A senior dog with a grey face lies on the couch snuggling against a person's leg.

Taking Care of Your Senior Dog

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It can be hard to believe that the little bundle of fur you once brought home is now getting grey around the muzzle. Most dogs become “seniors” anywhere between seven and ten years old (large dogs generally age faster than small dogs) and your old friend may be feeling the effects of age. Taking care of your senior dog takes a bit of extra effort, but their thankful wags and steadfast loyalty make it all worthwhile.

As they get older, dogs may develop aches and pains, much like people do. Arthritis is common, especially in large dogs. Some breeds are prone to back or hip problems that can make it hard to get around or even play. Many older dogs lose some or all of their eyesight, while others have trouble hearing. By paying close attention to changes in your dog’s behaviour, you should be able to tell when something is bothering them or becoming difficult for them.

There are lots of ways to help keep your older dog happy, healthy, and comfortable through their golden years. Here are a few suggestions for taking care of your senior dog.

A small dog with cataracts looks toward the camera. Taking care of your senior dog means dealing with changes to their health.
Cloudy eyes are a sign that your senior dog’s eyesight is getting worse due to cataracts.

A caring vet can guide dog parents

As your dog ages, more frequent and serious health problems are likely to emerge. A good relationship with a veterinarian you trust will make it easier to keep track of health concerns, treatments, medications, and changes in your dog’s health. You may need to have some difficult conversations with your vet if your dog develops health problems that can be expensive to treat, like cancer, kidney disease, or teeth that need to be removed. Many vets offer multiple payment options to spread out the cost, or you may be able to get support for your pet’s veterinary costs from PAWS or other organizations.

Older dogs need less food

Over time, your dog’s metabolism will slow and they may also become less active. This means that your dog will need less food or perhaps lower-calorie food. Many dog food brands offer “senior” formulations that are nutritionally balanced for older dogs. Also, your dog may lose some teeth with age. In this case, think about adding some salt-free broth or water to soften kibble before feeding or switching to softer foods such as canned food or cooked food.

One other feeding trick that may help with dogs that have mobility issues is raising the food bowl off the floor. Use a step stool, box, or stand to raise the bowl to a comfortable height so that your dog doesn’t have to bend down to eat.

Gentle exercise for aging dogs

It can be tempting to let your old pal lie around all day. However, your dog needs to keep active to stay healthy and mobile. Keep walking your dog and playing with your dog. The walks may get a bit slower or shorter, but it’s important to keep those four legs moving so that your dog doesn’t lose muscle tone or get too stiff. It’s also important to walk your senior dog for mental stimulation. If they can’t go as far as they used to, just take it slow and let them stop and sniff things often. You can take breaks and relax in a park with different sights, smells, and interactions than your dog gets at home.

Couch is too high? Try ramps or steps for your dog

If your dog has arthritis or other mobility challenges, it can be tough to do some of the things that used to come easily, like jumping up onto the bed or couch or climbing into the car. For smaller dogs especially, the risk of injury from jumping (or falling) from a height increases with age. But after a lifetime of snuggling with you on the couch, they can’t understand why it’s suddenly off limits.

There are a variety of portable ramps and stairs available to give your dog easy access to their favourite places. You might also be able to build or improvise your own version, but make sure it’s stable, non-slip, and solid enough to bear the weight of your dog safely. For example, a wide wooden plank with a rubber hallway runner firmly attached to it makes a good ramp for helping your dog in and out of the car.

Get a grip so your dog doesn’t slip

Senior dogs can find it very difficult to walk on slippery floors or icy sidewalks. There are several ways to help your dog walk confidently and prevent injuries from slipping. You can put down area rugs and hall runners to cover your slippery floors in areas where your dog frequently walks. Or, if that doesn’t appeal, you can purchase non-slip socks for your dog to wear around the house. Another innovative product is toe grips—little rubber tubes that slide over your dog’s toe nails to help them grip the floor. These may be an option if your dog won’t keep socks on!

Outside on icy sidewalks, non-slip booties can be helpful. Also, avoid over-trimming your dog’s toenails in the winter. The nails can help them grip a little better on slippery ice. Of course, avoiding ice will help too. Walking your senior dog on grassy surfaces (or snowy surfaces) is a safer option when sidewalks are icy.

Older dogs need better beds

Dogs with arthritis and other health issues may start finding it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, or may wake up stiff and sore. Orthopedic dog beds are a good idea for dogs that need a bit more support to help those old joints stay comfortable. More support for aging joints is especially important for large and giant breeds.

If a new bed is outside your budget, use other items to help increase their comfort. A foam mat (like children’s play mats or foam camping pads) can sit under their bed and add an extra layer of padding. Extra blankets can prevent your dog from getting cold overnight, which might make their joints stiff. If you are replacing your own pillows or your couch (if it has removable cushions), you can use those pillows to make your dog more comfortable too.

A senior dog is lying on a deck. They are wearing a white knit sweater. Taking care of your senior dog means keeping them warm during the winter.
Senior dogs get cold more easily and might need a sweater or jacket for winter walks.

Cozy coats for winter dog walks

Older dogs can get chilled more easily than young dogs. Even if your dog has never needed an extra layer before, consider getting a sweater or coat for your older dog for those winter walks. For snowy weather or cold, rainy days, a coat with a waterproof outer layer is best, because cotton fleece and some knits can get soaked through and actually make your dog colder instead of warmer. However, wool sweaters stay warm even when they’re wet. If anyone in your family is a knitter, you can search for free dog sweater patterns online and get a perfect fit! For coats, try shopping at the end of the season when pet supply stores are clearing out winter items. You can also try local buy-and-sell groups, where people are selling (or giving away) coats that no longer fit their dog or coats from a dog that has passed away.

Make you dog’s senior years special

Taking care of your senior dog can be challenging and sometimes heartbreaking. With your support, your old friend can spend those final years happy and comfortable, and your time together can provide a lot of joy for you. Unfortunately, too many dog parents feel like their senior dog has become too much work or is too expensive. Surrendering a senior dog is particularly heartbreaking because a dog who has bonded deeply with their family for many years often struggles to adjust to life in a shelter. PAWS works with pet parents to help them keep their senior dogs in the home they’ve always known. Dogs give us so much love and comfort throughout their lives; they deserve to be given love and comfort to the end of theirs.

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