Just when is a dog considered a senior? At a certain age? When gray hairs appear? When she can’t hike as far or arises from a nap a bit slower than usual? Dr. Julie Buzby, integrative veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips®, offers her thoughts on when you can confidently welcome your dog into the prestigious “silver senior dog” club and then shares a snapshot of several common health issues you might expect on the journey through your dog’s golden years.
When I’m in an exam room with a client and their dog, I love to hear stories—stories from proud dog owners that span the decades—from their first day home together to the purpose of their visit that day. Inevitably, I’m reminded that the bond between a loyal dog parent and his or her furry family member is unconditional, unbreakable, and always one-of-a-kind.
It’s true—your dog is a pal and a confidant, and your heart’s desire is to see your dog thrive in every season. You’ve made that happen so far, and the golden years needn’t be different. But how do you know you’re “in” your dog’s golden years and what changes can you expect? These are common questions devoted dog parents ask, and I can’t wait to share the answers with you.
In today’s post, I’ll discuss the latest research from scientists on how to accurately determine your dog’s age, and then I’ll share seven common health-related issues to watch for in the senior years.
One dog year = Seven human years, right?
When I was growing up, people thought one year of a dog’s life equaled seven years in a human’s life. It was simple arithmetic dog owners calculated at every doggie birthday.
Nowadays, we know this “one year = seven” is inaccurate for several reasons—one being that most dogs reach maturity by the time they are one year of age. The equivalent would mean humans reach maturity at seven years of age. The outdated formula simply doesn’t work.
The truth is there’s no clear and simple way to determine when your pup is a senior. However, two studies shed light on a fairer way to calculate your dog’s age.
Two studies on when a dog is considered a senior
In a 2007 study from Texas A&M University, researchers looked at the effects of height and weight on the life span of dogs. They found that shorter and lighter dogs lived longer than taller and heavier dogs. This suggests that small breed dogs age more slowly than large breed dogs.
Thus, as a general rule, large-breed dogs are considered seniors after age six or seven, but small dogs aren’t considered seniors until after age ten or eleven.
More recently, the University of California, San Diego published a study in November 2019 that looked at Labrador Retrievers and how their aging compares to that of humans. By looking at epigenetics, or the way that the environment caused certain genes to be expressed or suppressed, researchers were able to develop a new formula for calculating a dog’s age.
The study determined puppyhood goes by as quickly as childhood in humans but then aging slows down as a dog matures. The authors admit the study isn’t perfect since it only looked at Labrador Retrievers to the exclusion of all other breeds, but it is a great start. More research is necessary.
Curious what the new formula says about your dog’s age? See the new and improved formula for calculating a dog’s age.
7 health issues when your dog is considered a senior
With the new formula in mind, know that it’s entirely possible for your dog’s early senior years to look very similar to his or her adult years.
However, just like in humans, age increases your dog’s risk for various health issues. Below I’ve outlined seven of the most common conditions I see in my practice (with links to learn more if you’d like). Log this info in the back of your mind for the days ahead since an awareness of these health concerns may help you and your veterinarian diagnosis and treat them earlier.
As your dog ages, cartilage and other soft tissues that cushion her joints become less elastic and flexible. Because of this, your dog may experience joint pain due to inflammation. Your vet can prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication for relief. Joint supplements for dogs are a great way to proactively protect your dog’s joint health.
Further, it is extremely important to work with your vet to ensure your dog maintains a healthy weight to avoid extra strain on her joints. If you’re curious about your dog’s overall body health, please read Canine Body Condition Score: Walk Your Dog to Good Health.
2. Kidney disease
Your dog’s kidneys filter toxins and waste products out of the blood. Over time, the filters (called nephrons) don’t work as well as they used to. When damaged nephrons begin to shut down, the active nephrons become overworked, and the body can’t eliminate waste products efficiently.
Older dogs who develop this form of kidney disease have what we call chronic kidney disease. Symptoms of chronic kidney disease include increased thirst, urination, weight loss, vomiting, and a lack of appetite. For more information on what to do if your dog is turning up her nose at dinnertime, please read Why is My Old Dog Not Eating?
3. Lumps and bumps
Tumors, skin tags, lipomas, and other growths can happen at any age, but senior dogs are at increased risk. While most skin growths are benign, some are malignant and can potentially spread to other parts of the body. Make sure to check your dog regularly for new lumps or bumps and bring them to the attention of your veterinarian right away. In fact, a 5-minute weekly tip-to-tail canine wellness scan may just save your dog’s life!
4. Canine cognitive dysfunction
One of the most common signs of aging in dogs is behavior changes. Senior dogs who seem more anxious, disoriented, or have changes in their sleep-wake cycles may have a disorder known as canine cognitive dysfunction or CCD. If your dog has CCD, you may notice that she has accidents in the house or paces, often in the evening or at night. While there is no cure, there are some things you can do to help manage this condition. For more information on CCD, please read Managing Canine Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms, Solutions.
5. Dental disease
Dogs develop dental disease just like people. Without proper dental care, senior pups can develop significant oral infections that contribute to mouth pain, bone loss, tooth root abscesses, and even heart disease. At-home dental care like dog toothbrushing and choosing safe chew toys for your dog can make a big difference in his or her oral health. At least once a year, take your dog for a routine dental check-up from your vet. For more on dental disease, please read Dental Disease in Dogs: Why Prevention is the Best Medicine.
6. Heart disease
Older dogs may be more susceptible to developing heart disease. They can develop disorders of the heart valves that cause the leaking of blood around the valves when the heart contracts.
Symptoms of heart disease include coughing, weakness, and exercise intolerance. In addition, your vet may be able to detect early heart disease during a routine exam as he or she listens to the heart. Early detection is vital as senior dogs with clinical signs may need blood pressure medications.
7. Endocrine diseases (weight gain)
Diabetes, hypothyroidism in dogs, and Cushing’s disease in dogs are all examples of endocrine disorders that can cause weight gain, increased thirst, urination, and appetite. Middle-aged and senior dogs have a higher risk for developing these health problems, and routine diagnostics like blood and urine testing can help screen for these disorders.
A trusted guide through the golden years
Bottom line: There is no one determiner that dictates when your dog is considered a senior. However, by using the latest research to calculate your dog’s age and by keeping a close eye on your sweet dog’s “normal,” you can be a knowledgeable guide during these years.
Don’t forget to schedule twice-yearly physical exams for your aging dog (and learn tips for improving your dog’s lab tests) since your dog may be at a higher risk of developing health problems. I’ve seen it firsthand and experienced it myself—early intervention has the biggest impact on your older pup’s quality of life.
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