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New Tricks For an Old Dog: Caring For a Senior Dog

Thinking about adopting a senior dog, or already have an old dog of your own? Remember, Father Time spares no one, not even our canine companions.

If you are considering adopting a senior dog, the month of November is the perfect time to do it, as it’s Adopt a Senior Pet Month. But, when adopting a senior dog, there are special considerations you need to keep in mind.

As a dog ages, he inevitably begins to slow down. His youthful exuberance gradually transitions into elderly wisdom, and his energetic nature converts to much-appreciated mellowness.

Humans are taught to respect their elders, and we must extend this same courtesy to our canine companions. When receiving proper treatment and dignity, an aging dog can enjoy some of his best years as a senior citizen.

Thanks to improved nutrition and veterinary care, dogs are living longer than ever before. But just how can you succeed at teaching your old dog new tricks, or at least achieve conservation of his remaining tricks?

Whether you’re adopting a senior dog, or caring for your old friend, here’s how to make your dog’s golden years truly golden.

Know What to Expect When Adopting a Senior Dog

Every dog ages differently, but there are some common changes that occur as the body gets older. Here are some of the most common issues that develop in elderly pets (see the full list here).

Loss of hearing. As dogs age, the nerve cells and hearing apparatus degenerates, resulting in a slow loss of hearing.

Loss of vision. The lens of the eye becomes cloudy with age. Natural changes result in lenticular sclerosis, which typically does not cause significant vision loss. However, cataracts may develop, which do interfere with vision.

Decreased activity. As dogs age, their metabolic rate slows. This results in a decreased activity level.

Infections. As the body ages, the immune system weakens, making it harder for the dog to ward off infections.

Skin changes. The skin often thickens and darkens with age.

Loss or whitening of hair. The advance of years causes hair to lose its normal pigment, turning white. The ability of the hair cells to regenerate also deteriorates and hair loss is common, often seen as patches of hair loss.

Loss of skin elasticity. Old skin not only thickens but also loses elasticity. The most visible sign of this is in the male dog. The prepuce slowly becomes more pendulous as the dog ages.

Change in feet and nails. Footpads begin to thicken and the nails become brittle, making it harder to trim them properly.

Arthritis. Muscle, bone, and cartilage decrease with age. With less cartilage, the bones begin to scrape against one another, causing the pain of arthritis.

Common Disorders

Signs of aging are inevitable in older dogs. The body doesn’t snap back as readily as it used to, and perhaps it may take Rover a little longer to come when called. Aging can also predispose dogs to certain illnesses. By being aware of some concerns regarding older dogs, you can be a more educated and prepared guardian for your aging companion, or make the right choices when adopting a senior dog.

Routine veterinary care is particularly important now. Here are some of the most commonly diagnosed issues known to afflict older dogs (see more here).

Nutritional Concerns. A proper diet is very important in the care of a geriatric dog. Obesity is a very common and serious concern because it directly correlates to a decreased longevity, and may contribute to other problems. Proper nutritional management is a very important part of the care for your geriatric dog, especially since it is something that you can control.

Dental Disease. Dental disease and gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) are common findings in the older dog. Untreated dental disease usually leads to tooth loss, and may serve as a reservoir of infection for the rest of the body. In this manner, severe dental disease may pose a risk to other body systems.

Eye Disorders. As dogs age, their vision worsens. Just as in people, cataracts can develop resulting in cloudy vision. Sometimes, tear production lessens and the surface of the eye is not properly lubricated. Dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca) is a common problem affecting older dogs, especially small dogs with bulging eyes such as the shih tzu, pekingese, and pug.

Kidney Disease. Kidney disease is one of the most common metabolic diseases of older dogs. With early diagnosis through blood tests, some dogs can do quite well on a special diet and medications. The biggest key is to diagnose kidney disease early. This is one primary reason veterinarians recommend routine screening blood tests in older dogs.


As pets age, questions about vaccinations arise. Common questions include which vaccines a senior dog needs and how often should he be vaccinated. Unfortunately, the absolute answers to these questions are not known, but there are several recommendations.

Despite the well-known benefits of vaccination, the practice of annual vaccination of senior dogs is controversial. Some veterinarians believe that annual revaccination is an important and critical part of preventative health care. There has been some research that indicates that the immune system of older dogs is not as effective as younger dogs. This suggests that older dogs may be more susceptible to diseases and therefore require annual vaccinations. Other veterinarians feel that many vaccines last in the body longer than one year, and annual vaccination is not worth the risk of allergic reaction or other immune diseases. Of course, some vaccines (rabies) are required by law and must be administered on a regular basis.

The one thing that many veterinarians agree on is that dogs should only be vaccinated against those diseases for which they are susceptible. For example, if you and your dog do not live in an area endemic for Lyme disease, vaccinating for that disease is not recommended.


As a dog ages, exercise tolerance and requirements generally change. Of course, if your pet is elderly when you adopt him, you may not know his complete health history and previous exercise routine. Always consult your veterinarian before you change an existing program or begin a new exercise program for your elderly dog. Your veterinarian will want to perform a complete physical exam on your pet and discuss exercises that are appropriate. Some types of activity may not be beneficial for a geriatric dog if physical limitations are present.

Exercise is important for your elderly dog for many reasons. First of all, exercise helps maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight may lead to a number of health problems. It places excess stress on your pet’s heart. When the heart doesn’t function properly, other organs may suffer including the brain, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Over time, these problems may become severe enough to cause life-threatening conditions.

Osteoarthritis is degeneration of joints. This problem may develop during a pet’s geriatric years causing pain and discomfort. Excess weight on these joints can speed up the disease. Believe it or not, moderate exercise can help to delay the continued degeneration of joints that are affected with osteoarthritis.

Your elderly dog’s mental health may also benefit from exercise. Activity keeps oxygen and other nutrients like glucose (blood sugar) at optimum levels in the brain. The brain is like every other organ in the body in that it requires good nutrition.


As your pet ages, taking an active role in grooming becomes even more important. Older pets often groom themselves less, may have trouble cleaning those “hard to reach places,” or may develop skin conditions that require extra attention. You will have to take a more active role in keeping your pet clean and monitoring for any changes in skin and coat that may signal medical problems.

A number of changes are possible in your pet’s skin as they reach their senior years. Skin that has been healthy may become dry and flaky. You may see dander on the surface of the coat. At the opposite end, skin may become excessively oily and feel greasy to the touch. These changes may reflect your pet’s inability to groom properly. Arthritis often makes it hard for some pets to reach certain places. Mental changes associated with aging may cause a lack of interest in normally fastidious pets. You may need to help out with more frequent brushings, bathings, or medicated shampoos.

As your pet ages, you may notice that you begin to see or feel lumps or bumps both on and underneath the surface of the skin. All new skin growths should be evaluated by your pet’s vet to determine if any further attention is needed. Some may only be a nuisance, aggravating your pet if they are located in sensitive areas, or may bleed from grooming or other activity. Some may be more serious, including tumors.

Most pets dislike nail trims. The bad news is that as your pet ages, it becomes even more important to trim them and even more difficult to do. Nails often become thick and brittle with age. Pets may resent having their paws handled, further delaying the chore. Nails and nail beds may become overgrown. They can grow into the pads and be quite painful, and make walking a chore. Make it a habit to trim a small amount of nail on your dog or cat every two weeks to prevent overgrowth and make walking easier.