Care of Older Dogs

Just as with humans, dogs are living longer, thanks to improved medical care and more advanced treatments.

And, just like humans, older dogs are more prone to ailments and discomfort than younger ones.

Dogs age at different rates, which depend largely on the size of the dog. Larger dogs have a shorter life expectancy than smaller ones with only 13 per cent of giant breeds, such as Great Danes living past the age of ten. The average life expectancy of small breeds is 12-14 years, while for larger breeds it is just 8-10.

Whatever a dog’s breed or life expectancy, however, they will need similar care as they get older. Owners need to be aware of the conditions that older dogs can be susceptible to, and how their symptoms can be treated.

Common disorders in older dogs

Many of the disorders commonly experienced by older dogs are similar to those faced by older people.

These include:

Arthritis: an inflammation of the joints, and causes pain and stiffness. Typical symptoms are stiff movement, difficulty in getting up or down, changes in gait, limping, or a reluctance to move.

Dental disease: which is usually first identified by bad breath. Further signs are receding, or red, swollen gums, and a reluctance to eat. Not only is it an oral problem, but it can also cause serious infection elsewhere in the body.

Eye disorders: such as cataracts or dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca). Cataracts, which affect the vision, appear as cloudiness in the eyes. Dry eye is a condition where tear production reduces, resulting in the surface of the eye not being adequately moistened, making them sore and irritated. This is more common in dogs with bulging eyes, such as pugs and Boston terriers.

Fatty tumours: which many older dogs develop, although larger, overweight dogs are more likely to develop them. These are harmless and require treatment only if they are restricting movement.

Kidney disease: which is one of the most common metabolic diseases in older dogs. Symptoms vary, and can be overlooked as signs of other problems.

These include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Blood in urine
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures and comas.

Diabetes: also characterised by increased thirst and urination, lethargy and, if left untreated, coma.

Incontinence: of both the bladder and the bowel, due to weakening muscles. Incontinence often happens when the dog tries to sit or stand up, placing pressure on the muscles.

Heart disease: which may be indicated by a dry cough, shortness of breath, rapid weight loss, lethargy, fainting, and a swollen stomach.

Cancer: which affects over half of all dogs over ten years old. The symptoms may vary, dependent on the location of the cancer. Rapidly growing lumps, sores that don’t heal, and unpleasant odours are common signs.

Certain breeds of dog are more susceptible to certain conditions. Retriever breeds often suffer with arthritis. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and dachshunds are prone to heart conditions. Rottweilers and German shepherds have a genetic propensity for cancer.

Caring for your older pet

The care a dog receives in its later years can make a real difference to their quality of life.

Owners can take some straightforward steps to make their dog’s twilight years more comfortable.

Regular veterinary check-ups will help to catch any problems early. Vets will check the dog’s heart, breathing, and weight, and check them over for any new lumps, or abnormalities. They will be able to advise on how to manage ailments, simple adjustments that you can make, and other things that owners can do, such as giving supplements, which may be recommended to improve joint function.

Making sure that your dog has a suitable diet, and maintains a healthy weight, is important for their health. Many food manufacturers produce food specifically for older pets. Higher-fibre foods are often recommended for older dogs to support their digestive system. Senior foods have higher-quality protein, as this protein is easier for older dogs to digest, and for their kidneys to process. Senior foods are also lower in fat, making them lower in calories, reflecting that both dogs and their metabolisms slow down in later years.

As mentioned above and covered in the course, poor oral health can cause problems not only in the mouth, but throughout the body. Brushing the dog’s teeth with a suitable, toothpaste will help to keep their teeth healthy. Dogs should never be given xylitol, so human toothpastes are not appropriate. Canine toothpastes are safe to use, and are meat-flavoured, to make them more appealing to the dog. Between cleans, dental toys and dental treats can be given to help keep the teeth clean of plaque.

Older dogs still need exercise, to manage their weight, and keep their muscles and joints healthy. However, it may need to be tailored to your dog’s needs, particularly if they develop heart problems, or arthritis, to ensure that it isn’t too strenuous. Little and often is better than one long session. Swimming is good exercise, and there are now many hydrotherapy pools in the UK. Alternatively, dogs may enjoy swimming in lakes, but owners should be aware of the risks of drowning, especially if the dog becomes tired, and should also be sure to take a towel to dry them off to help prevent them getting cold. If you have had to reduce your dog’s exercise, and they seem to be bored and restless, toys such as food puzzles will help to keep them entertained.

Senior pets often need minor alterations making at home to support them. Ramps can be used to help them get up the stairs, or climb into the car. Smooth, shiny floors, such as laminate, can cause dogs to slip and covering them with rugs that are heavy enough to stay in place will prevent this. Food and water bowls can be raised so that the dog doesn’t need to bend so far. Beds should be warm and soft, and away from any draughts.


Aging is a fact of life, even for our four legged companions.

With old age comes a range of ailments that can cause your pet discomfort and pain. Owners can make simple adjustments to ensure that their pet has the best quality of life in their twilight years and continues to enjoy life.

Well Done!