The Special Needs Of Older Dogs Caring For Your Elderly Canine

Ron Hines DVM PhD

Is your special pet a cat?

Arthritis is so common in older dogs   

  Some are still searching for that fountain of canine youth

Is My Dog Old Enough That I Need To Read This Article?

About 8 years old is a good time to read this article. Dark-colored dogs gray around the muzzle a bit earlier, but they are still just mature adults. Not all dogs age at the same rate. We do not understand why, but small breeds (under 20 lbs) tend to age slower; outlive mid-size breeds by a few years and outlive extra-large breeds even more. There are also specific breed differences. Generally, the more a breed’s shape and physical characteristics have been changed from what God intended them to be, the more health problems the breed has and, consequently, the shorter is its lifespan. Earlier in my career, I cared for all the geriatric animals used in the studies of the National Institutes On Aging. 

What Are Some Of The Things I Should Think About When My Dog Gets Older?


Most older dogs do best when they receive several small meals a day rather than one or two. You can keep better track of what they eat that way. They enjoy the social interaction and excitement of food presentation, and they are less likely to overeat or develop bloat /(GDV) problems when they are feed frequently in small amounts. Although all pet food manufacturers offer “Senior Diets”, there is really no evidence that older dogs have any special nutrient requirements. These “Senior Diets” tend to just have minimal added amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants (like vitamin E) and chondroitin/glucosamine products added to them – Things you can just give as a supplement if you believe in them. I personally do not believe that chondroitin or glucosamine will be beneficial but many folks do. In moderate amounts, they cause no harm. (read more here)

Most of them are also “light” formulas, which means they are lower in calories (the manufacturers assume your pet is overweight or less active and needs fewer calories) and they usually have added sugar beet fiber to alleviate chronic constipation – another common problem in older pets. So, you have 4 choices. You can:

1) Continue to feed it the diet your pet is doing well on.

2) Add a top dressing of the added ingredients (fiber, antioxidants, omega-3s).

3) Change over (slowly) to a “senior diet”.

4) Prepare your own meals for your dog. (You will find recipes for home cooking here)

What Brand Of Dog Food Do You Suggest?

The low price of generic brands dictate that the ingredients are of low quality. Mid or average priced dog foods tend to have better quality ingredients. Most national brands market top-of-the-line premium formulas that are likely to be even better. Those are the brands I suggest. I don’t recommend niche, high-cost, brands sold in pet shops, groomers or on the Internet either because the small companies that make them do not have the resources to do frequent quality control and analysis of their products. If a problem does occur, not enough pet owners use any particular one of them for the FDA to be alerted promptly. I don’t recommend “raw” or bizarre diets for papered urban pets. They just introduce a number of added health worries. Products produced by small companies are also more likely to vary from batch to batch. They also tend to sit on the store shelves longer and get stale. Many of the private label brands, or their sub-ingredients, are manufactured by a few large US or foreign firms – so the only thing special that you have purchased is the bag, can or marketing campaign. Buy your pet foods where you buy your own food – after all, you already trust your health to them. So, if you plan to offer your dog a “Senior Formula” it is a good food. But there is not much science to back up the slight formula modifications that have been made. Another potential problem with “senior” formulas is their one-size-fits-all caloric content. Many older dogs tend to be too chubby until they reach about 10 years of age – the lower calorie formulas of senior diets are fine for them. But after that, many become too thin. Some gain or lose too much weight somewhat earlier or later.

The Importance Of Good Hydration

The kidneys of geriatric pets usually have reduced ability to cleans the pet’s body of the residues of metabolism. Creaky old dogs, particularly those eating primarily dry kibble diets, often do not drink enough water. Be sure that water is available to them in several easy-to-assess locations.

Does My Old Dog Need A Supplement?

Probably not. If your dog is eating a balance, commercial diet or a home cooked one that follows an intelligent recipe and meets AAFCO guidelines, it does not need a supplement. But if your dog is a picky eater, if it has chronic digestive problems or if your veterinarian feels it could benefit from an increased level of a specific nutrient, do place it on a supplement targeted to that specific problem. Supplements that say something to the effect that they are “Specifically Designed To Meet The Health Needs Of Older Dogs” are just marketing ploys.

