While your dog will always be a puppy in your eyes, you can’t help but notice a few changes as the years go by. Whether your walks are getting shorter, or you’re starting to notice a few grey hairs around your dog’s muzzle, you might be wondering exactly when you should consider your dog a “senior” – and what you’ll need to do to care for them as they get older.
What’s “Old” in Dog Years?
You may have heard that one year is equivalent to seven “dog years.” The truth is, every dog ages at a different rate, depending on their size, genetics and environment.
Generally speaking, the larger the dog, the more quickly they will age, and the shorter their life expectancy will be. A large dog over 50 pounds can become a senior as young as 6 years old, while a small dog may not be a senior until age 9 or 10.
Common Physical Signs of Canine Aging
As your dog ages, they’ll experience changes in their physical appearances, as well as their general health.
- Grey hair or white hair may become noticeable around your dog’s muzzle, especially if their original fur color is dark. It’s possible for dogs to go grey early due to stress, so this isn’t the most reliable way of determining if your dog is a senior – even though that white face does look quite distinguished.
- Tooth discoloration and decay is a major indicator of age, often used by animal shelters to guess the ages of the animals they take in. Oral disease can affect your dog’s entire body, and can even make it painful for them to eat. Discoloration, swollen gums, and plaque buildup are all signs that you should see your vet for a dental, and practice daily oral care at home.
- Slowing down is a normal part of canine aging. Your old dog will not have the same amount of energy as they did in their prime. Your dog may take longer to get out of bed or climb stairs, especially if they develop arthritis.
- Weight gain is common in older dogs as they begin to slow down. Overweight dogs are more prone to diabetes, heart failure, liver failure and joint problems, so you should talk to your vet about keeping your dog at a healthy weight for their size.
- Weight loss indicates a more serious problem than weight gain. Senior dogs can decline quickly if they are not eating enough. If your dog doesn’t seem to have an appetite, or eats a lot but still loses weight, they may have a digestive issue that may prevent them from getting proper nourishment.
- Cloudy eyes are usually indicative of Lenticular Sclerosis, which appears as a bluish, cloudy haze over the pupil. Lenticular Sclerosis is common and does not cause pain or have much impact on your dog’s vision, so it does not have to be treated. It’s a good idea to see your vet to rule out a more serious eye condition such as cataracts.
Behavioral Changes That Come With Old Age
Your dog’s senior years may also bring on some behavioral changes.
- Growling at you, your family members and other animals in your home can start to happen. Your dog may be less patient with bouncy puppies. They may find it more difficult to rise from a comfy spot. Pain and illness can also bring out your dog’s growl. Don’t punish your senior dog for growling – it’s their only way of asking for some space. If you suspect they are in pain, see your vet.
- Urinating in the house can be caused by many medical issues, and some dogs may develop an increasingly weakened bladder as they age. Incontinence can also be a result of certain medications. Don’t punish your dog for having accidents indoors – rule out any treatable medical issues at the vet and learn simple strategies for keeping your home clean with an incontinent senior dog.
- Disorientation can be caused by dementia. Dementia can make your dog unable to remember people and places, and may make it more difficult for them to retain new information. Dementia can also cause urination in the house, aggression and anxiety.
- Seeming to no longer listen is not typically due to old-age stubbornness. If your dog once came running every time you called them, but now slowly walks over, if they come to you at all, it could be due to hearing loss.
There’s no definitive age at which a dog becomes a senior, though it typically happens between the ages of 5 and 9. Your dog will need more care, patience, and attention in their later years to keep them comfortable and healthy for as long as possible. The extra care and time spent at home is well worth the love of an old friend.
Always work with your vet to monitor any changes in physical health or behavior. Healthy senior dogs should have checkups twice yearly, or more often if they’re actively being treated for a known condition.
For some more ideas check out my article on Living with My Senior Dog.