficult, but the best scenario for you – and for them – is to live in the moment and cherish every single day spent together.