Your Pet’s Reduced Ability To Handle Stress And Change

Old pets and old people do not tend to handle change and stress well. Much of this decline is due to habituation and the sum total of multiple health problems that accumulate over the years. But some of it is due to a reduction in hormone levels the body produces to combat stress (adrenal hormones) and in brain changes that hinder adaptation to new or stressful situations. In general, old dogs like fixed routines and sameness. They tend not to be good travelers or kennel boarders and interruptions of any kind in their routine are not appreciated. Try to engineer their lifestyle to adjust for this. When you must be away, rely on pet sitters rather than kennels. When your pet requires veterinary care, consider a house call veterinarian. Think carefully before introducing new pets into the household. Consider how changes in your lifestyle will affect your dog. Keep in mind that you are aging much slower than your pet is and decisions that seem unimportant and to have no immediate consequences for you will affect your old pet much sooner.

Obesity Problems

Most pets love to eat. Checking out their food bowl is one of their chief pleasures in life. Neither they, nor their owners, take into account that their activity level and need for calories is considerably less than it was when they were young. So, most elderly dogs need less food in order to remain trim. Overweight dogs have more bone, joint and arthritis problems. They are also subject to more skin and urinary tract problems. Obesity is also related to a shorter life span in all animals that have been studied. (read here). So do your best to keep your pets trim. I am too soft-hearted to rob my pets of the joy of eating to their hearts content. I control their weight by adding low-calorie items to their meals and by feeding them multiple, smaller portions throughout the day. I also discourage my clients from neutering their pets too young. I know this is contrary to what humane societies tell you; but there are a lot of known negative health consequences of early age neutering. Obesity is one of them. Dr. David Waters has confirmed that there are many others. Read his article here.

Weight Loss Problems

Unintended weight loss in older dogs is just as worrisome as obesity. When it occurs, it is often a sign of a serious health problem. A few old dogs just become picky due to decreased sense of smell. Those dogs can be encouraged to eat with savory food aromas. Warming your pet’s food can also be helpful. Some dogs are picky because of dental and gum problems. If your pet’s breath is strong, its teeth could be a factor. Older pets often eat better when they are given soft foods rather than kibble. Just be sure their diet stays nutritionally balanced if you are choosing the ingredients yourself. Your pet is no better a judge of what is, and isn’t good for it than your children are. Pets will often eat more if you stay with them and encourage them.

Encouraging Activity and Moderate Exercise

It often takes your coaxing to keep older pets active. Activity and exercise are necessary for good digestive system function, cardiovascular health, and they seem to ward off many of the problems associated with old age. Don’t expect, or encourage, your elderly dog to play with the intensity it did when it was young. Dogs will do anything for you, sometimes to the extent that they damage their bodies. Keep your activities and encouragement within reason. When you throw the ball, throw it a bit closer and not so many times. Whatever the activity, stop when your pet begins to pant.

Eye And Vision Changes

Older dogs do not see as well as they once did. Eventually, all of them develop cataracts, the milky haziness you see in their lenses. (Veterinary ophthalmologists will tell you that this condition is actually lenticular sclerosis. Read about that problem here.  It does not affect your pet’s general health. Because dogs detect more about their environment with their nose, they do quite fine with limited vision. Pets with health problems, such as elevated blood pressure,   diabetes and Cushing’s disease can develop more serious eye problems affecting their retinas. Those problems need to be treated by your veterinarian. The long-term consequences of corneal problems and dry eye, common in dogs with bulging eyes (exopthalmos), often catch up with them in their old age. Many have minimal vision by that time. But I have found that blind pets are just as happy as those that can see. Your veterinarian has eye drops that will sooth the pain of this condition.

