Senior Dog Outdoors
I love old dogs. The gray muzzle, the soft eyes, the loving bond that ties them so strongly to us after a rowdy puppyhood and the active years of maturity. The golden years are a time to cherish, but they also bring new challenges. Our senior sweethearts can face a number of common health problems related to their advancing age.

Among the problems veterinarians and pet owners must work together to combat are arthritis, cancer, cognitive dysfunction, dental disease, failing vision, hearing loss, heart disease, hypothyroidism and kidney disease. While we can’t necessarily avoid any or all of them, we can work to manage them to help keep our dogs comfortable and happy. Here is a look at what you may encounter as your dog ages and the most up-to-date treatments to help keep him spry.


This painful, degenerative joint disease affects most dogs at some point in their senior years. Large and giant breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, Labradors, German Shepherd Dogs, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards, tend to be more at risk, but dogs of any size can develop achy joints. Suspect arthritis if your dog seems reluctant to go up or down stairs, is no longer willing to jump on or off furniture or climb in or out of the car, or if he seems stiff after standing up.

If you notice any of these signs in your dog, ask your veterinarian about medication that can help. The arsenal against arthritis pain includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). While NSAIDs can really put the pep back in your dog’s step, it’s important to know that they can have side effects. Your veterinarian will need to run blood tests every few months to make sure your dog’s liver and kidneys aren’t suffering any adverse effects. Read the package insert and ask your veterinarian about potential side effects so you can be on the lookout for signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, appetite loss and lethargy. Also, never give your pet NSAIDs intended for humans, they can seriously harm your cat or dog.

Dogs with arthritis may also benefit from other types of drug therapy; talk to your veterinarian about your options. Weight loss (if your dog is chubby), acupuncture and massage may also help provide pain relief for some pets.


It might seem as if more dogs are getting cancer, but part of that is because our dogs are living longer. We tend to see an increase in the incidence of cancer the older dogs get. The most common cancers in dogs are lymphoma, osteosarcoma, soft tissue cancers, oral melanoma and mammary cancer.

Take your dog to the veterinarian stat if you notice any of the following warning signs of cancer: loss of appetite or weight loss, lumps or bumps that increase in size or sores that don’t heal, bleeding or other discharge from the mouth, nose, or anus or unusual body odor. A dog with cancer may also exhibit a noticeable lack of energy, have difficulty eating or swallowing, unexplained lameness that doesn’t improve or difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Also known as senility, cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is a degenerative change in the brain that causes your dog to become anxious, forgetful or confused. You may notice that he has potty accidents in the house when he never did before, wanders aimlessly or gets “stuck” in corners or sleeps more. He might not meet you at the door when you come home from work the way he used to do.

Although it can’t be cured, CDS can sometimes be managed with medication, environmental changes and behavior modification techniques. Your veterinarian should examine your dog to make sure his symptoms aren’t being caused by another health problem, such as arthritis or a urinary tract infection. Once those are ruled out, your vet may prescribe medications that can help. In addition, you can make it easier for your dog to avoid potty accidents by taking him outdoors more often or installing a pet door.

Dental Disease

Is your dog picking up his food and then dropping it or having trouble chewing? There’s a good chance he has painful periodontal disease, a common problem in senior dogs. Plaque and tartar can build up heavily over the years, especially if teeth aren’t brushed or professionally cleaned on a regular basis. 

Schedule a thorough cleaning, and then follow up by brushing your dog’s teeth every day to keep them clean. I do it, and I know you can, too. Keeping the teeth and gums healthy is an important part of keeping your dog in sparkling good health.

Failing Vision

You may begin to notice that your dog is more hesitant when he moves around, especially in the dark. That’s often a sign of vision loss.

Cataracts, dry eye and nuclear sclerosis are among the eye conditions that can affect older dogs. Look for signs, such as a white cloudiness in the pupil (cataracts), a bluish haze in the pupil (nuclear sclerosis), or generalized redness, discharge and frequent eye infections (signs that could indicate dry eye or a variety of other conditions).

Medication can help with dry eye, depending on the type and severity of the problem. Cataracts can be removed surgically, but our dogs get around so well using their sense of smell that it’s often not necessary. Just remember not to move the furniture around, or he might bonk his head.

Hearing Loss

Remember how your grandma used to send you to get your grandpa for lunch because he didn’t hear her call? You may have noticed the same thing happening with your dog. The sense of hearing begins to go with age; it’s just a fact of life.

You can’t purchase hearing aids for your deaf dog — yet — but you can still communicate with him. Teach hand signals, stomp your foot so he feels the vibrations and knows you are nearby or use the time-honored method of going to him to alert him that it’s dinnertime. He’ll appreciate it.

Heart Disease

An old dog’s heart is willing, but it doesn’t always tick the way it used to. Alert your veterinarian if your dog seems to tire more rapidly than normal, even with mild exercise. Other signs that are cause for concern include coughing, especially during the night, and difficulty breathing. Severe breathing issues — especially if you notice a bluish appearance to the gums or tongue — require an emergency trip to the vet. Depending on the problem, your veterinarian may prescribe medication or a special diet to help manage the condition.


As dogs get older, their levels of thyroid hormone can drop, leading to a condition called hypothyroidism. Signs you may notice include skin and coat problems, weight gain for no good reason, loss of energy and mental dullness.

To diagnose hypothyroidism, your veterinarian will run blood tests to measure the levels of thyroid hormones in the body. If your dog is running low, the treatment is easy, but long-term: a daily pill containing synthetic thyroid hormone for the rest of his life.

Kidney Disease

Kidney failure is a common problem veterinarians see in older dogs. Kidney function can be as much as 75 percent destroyed by the time signs become obvious, so it’s a good idea to schedule a regular geriatric exam, starting early in your dog’s golden years. Blood work and a urinalysis can help your veterinarian detect signs that kidney function is deteriorating. Kidney failure isn’t reversible, but in many cases diet, IV fluid therapy and sometimes, medication and certain vitamin and fatty acid supplements can help manage the condition and add months or years to your dog’s life.

Last but not least, one of the best ways to ward off disease or limit its effects is to keep your dog at a healthy weight throughout his life. In one study, maintaining a lean body condition added as much as two years a dog’s lifespan. That’s a goal to shoot for!

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