What is the most important thing to know about caring for a senior dog?

Senior dogs have different needs. As they age, they're going to have different exercise, diet requirements, and there are going to be times where you think, "Oh, they're just getting old," when they're not jumping up, or they're not moving as well. Also, things in their body metabolically will change—their kidney, their liver, their heart. And we want to make sure that you know that some of these things can be the quality of life things that we can help and address.

So what we're going to want to do is see these dogs every six months; we're going to want to do lab work at least once a year. But in many older pets that are 10 plus, we may want to do it twice a year, depending on the size of the dog, the breed, et cetera.

And when we're doing lab work, we're looking for things like, again, kidney and liver disease. Urinary tract infections quite often go undiagnosed in a dog. They don't all show the obvious symptoms, although they can. Drinking more water can be a sign of a UTI in a dog, and it's one of those things I tell people to watch out for. Again, that can also be a sign of diabetes, kidney disease, or liver disease. We want to know about any kind of slowing down. When people come in for an annual exam, I start by just saying, "Tell me about the day in the life of your dog, and what is different from last year?" And that's a good place for us to think about what's going on.

Weight is hugely important to keep them thin as they age because weight is so inflammatory for your pet. And we want to help keep their weight in check.

Dr. Michele Drake
Drake Center For Veterinary Care

What is the life expectancy of a dog?

If we're going to pick a number, the average life expectancy of a dog will be about 12. But certainly, for large breed dogs, giant breed dogs, it is lower. It's probably closer to eight. Giant breed dogs are things like Great Danes, Great Pyrenees, or Irish Wolfhounds. Large breed dogs, which we mostly see, would be Goldens and Labs and German Shepherds. For those dogs, the average age life span will be closer to 10 to 12. Indeed, small breeds of dogs can live longer. So they would be more like 12 to even 13 or 14. But we have many of these breeds that will last well into their teens, so it just depends.

How does getting older impact the health of my dog?

Aging itself is not a disease, but of course, things like the ligaments in your dog may suffer; the metabolism is going to slow down. We start to see problems with their ability to see. Their oral disease becomes important in older dogs. They're all going to have some dental disease pretty significantly by the time they're four years of age. And if we don't address that regularly, they're going to wind up with abscesses underneath the gum line. You can't see these things. These are chronic sources of infection and pain for your dog, and dogs will not let you know that. So we have to help you figure that out.

We see a lot more tumors as dogs age. So there are quite a few things. And the most important thing is to get in here for an annual exam or every six months, depending on the age and the breed of the dog.

Can wellness care extend the life and vitality of my dog?

When we do exams, we catch things daily—kidney disease with lab work, heart disease with listening to the chest. We find lumps and bumps on your dog, and certainly, we check their oral health. We find tumors in the mouth. We find tumors on the body. And some of these things are things we can just get rid of and stop the spread of cancer. So we identify these things, determine whether they're benign or malignant, and take the best course of action. We're never going to do anything without your approval, and we're always going to work with you and partner with you to figure out what's the best thing for your pet for the best quality of life for the longest time possible.

Does my dog still need regular wellness exams as they get older?

Yes, wellness exams become even more important as your dog ages. We're going to address many things that you're not aware of. You may have one dog or two dogs, and we see like 20 of them a day. And you multiply that by how many years we've been doing this. Some of us have been doing this for a really long time. We have a lot of knowledge. And also, the fact that we're doctors in picking up things that will help assess the quality of life and length is significant. But we're always working on the quality of life.

What are some signs and symptoms that my dog may be slowing down?

Slowness to get up in the morning is a sign of neurological or musculoskeletal inflammation or arthritis. And that's something we really can help with a lot. So I'm going to want to do an exam there. Sometimes we're going to want to do x-rays too to identify precisely what is going on. We'll talk to you about the dog's history. How long has it been going on? What kind of exercise plan do you have? Are they overweight? So there are many things we will address that can impact the quality of your dog's life.

Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing if my dog is slowing down or whether they are actually sick?

The reason to not self-diagnose is you're not a doctor. And rarely are owners correct. Looking up a condition online will rarely get you an accurate diagnosis. I'll just be honest with you about that. That doesn't mean there isn't some good information on the internet, but there's so much. You have one small picture of information and one pet, and so to extrapolate that and make that be a diagnosis is rarely correct. And we want to do the best thing. So let's get them in here, and we'll work together to come up with a plan.

What will my veterinarian be looking for when examining my senior dog?

So we're going to start at the nose and go back to the tail, and we're going to look at everything. Eyes and ears, and the mouth are super important. We're going to feel the body wall to look for tumors of any kind. We look at the skin very thoroughly. We're going to palpate the abdomen, where we feel the organ systems in the abdomen. And also, we're going to listen to the chest. Quite often, we're going to do a rectal exam and then collect lab work and possibly chest x-rays to have a look at the chest—many cancers can kind of creep up on us, like lung disease and heart disease. And we like to stay on top of those for quality of life.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (760) 753-9393, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Senior Care - FAQs

Dr. Michele Drake
Drake Center For Veterinary Care

What changes in basic care are needed for my senior dog?