Teeth And Dental Care

Tooth and gum disease is one of the most common problems in smaller breeds of older dogs. Pets rarely get cavities like you and I do. But tartar accumulation along their gum line eventually looses teeth and allow bacterial infections to surround the tooth roots. I usually recommend that bad teeth be extracted rather than repeatedly cleaned by your veterinarian. Dogs do just fine with little or no teeth. Repeated dental care at animal hospitals just subject your pet to the risks of anesthesia, the stress of hospitalization and exposure to other sick or hospitalized pets. Besides, chronically infected teeth – no matter how often they are treated – are a constant source of infection spreading to organs in your pet’s body such as its heart, liver and kidneys. Some of these pets are so relieved when these teeth are removed that they eat too much and blimp up. Keep track of their weight after extensive dental procedures.
You can put off dental problems in your dog by regularly brushing its teeth and providing chew toys. Do not give bones to old dogs that had no experience with them in their youth.

Handicapped Aids

Old dogs eventually reach the point where arthritis and other health issues make it difficult for them to walk or stand. When that time comes, there are many contraptions, slings, ramps and other aids to help your pet out. You can find descriptions of all of them at and other similar sites.

The Specific Health Problems Of Older Dogs

It will take your veterinarian to sort these issues out. Older dogs, often have multiple health problems, and it will be up to you and your veterinarian to decide which of the issues are most important and which, if any, need treatment. Working out a treatment plan will be harder for your veterinarian because many medications interact with each other. It often takes the vet a bit longer to find the optimal dose of each medication for your pet. Not every health problem in old dogs needs treatment. Just as occasionally happens in elderly humans, it is possible to over-medicate old pets. When your veterinarian runs blood tests on your older dog, the results will probably not be quite the same as they were when it was younger. 

What Are The Most Common Health Problems Of Older Dogs?

A large review of dog mortality between 1984 and 2004 found that older dogs were less likely to develop stomach and intestinal problems or experience infectious disease as when they were young. As those dogs got older, serious illness shifted to favor diseases of the nervous system and to cancers of various types. The long history of humans fiddling with the genetics of dogs has affected the diseases most common in each individual breed as it ages. Older dogs of larger breeds are, in general, more prone to muscular, skeletal and joint problems, whereas smaller breeds are more prone to suffer endocrine gland abnormalities as they get older. Both elongated dogs, like dachshunds, and doberman pinschers have the most spinal problems. The healthiest are the mutts; they tend to have fewer problems with their backs (disc disease), heart, spine, and vision as they age. You can read the study here.

Guard dogs, owned by the US Department of Defense, lead an institutionalized life – not the relaxed life of your domestic pooch.  For one, important psychological “pack/family” interactions that dogs crave so much are quite limited. But their health is carefully monitored throughout their working lives. A study of their health as they aged in the 1990s gives us an insight into the medical issues these larger dogs faced as they grew old. Most were, and are still, Belgian and German Shepherds. 

Mental Changes

Older pets can be more worried and fearful than they were when they were young. Situations that they handled well before, can now cause them anxiety. Usually, it’s a minor problem, but occasionally, it develops to full-blown panic attacks, trembling, panting hiding or whining and destructive behavior. If you analyze the conditions that lead to these behaviors in your pet, you can often improve the situation by modifying their lifestyle. When that is ineffective, there are medications, such as clomipramine that are often effective. We do not know why this happens in some old dogs, but the situation is similar to separation anxiety. You can read about that problem and its treatment here. In some old dogs, the problem is not so much how they interpret events as it is an inability of their brains to function as efficiently and process information as they once did (obtuse). That problem is called cognitive dysfunction or CCDS. As in senility and Alzheimer’s disease in humans, neurons (brain cells) involved in the thought process have been lost. These pets often act dazed and out-of-touch. They may pace endlessly, vocalize, walk in circles, lose their house training and ability to interact with you. You can read more about the problem and the things you can do to help your pet here.


As in your life, anything that disturbs your pet’s routine can cause restlessness. It can be the aches and pains of arthritis, digestive upsets, or other internal health issues, but the two primary causes of restlessness in older dogs are the increased anxiety and cognitive dysfunction I wrote about earlier.

