11 steps to graceful canine aging

senior dog health

Is Rover slowing down? Is his hearing not as sharp as it used to be? Maybe he’s eating less, struggling with the stairs, or having a few accidents in the house. If your dog is older than seven, he may simply be showing signs of aging.

The average canine lifespan is 13 years, but this varies depending on the dog’s size, with many small breeds living well into their teens. Medium to large dogs generally start showing signs of aging between the ages of seven and 11, while small dogs may not show any visible signs until they’re ten.

Whatever the case, as your dog gets older, be on the alert for symptoms that could indicate a health problem. At the same time, look for ways to maintain his quality of life and help him adapt by keeping him as safe and comfortable as possible.

1. Keep him Moving

True, your senior dog won’t be as active and energetic as he used to be, but he still needs regular exercise to prevent obesity and keep his joints, heart and lungs in good working order. He may not be able to go as far as he once did, but an older dog should still be walked regularly or engaged in light play. Just don’t overdo it – stop the activity when he shows signs of tiring or wants to rest.

And who doesn’t love a massage? It can do older dogs a world of good by soothing stiff joints and muscles, and alleviating the discomfort associated with arthritis and hip dysplasia. Because massage also improves circulation, it enhances immune function and helps the organs and body systems function better.

2. Watch for hearing and vision loss

If your dog is losing his hearing, be careful not to startle him. Warn other people, especially children, not to approach him from behind or touch him while he is sleeping. This reduces the risk of getting bitten or scratched by an inadvertently frightened pooch.

As sight declines, try to avoid making any big changes in your household environment. Blind dogs can maneuver quite well as long as they remain in familiar surroundings. For aging dogs that can still see to some extent, bring along a flashlight when you’re out with him at night, or use a leash with a built-in light.

3. Feed a wholesome diet

While it’s best to feed your dog a healthy diet from puppyhood, it’s never too late to switch, as long as you do it gradually and under the guidance of a vet if your dog has an existing health problem. There are many high quality premium foods to choose from, made from natural, whole ingredients. It’s not usually necessary to feed a diet specially formulated for seniors, although you may need to cut quantities, fat and protein levels.

Fresh, pure, filtered or spring water (not tap water) is vital, especially to older dogs that are more prone to kidney problems. Make sure the water is changed daily and is accessible 24/7. To increase hydration in dogs that may not drink enough, consider a pet fountain – running water stays cleaner longer and also encourages them to drink more.

4. Give him vitamins for vitality

Senior dogs need vitamins and other nutrients to maintain good health and deal with age-related problems. Your dog’s requirements may vary from the norm, depending on his individual condition, so consult with a vet before starting a supplement regime. In the meantime, here’s a basic guide to some supplements useful for older dogs:


  • Vitamin C boosts the immune system and maintains bone and blood vessel health; good for dogs with degenerative joint disease.
  • Vitamin E helps with allergies, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
  • CoQ10 raises flagging energy levels and protects the heart from oxidation; can treat allergies, periodontal disease and cancer.
  • Vitamin A helps fight infection and cancer and is good for the skin and liver.

Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 oils are helpful for arthritis, allergies and immune problems while omega-6s alleviate dry, itchy skin. Cold water fish sources are recommended.

Digestive Enzymes

These enhance digestion and intestinal health by improving nutrient absorption.

Glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM

Both are very useful for arthritis, hip dysplasia and other joint diseases.

5. More than skin deep

Good hygiene is as important for older dogs as it is for pups – even moreso in cases where the dog has allergies or skin problems, which can get more pronounced as he ages. Switching to a healthy diet with the correct supplements will help a lot with shedding, itching and odour, but also consider regular bathing and grooming. Use a natural shampoo and conditioner – commercial products contain harsh detergents that can dry out hair and skin. An oatmeal and aloe shampoo is ideal for an older dog with a skin problem.

Daily grooming is also essential, particularly in dogs that really hate baths. Grooming not only helps keep his coat and skin in good condition, but also enhances his circulation. It’s almost like a form of massage. Many dogs will enjoy being groomed, as long as you use a good quality, properly designed comb or brush that doesn’t scratch his skin or pull his hair. Don’t apply too much pressure, especially on dogs with arthritis. Approached with an attitude of patience, love and calmness, grooming can become an enjoyable bonding activity for both of you.

6. Long in the tooth?

Periodontal disease affects dogs of all ages. If not dealt with early on, it worsens as the dog ages, causing pain and leading to gingivitis, tooth loss, and infections that can spread to the kidneys, heart or other organs.