Your senior dog should be getting into the veterinarian more often so that we can have a look at them and help decide if there's anything going on though our exam and with the help of your history. Lab work is very helpful and sometimes x-rays as well.

Do I need to change my senior dog's feeding schedule?

Quite often we are going to change your senior dog's diet, but it depends on your dog. Every pet is individual and every owner has different thoughts. So we're going to work with you to come up with the best diet. We'd like to make sure that older dogs are getting high-quality protein sources and we also like them to be eating vegetables if they'll tolerate them. I kind of like all dogs to be doing some of that, but especially as they age, as their ability to absorb protein becomes decreased. We want to make sure we have that high-quality protein source and we also want to ensure senior dogs don't get overweight.

What activities and training can I do with my senior dog?

So every dog varies tremendously. The most important thing is that it's regular and moderate. So by regular, I mean that they're taking the walk every other day or everyday. Dogs that walk everyday with their owner age so much better. It's an amazing difference. So if you're not walking your dog and you can think about it, it's really helpful. Having them go out in the backyard is not the same thing as taking the half-mile or mile walk, or, in the case of dogs that have been walking for a long time, they can walk longer. The difference is we don't want them out in the heat. Old dogs do not tolerate the heat. We also don't want them having to jump up and down because that could hurt their backs. We want to try to stay on a flat and cool surface. We don't want the dog's feet burning. Daily exercise is so important for dogs and every dog's different so we'll help you determine what's the safest and best.

If I want to adopt a senior dog, what should I know?

Senior dogs are great. We love old dogs here in the practice. Honestly, a little bit of gray on the muzzle is just precious and we love their wisdom that they've accumulated over the years. So I think it's a lovely thing. One of our technicians always adopts the oldest, most unadoptable dogs and she loves them and we all come to love her pets as well. So I think it's certainly something you can do. It would probably be a great idea to make sure that a veterinarian has examined the pet before you adopt them or immediately after so that we can make sure that you understand what the particular care and needs are or what we can do to keep that quality of life really great.

What behavior changes will I notice in my senior dog?

They're going to start sleeping a little more. Their vision may not be quite as perfect. Almost all dogs that get to be about the age of 13 have hearing loss. We want to make sure that we're aware of what's going on so that you can provide the best care for them at home.

What are some things I can do to help extend the length of my dog's life?

First of all, come in to see us at least once a year and let us partner with you to make sure you have the best plan. Keeping dogs thin and walking them every day is by far the most important thing you can do at home and then a healthy diet.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (760) 753-9393, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Dog Senior Care - FAQs 2

Dr. Michele Drake
The Drake Center

How much activity does my senior dog need each day?

Every dog is different, but I will tell you, I have dogs that are as old as 14, and my own personal dog was a standard poodle that lived to be 15 and a half, and he had a daily walk. Of course, he ran four miles a day with me when he was younger, but dogs that are kept thin and healthy and have a daily or every other day exercise routine can exercise well into their senior years. What we do not want to do with a senior dog is have the kid come home from college, and you have a 12-year-old lab, and he takes them out for a run. That is going to be terrible for this dog. We see it all the time, and it's well-meaning, but this dog's joints will wind up severely inflamed the next day. I have seen dogs die from heat exhaustion because someone came home and said, "I'm going to take the dog for a run." This dog does not have the fitness to do that. With an older dog, we need to be gradual or regular and moderate regarding fitness. That's what I tell my clients. They need a regular moderate exercise routine. If you're going to be gone for two weeks and the dog's not getting the exercise, when you come back, slowly build back up to where you were before.

Why is it important to keep my senior dog active?

It's so important. I tell my clients it is the most important thing you can do for them to have the longest life possible. You have total control over keeping them thin and giving them moderate daily exercise. A healthy diet is essential too. Those are three of the most important things. I highly recommend daily exercise for your senior pet, but it has to be regular and moderate.

What are some fun activities to keep my senior dog happy?

Senior dogs just want to be with us. If a dog is used to getting a daily walk, and he's at the age of 15, 16, or 17, he still wants to go out, sniff around, and feel like a dog. So making sure that he has those things to stimulate his brain and give him a high quality of life is really important.

What are some activities I should have my senior dog avoid?

I recommend that senior dogs avoid jumping and twisting behaviors like playing ball, which can be rough when you think about how the dog runs and then slams on the brakes and turns and twists. I'm not a fan of frisbee throwing for any dog age, as well as running alongside a bicycle. I think there are very few dogs that can do that safely without getting overheated or injuring themselves. It's not a good exercise method. I do think there are a few dogs that do that really well, but it's very rare. Again, for senior dogs, regular and moderate exercise is the best.

Should I take my senior dog to the veterinarian if they become less active?

Yes, definitely. Without a doubt, a dog becoming less active is a critical sign that something's not right. You do need to get them to your veterinarian as soon as possible. The possibilities could be pain, becoming anemic, and heart problems. There are so many possibilities why a dog becomes less active, so bring them in.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (760) 456-9556, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.