Helping your Dog With Its Grooming Needs

Many old, long-haired, dogs need extra help with coat care. They tend to get more mats. Increased time laying on their side; idle time on their hands to lick; aged thinning skin; and urine scald, all make them more susceptible to skin irritation and superficial skin infections. The simplest way to deal with this in long-coated dogs is to have them clipped close several times a year. If that is not done, you will need to look for, and remove, the mats that develop on their underside, under their tail and near their elbows. The more frequently you tend to these mats, the easier and less painful they will be when you remove them. Early on, many can be combed out with a slicker comb. Once the tangles are set, they are best cut out with a matting comb or carefully snipped out with scissors. Bath your pet after you remove these mats – not before. Dogs with limited mobility are also more susceptible to hot spots. I believe that is just due to more time on their hands to groom. Fleas, that weren’t a problem when your pet was young, may take advantage of the dog now that it spends more time in one location. They can also be the root cause of hot spots. Try to treat hot spot problems with topical lotions and, perhaps, a muzzle or Elizabethan collar rather than having your vet resort to steroid injections and tablets. It is very rare that hot spot problems require systemic antibiotics.

Toenail Care

Your older pet is going to wear its nails down less. I have seen so many old dogs with toenails so long that they curve sideways and distort their toes. This is a very painful condition for your dog. If you keep up with frequent toenail trims (every 2-3 weeks), the problem will not get out of hand. If it already has, your veterinarian needs to cut and cauterize these nails to their proper length. It is much better to just keep up with the problem. Cutting and cauterizing overgrown nails requires anesthetics or analgesics and I avoid their use in old animals whenever possible. If you over-cut a toenail and it bleeds, do not panic, it is not a medical emergency. No dog has died from a toenail cut too short. First, try placing some flour on the tip or pressing the nail firmly into a moist bar of Ivory soap. Keeping your pet’s toenails very smooth with a final application of an emery board or 250 grit sandpaper, or a Dremel tool will also prevent the skin trauma caused by your pet scratching itself. It is the nails of the rear legs that you need to concentrate on.

Ear Care

Dogs with floppy ears sometimes develop chronic ear infections (chronic otitis) in their later years. This is usually the result of ear problems throughout their lives. The most common cause are allergies to allergens the dog inhales from its environment. But a few cases began with ear mites, which are probably no longer present, or are the result of food allergies. I do not believe that there is such a thing as a primary yeast or bacterial ear infection. Yeast and bacteria only takes advantaged of an unhealthy situation. These pathogens can only live in an ear that is abnormally moist or inflamed for some another underlying reason. That is why, even when you treat the bacteria and yeast, they only improve temporarily. The best products for long-term ear care contain no antibiotics or steroids. They rely on the acidity of their contents to make your pet’s ear canals inhospitable to bacteria and yeast. Common boric acid is as good as any of them. After years of repeated bouts of otitis, the lining of your pet’s ear canal has permanently changed. It will be narrower, and it will no longer produce its waxy barrier to infection. If you and your veterinarian cannot control the situation, consider having the ear canal ablated or surgically remodeled. I only suggest this surgery if your pet’s general health is good. Read about that surgery here.

Hearing And Balance

Hearing and balance are intimately related because they both rely on the same major nerve to conduct their impulses to your pet’s brain (its 8th cranial nerve). Many times, a balance or hearing problem begins as a chronic ear infection problem. These infections eventually break through the pet’s ear drum and invade the deeper structures of hearing and balance. It is rarely a life-threatening problem. Dogs with balance problems usually cock their heads with the most affected ear down. They may walk in circles. They may stand with their feet wide apart. They panic when they have to swim. They will often squint in the eye on the affected side and the pupil of that eye may be constricted. Antibiotics and time for adjustment usually stabilize these pets. If they fall to one side, have seizures or mental changes the problem is much more serious and is more likely a tumor or lesion of the brain.

The Importance Of TLC and Companionship

Love and companionship are very important to your old dog’s health and longevity. Old Dogs are so attuned to their masters – treasuring their presence and touch. Even when your old dog doesn’t respond physically to your touch, your voice or your presence, it needs your companionship and attention. Without it, it will pine away. The ancient Greeks already understood that bond when they described the bond between Argus and Ulysses.

