Writing by Dr. Sarah J. Cutler

Artwork by Monique Ford

If we are lucky, our pet dogs live until they are eight, 10 or 16 years old. We start using the descriptive term “senior” around eight years of age, although, sadly, some giant breeds may begin this phase of life as early as age five.

This “senior” time period can go on for many years, depending on the size and breed of your canine companion. There are many cases of small dogs, like Chihuahuas and Yorkshire Terriers, living until they are 20 years old.

Your dog’s physical and emotional needs will change with age. And as they do, they will need your attention and companionship more than ever.

Common struggles for older dogs

Anxiety

Anxiety can often increase with age. We commonly see dogs who struggle with separation from owners, as well as a decreased ability to handle transitions, such as vacations, moving, or new pets to the home.

The possibility of falling can also trigger a lot of anxiety. Slippery surfaces within the home, especially on stairs, can be challenging and worrisome for older dogs.

Cognition

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) is seen in many aging dogs and is similar to what happens with humans who have Alzheimer’s disease. Our pet dogs may seem disoriented, get stuck behind furniture, pace, have a disrupted sleep pattern (confuse day and night) and urinate or defecate indoors. If they have pain or decreased senses, it can exacerbate the signs of CCD.

Hearing

Hearing loss can and does occur as dogs age. It can cause changes in sleep patterns, increase their startle response and decrease their ability to take cues from their owner. It can also cause your pet to bark louder.

Mobility

Pain from joint disease and degeneration of nerves can cause mobility issues, increase their startle responses and make them more reluctant to move around. Sometimes older dogs can become more irritable or aggressive when a person sits near them or trips on them, especially when they are resting. Getting in and out of cars can also become difficult.

Social relations

Relationships between pets within the home are fluid and can change when one pet starts to show signs of illness, disorientation or pain.

Vision

Many dogs develop nuclear sclerosis (a thickening of the lens) with age, which can be described as a cloudy eye. It does not cause complete blindness (like cataracts can), but it can cause issues with vision in dim light or in the dark. It also affects near vision and depth perception, and it may also cause your dog to struggle getting in and out of the car.

How to help your aging pet

Prevent slipping and sliding

Provide traction with mats and runners, especially where your dog eats, gets excited to greet people and goes up or down stairs. Consider ramps and portable stairs for the car or getting onto high beds.

Offer companionship 

Grab a book and sit down near your resting dog to enjoy some quiet time together. Sit outside and watch the world go by. Take a drive and park with open windows for some novel scents (if your dog has enjoyed the car in the past).

Give daily exercise & enrichment

Keeping your pet moving on a daily basis is important to maintain muscle tone, even if the pace is slow. Try to avoid tugging on leashes and rushing around. And avoid hot surfaces, such as pavement in the summer and icey or salty roads in the winter.

Walks, even when slow, allow your senior friend to get out and enjoy the scents of the world around them. Sniffing and snuffling are natural canine behaviors that provide information about who and what just passed through; they are both calming and enriching.

Another enrichment activity is a snuffle mat. You can crumble treats into these durable fleece mats, and your dog will enjoy sniffing and snuffling in the comfort of their home.

Do not disturb

Dog 101 rules apply to pups and seniors: Do not disturb or bother a dog when they are resting, sleeping or eating.

Regular vet visits

There are many ways to keep your senior pet healthy, and having a trusting relationship with your vet is essential. Regular bloodwork and urine testing is important to detect common illnesses, like kidney disease or diabetes. Cardiology and ophthalmology specialists may be needed for common geriatric issues. Treatments like acupuncture, physical therapy and laser therapy are available, and there are veterinarians who specialize in hospice and end-of-life care.

Talk to your veterinarian about supplements, such as fatty acids, which are good for joints, skin and the brain. There are many prescription medications that can help with arthritis.

Minimize change

Change is hard for many pets, especially seniors, so try to keep up with daily routines. You should also weigh the benefits of taking your dog on vacation versus finding a petsitter who has the time to be with your stay-at-home dog. And think ahead if your house will be filled with people for family celebrations or holidays.

This article was published in the January/February 2024 edition of Connect to Northern Westchester

Dr. Sarah J. Cutler
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Sarah J. Cutler is a veterinarian with a special interest in behavioral medicine.  Upon graduation, she took an oath to “first do no harm,” which is a guiding principle in her practice.  Sarah combines her scientific background with her respect for cats and dogs to help humans live in health and harmony with their pets. “I’m passionate about following safe practices for our pets and understanding where to find trusted professional resources,” she says.