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Geriatric Dog Care

Old age happens to the best of us – even our dogs. And as our dogs enter into the golden age, they may have specific needs or problems that must be addressed. The aging process brings about a gradual decline in a dog’s physical and sometimes mental abilities. Becoming aware of these issues allows an owner to provide the best possible care.

Not all dogs age at the same rate. Generally, smaller breeds live longer than larger dogs and mixed breeds usually live longer than pure breeds. A general guideline as to when a dog might be considered geriatric may be based on the dog’s adult weight. Small dogs (under 20 pounds) are considered geriatric between 9 and 13 years old. Medium sized dogs (21 to 50 pounds) are considered geriatric between 9 and 11 years old. Large breed dogs (51 to 90 pounds) are considered geriatric between 7 and 10 years old. Finally, the giant breed dogs (over 90 pounds) are usually considered geriatric between 6 and 9 years old.

Ideally, caring for the geriatric dog should focus on preventative measures. Whenever possible, it is better to prevent a problem from occurring, rather than to wait for a problem to develop. Detecting diseases in the early stages greatly improves the outcome. Different dogs have specific risk factors that influence the diagnostic approach to geriatric medicine. Risk factors are characteristics of the breed, genetics, environment and lifestyle of your dog that may put him or her at greater risk of developing a particular disease or other age related changes.

Veterinary Care

Within the last few decades, advancements in veterinary medicine have caused a dramatic increase in the longevity of our pets. Today dogs are living longer and healthier lives. If there is a problem with your older dog, don’t assume it is just because of old age, and that nothing can be done. With appropriate treatment, many conditions can improve. Your veterinarian may do the following to assess your dog’s health and to maintain a healthy condition.


All dogs should receive routine vaccinations as required by law (rabies) and vaccines that are appropriate for individual needs. Specific vaccines and frequency of administration may vary, and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Treating an older dog depends on the individual requirements or problems of your pet. The most common problems of geriatric dogs are:

Home Care and Prevention

A periodic inspection of your pet, at home, may uncover potential problems. Make sure that your pet has clean, warm and protected living conditions, and provide easy access to clean fresh water.

Feed a good quality dog food that is appropriate for your dog’s specific needs, and do not allow your pet to gain excessive weight. Discuss unexpected weight gain with your veterinarian. Based on a complete geriatric work-up a prescription dog food might be advised. Groom your pet and, if possible, brush your dog’s teeth regularly. Finally, follow your veterinarian’s recommendations as to exercise, nutrition and any medications that may be needed.

Pets today are living longer and better quality lives than ever before. Many factors are responsible for this increase including improved nutrition, veterinary care and educated owners. This increased longevity means that there are more dogs reaching an older age, and that owner’s will be faced with the special demands and problems that become apparent with age. Understanding the aging process and the most common problems that face the geriatric dog is the first step in providing the best possible care to your older animal. The main focus of geriatric health care is owner education and the early detection and prevention of disease.

It is important to first realize that aging itself is not a disease; it is simply a stage of life. Increasing age causes a gradual decline in the body’s ability to repair itself, maintain normal body functions, and adapt to the stresses and changes in the environment. Many changes occur in dogs as they age. Changes in metabolism occur so dogs require less food. Older dogs are also usually less active and thus, commonly gain weight, making obesity one of the more frequent problems seen in the senior dog. Changes in a dog’s environment or routine may actually contribute to behavioral changes or even illness. Trying to minimize severe or sudden changes in the geriatric animal is always a good practice. With time, dogs begin to have a gradual decline in their senses (hearing, smelling, vision and taste). Your pet may not respond to stimuli as rapidly or in the same manner as when he was younger. It is not uncommon for older dogs to spend more time sleeping and have more difficulty being roused.

Additionally, the body’s ability to repair itself decreases, and the function of the immune system is compromised with increasing age. Metabolic and endocrine problems, organ dysfunction, and cancer are all seen with increased frequency in the senior pet. Degenerative changes in the muscles, bones and joints are commonly seen as arthritis and muscle weakness.

Some of these problems may be difficult to help, however it is usually possible to significantly improve the quality of your pet’s life by educating oneself, and becoming aware of potential problems. Most veterinarians will recommend more frequent veterinary visits and additional diagnostic tests for geriatric animals in an effort to find the early stages of disease, before they become problems. Practicing prevention is always better than treating a disease already present. In the long run, preventative medicine improves quality of life, and is more cost effective than waiting for problems to appear. A well-educated and proactive owner is the first step in optimal senior dog care.

Many of these tests are recommended on geriatric dogs even when they are feeling totally normal. The routine geriatric exam and accompanying diagnostic tests are recommended to ensure that the early stages of disease is discovered, and appropriate preventative measures and treatment plans instituted. The most common diagnostic tests performed by your veterinarian as part of a complete geriatric work-up include:

The above represent the most routine diagnostic tests that your veterinarian may advise for your senior pet. Based on the history and physical examination findings, common additional testing might include:

At the end of the geriatric visit, a geriatric wellness assessment may be completed and given to the owner.

The treatment of the geriatric dog varies according to individual requirements, and the problems found. The following is a list of the most common geriatric problems and their general treatment recommendations:

Optimal treatment for your pet requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical, especially if your pet does not improve rapidly.