Urinary Problem, Incontinence and House Soiling

When pets only have urinary accidents in the house, the problem is usually confined to their urinary tract. When they soil with both urine and feces, the problem is usually more generalized. Dogs that drink more urinate more. It’s common for these dogs to not make it to the door fast enough to relieve themselves. The problem is worse in female dogs. Some of these dogs have poorly functioning kidneys. You can read more about that problem here. Others are suffering from conditions like diabetes or Cushing’s disease. Diuretics (like Lasix® aka furosemide), given for heart disease, can also cause this problem. Other incontinent dogs, again mostly females, have urinary tract infections or other urinary tract disease.
And some of them have just lost their earlier training due to cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Only your veterinarian can sort these problem out through a series of tests and examinations. Dogs that defecate stools of normal consistency in the house usually are suffering from mobility problems, such as arthritis or neurological problems that affect their anal sphincter control and defecation habits, or they have cognitive dysfunction problems. Dogs that pass soft stool or diarrhea in the house usually have digestive system problems. Again, your veterinarian will need to sort these problems out. There is never a legitimate reason to speak harshly or discipline an old dog for urinary or fecal accidents in the house.

Your Old Dog’s Kidneys

It is very common for old dogs to have lost some of the blood-cleansing ability of their kidneys. This is usually a gradual, progressive problem. The signs of increased thirst, urination and rising blood BUN and creatinine levels do not occur until the problem is quite advanced. Blood and urine tests to gauge your pet’s kidney function are part of the geriatric exams that your pet should have every year. If your vet notices that these compounds have increased, the vet will check the pet out for possible causes and probably recommend a diet designed for dogs with weakened kidneys. You can make a kidney diet for your pet at home as well. You will find more specific information on kidney disease and its treatment here and diet recipes here.

Your Dog’s Heart

The wear and tear of time takes a toll on the valves of your pet’s heart. Heart disease and kidney disease are the most common organ failures affecting older dogs. You can read about the signs of heart disease you will see and the treatments your veterinarian will perform here. The most common heart defect that develops in older dogs relates to its mitral valve. Read about that here

Hind Limb Weakness

It is quite common for old dogs to eventually reach the point where they cannot get up unassisted. Sometimes, this is due to arthritis pain. Other times, it is due to irreversible degenerative changes in your pet’s spinal cord or pressure that vertebral changes are placing on its spinal cord. Old pets are not candidates for back surgery. They can usually be managed for some time with anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and devices to help them regain their mobility.


Old dogs are subject to all the cancers that affect older people. Cancer ranks with heart and kidney disease as one of the most common problems in old dogs. Any treatment available to you, is available somewhere for your pet. Veterinarians have made great advances in curing or holding cancer at bay. Discuss those options with a third veterinarian you trust after you have discussed them with a veterinary oncologist. My concern is that guilt or inability to let go might cause you to keep suffering pets alive longer than you should.

How Often Should I Take My Old Dog To See My Vet?

Once a year or, at the most, once every 6 months should be sufficient if your pet has no current major health issues. During that exam, a physical examination will give your veterinarian a hint as to what laboratory tests need to be performed. I generally suggest a geriatric blood screening for some of the problems that are common in old dogs. You can read the names of the tests and their normal values in your dog here. Fecal examinations for parasites and booster vaccinations are really unnecessary for older house pets living in normal urban and suburban environments. When was your last fecal parasite examination? How long ago was your last polio or DPT vaccination? You can read my recommendations on vaccination here. It pertains to cats, I haven’t written the one on dogs yet, but my recommendations will be similar. Old dogs are creatures of habit. Any change in their activities, attitude, food consumption or elimination is reason for worry. Schedule an appointment for those pets immediately. If your elderly pet fears trips to the veterinarian, find a vet who makes house calls.

Knowing When It’s Time To Part

You can read some of my thoughts on putting dogs down here. It is the last favor you will give your pet for a life of love and devotion. The late Dr Bernard Rollin, of the Department of Philosophy at Colorado State University wrote a perceptive article for veterinarians on dealing with end-of-life issues. He cautions against keeping suffering animals alive beyond the point where the quality of their life is poor. You can read the abstract here

You are on the Vetspace animal health website

 Visiting the products that you see displayed on this website help pay the cost of keeping these articles on the Internet.