Senior dog lying on a dog bed

Until we figure out how to keep our beloved pups from aging, it’s something that we’ll have to deal with as dog parents. Fortunately, thanks to advancements in nutrition and medicine, our canine companions are living longer than ever before. How we care for them as they get older will determine how healthy, comfortable, and happy our dogs will be in their senior years. Here’s what you need to know about taking care of a senior dog.

When is a Dog Considered a Senior?

Senior dog cuddling with owner

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no single age at which every dog is considered a senior. Smaller dogs tend to live longer, so they aren’t considered seniors until around 10-11 years old. Medium and large breed dogs reach their senior years around age 8-10, and giant breeds are considered seniors at age 5-6.

Understanding when your dog is considered an adult or senior will help you provide the best care for your pup. Diet and exercise recommendations change for dogs at different stages of life, and your dog may be faced with a whole new set of health conditions. Many veterinarians want to see senior pups more often to help keep them healthy.

What Should Senior Dogs Eat?

As dogs age, both their metabolism and activity levels tend to slow down. Slower metabolism and decreased activity levels can lead to weight gain, particularly if your dog’s diet remains unchanged. Many senior dog foods are specifically formulated for older dogs’ lifestyle changes and dietary requirements, containing fewer calories and fat than foods formulated for younger, more active dogs. They may also contain more fiber to keep your older pup feeling full while reducing calories, and helping regulate their digestive system.

On the other hand, some senior dogs experience a decrease in appetite, either due to a reduction in activity or because they become pickier as they grow older. Either way, dog food for seniors should be enticing with lots of whole meats and healthy fats to get your pup to want to eat them.

Another worry with aging is the loss of muscle mass, which can result from decreased muscle use or the body using the protein. To help combat the loss of muscle mass, most senior pups can benefit from having plenty of high-quality, highly digestible protein in their diet. Protein that comes from real, whole meats is the most effective.

Senior dog diets may also contain some beneficial bonuses, such as glucosamine, chondroitin, or a healthy boost of antioxidants to help combat the effects of aging.

Exercise for Senior Dogs

Senior dog playing outside

As a puppy or adult, your dog probably had no trouble getting their daily exercise in. However, as a pup ages, their activity levels can really decline. They may be experiencing pain, tired, or just plain bored and don’t want to get out and about like they used to. Still, daily exercise is very important for their health. It helps to prevent weight gain, maintain muscle mass, decrease arthritis pain, and improve their mood. That doesn’t mean that your senior dog should exercise as they did as an adult. You may have to take some steps to modify how they stay fit.

Walking and swimming are great low-impact activities that your dog can still enjoy. Walking up slight hills or inclines can also help maintain hindleg strength and hip flexibility. You may also want to add in some stretches and balance exercises.1

Along with modifying your senior dog’s exercise routine, you may have to modify some things in their daily life. One important step is using a dog ramp to help get your pup get in and out of the car, up onto your bed or couch, or up the stairs in your home. You should also remove throw rugs that can cause your dog to slip and fall and refrain from rearranging the furniture in your house, which can be confusing for some older pups.

Health Conditions of Senior Dogs

When your dog was an adult, they probably saw their veterinarian once or twice a year for vaccinations and wellness exams. They may have had an illness here or there, but chances are the veterinarian wasn’t a frequent stop. With age, that can change. Your veterinarian will want to see your senior dog every six months at the least, preferably every three to four months. These more frequent visits allow your vet to keep a closer eye on your dog’s health and watch for conditions that can creep in with age, such as:

  • Arthritis: Most dogs will develop arthritis at least in a few joints throughout their lives.2 While it is most commonly a hindleg and back problem, it can affect any joint and will cause pain and decreased mobility. Weight control and exercise are important in controlling it, along with anti-inflammatories and pain medications. Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin can help, as well.
  • Hearing and sight: It’s not uncommon for dogs to lose some or all of their hearing and sight as they age. With some modifications, such as using sign language or staying in a familiar environment, most pups will acclimate well.
  • Cancer: More than half of dogs over 10 years old will die of cancer.3 Early detection is the best treatment, which is why those frequent veterinary visits are so important. Also, knowing your pup’s normal appetite, activity level, and behavior will help clue you in to other early warning signs.
  • Organ failure: Organs like the kidneys, liver, and heart don’t last forever, and productivity declines with age. Veterinary wellness exams and blood work will help to catch changes in organ function. If problems are detected, modifications in diet and medications can help to maintain your senior dog’s health for as long as possible.
  • Cognition: Doggy dementia is a real thing, and it’s something that can be heartbreaking for a dog parent.4 Diets high in antioxidants may help, as well as regular interaction with you and mental stimulation for your pup.

Final Thoughts

Your dog’s senior years really can be “golden” if given the right care. Your veterinarian should be a major partner in your dog’s aging process in order to help you make the necessary changes to keep them comfortable, active, and happy as they get older.

  1. Blackmer R. 6 exercises to keep your senior dog mobile, happy, and fit. Published February 19, 2018. Accessed February 8, 2021.
  2. Managing canine arthritis. Published September 19, 2011. Accessed February 8, 2021.
  3. Post GS. 10 warning signs of cancer. Published May 4, 2015. Accessed February 8, 2021.
  4. Seibert L. Management of dogs and cats with cognitive dysfunction. Accessed February 8, 2021.