Use a dental spray or clean your dog’s teeth using a toothpaste and brush especially formulated for pets.

Raw meaty bones can serve as a natural “toothbrush” by keeping your dog’s teeth and gums clean, strong and healthy; the natural enzymes and probiotics found in raw bones also support healthy bacterial flora. Raw vegetables such as carrots are good too.

If your senior dog has existing dental problems that require professional cleaning, you might want to ask your vet about the possibility of anesthesia-free cleaning.

7. Limit vaccines

Many dog owners are now aware of the risks of over-vaccination. Even in puppies, too many vaccines can cause a wide number of side effects, ranging from fever and stiffness to injection site sarcomas, autoimmune problems, allergies, dermatitis, thyroid problems, and even kidney and liver disease. These risks increase as the dog gets older, especially if he is in any way compromised by illness.

Most vaccines protect against illness for three years or even longer, which makes annual boosters completely unnecessary. Rather than scheduling a full set of vaccinations every year, ask your vet if he or she can do a titre test instead. This simple, inexpensive, blood antibody test will tell you whether or not your dog is still protected against certain infectious diseases, and if he can get by without being re-vaccinated.

8. Keep his mind sharp

We’ve all heard how important it is to keep our minds active as we grow older. The same holds true for your aging dog. Just like an older person, he can suffer memory loss and cognitive problems as he ages, which means you need to keep his mind busy, interested and engaged. Regular exercise and socialization are important, as are teaching him new tricks or training commands. Give him access to a wide variety of toys, including puzzle toys. Introduce new toys now and then to refresh his interest. This is especially important if he spends most of his time indoors.

9. Limit chemical pest control

Pest control products are powerful chemicals that can have an adverse impact on many older (and younger!) dogs. They can suppress the immune system and weaken the ability of the dog’s liver, kidneys and lungs to rid the body of toxins. Try exploring the growing number of more natural products on the market – you can find everything from powders and sprays to shampoos and dips.

10. Off the the vet

Even with the best of care, an aging dog is more prone to health problems than a puppy. Many of the disorders often found in senior dogs, such as cancer, diabetes or kidney disease, may not show visible symptoms until they’ve become relatively advanced. It’s therefore important to get your elderly buddy checked over by a vet once or twice a year. A vet can catch the earliest signs of illness and start a treatment regime that will help retard the disease’s progress and lengthen your dog’s life.

11. Lavish him with love

Lots of love and pampering from your dog’s best friend (you!), are also crucial to keeping him happy and healthy. Regular interaction, whether through play, exercise or just quiet time together, is essential. It’s a proven fact that positive emotions have a beneficial effect on physical health, so just spending time each day petting, touching and stroking your dog can greatly enhance his well being.

Remember to be patient – your aging dog will be slowing down, so you’ll need to adjust your pace to match his when exercising and playing. If his hearing and/or eyesight begin deteriorating as well, keep in mind that he won’t be as quick to respond to your commands as when he was younger.

You don’t need a miracle elixir to add years to your beloved dog’s life. All it takes is a wholesome diet, a healthy lifestyle and lots of TLC!

Common Senior Health Issues 

Kidney disease, hypothyroidism, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and painful dental infections are common medical issues found in aging dogs. Many of these problems are treatable, especially if caught early. Be alert for physical and behavioral changes. For example, stiffness going up and down stairs can signal arthritis, while acting “lost” or not recognizing commands can indicate senility.

Watch for these important physical signs: weight loss, changes in appetite, increased thirst or urination, breathing problems, coughing, difficulty getting up, weakness, and an unpleasant mouth odour. Also be alert for behavioural changes like accidents in the house, changes in sleep patterns, irritability, unresponsiveness and staring off into space.

If you observe any of these signs in your dog, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Even if you don’t notice any symptoms, it’s a good idea to have senior animals examined every six months!

Help Around the House

• Aging dogs can benefit from a little help getting to high places such as sofas or beds. Use a pet ramp or stairs to help him access his favorite spots.

• A baby gate can keep older arthritic dogs from tackling the stairs.

• An orthopedic bed or other padding increases comfort while your dog is resting.

• Slippery floor surfaces or rugs that slide easily underfoot can cause an aging dog to fall and injure himself. Rugs should have a rubber backing that prevents slippage.

• Make sure your dog’s bed provides adequate protection from hard floor surfaces and is away from cold drafts.


Barbara Nefer is an animal lover and freelance writer who shares her life with three cats, two horses, and a Quaker parrot.