Rates of aging vary by breed and size. Smaller dogs generally have longer lifespans than larger breeds, although each individual dog ages differently. Usually, the larger the dog, the sooner it begins aging. Some giant breeds can show signs of aging as early as 5 to 6 years, and some toy breeds show no signs of aging until they are 11.
The folk tale that dogs age seven years for every calendar year is inaccurate. It's more accurate to think of dogs as being equivalent to teenagers by their first birthday, in their mid-20s by age 2, and then aging about four human years per calendar year after that. So a 3-year-old dog is about like a 28-year-old person, and a 12-year-old dog is comparable to a 64-year-old.
Once you know how "old" your dog is, you can devise a senior health plan with your vet to minimize the impositions of aging and prolong the time you and your dog have together.
Signs of Aging
As your dog grows older, look for signs like the hair around his muzzle turning gray, and his dash to the door taking a bit longer when you take out the leash. Other signs of aging to watch for include:
- Weight gain. A dog's metabolism slows as she ages. She may also be less active than she was in her younger days. If your dog is living like a senior and eating like a middle-aged dog, the odds are your dog will become overweight. Your vet may recommend adjusting the amount of food and adding a vitamin supplement to compensate for the loss of nutrients in a smaller portion. A geriatric dog food is another option your vet may suggest. If your dog experiences a rapid, sudden weight loss, take her to the vet immediately.
- Hearing loss. If your dog does not respond when you call his name or issue verbal commands, or if she barks suddenly for no apparent reason, she may be experiencing hearing loss. Take her to your vet to determine whether she does have a hearing loss and how severe it is. A hearing-impaired dog can respond to hand signals and touch, and care should be taken not to startle her awake or approach her from behind.
- Impaired vision. If you see that your dog's eyes are growing cloudy, take her to your vet. A bluish cast can be a normal consequence of aging and not affect eyesight. A hazy, whitish growth can indicate cataracts that can lead to blindness. Help your dog cope with a loss of vision by not rearranging furniture or redecorating; a change in the environment can cause stress and confusion.
- Increased elimination. In his younger days, your dog might have been able to let you sleep in, but many senior dogs need to relieve themselves as soon as they wake up. Notify your vet when you see a change in your dog's elimination patterns; incontinence can be a sign of kidney disease, hormone imbalance, or other medical conditions. For a dog who has become incontinent when he sleeps, place a plastic sheet over his bedding and cover it with a washable pad.
- Less energy, reduced mobility. Your older dog may tire more easily and nap more often. Stiffness in her legs, hips, and shoulders can be a result of the aging process or signs of arthritis. Lung or cardiac problems can also make exercise difficult. Have your vet make an evaluation and decide on a course of treatment. If your dog's mobility is limited, she still needs exercise; walk a little slower and enjoy the journey.
- Thinner coat, thicker skin. A dog's coat grows thinner and dull as he ages and the hair around his muzzle and ears grays. Your dog's skin will thicken and become less elastic. Examine your dog frequently for lumps on or under the skin; most lumps are harmless fatty deposits, but they could be signs of tumors, cysts, or cancer.
Your dog has given you a lifetime of adoration -- now is the time to show your appreciation for a job well done. While you can't reverse the effects of aging for your pet, you can make them more bearable.
- Adapt the indoors. Bare floors and throw rugs can be slippery. Short nails help your dog keep his grip on bare floors, and you can also put nonskid matting under rugs. Steep stairs can also lead to falls; Dr. Robert Culver of the Heartland Animal Hospital in Des Moines suggests blocking off such areas so the dog can't go up or down. Elevated food and water bowls and insulated, cushioned beds can make life more comfortable for your dog and are available at pet supply stores. Keep his bed in a warm, dry place away from drafts.
- Reduce outdoor hazards. To avoid wintertime falls, "watch out for ice on porches and decks," says Dr. Culver. Also, senior dogs have less tolerance for extreme temperatures; they should not be left outdoors in hot or cold weather.
- Continue regular grooming. Proper nail, tooth, ear, and skin care and frequent brushing help maintain your dog's good health and appearance. You can continue to give your older dog regular baths; just be sure to dry him off thoroughly so he doesn't get chilled.
- Medical care. To make the most of your dog's senior years, schedule a thorough yearly exam so your vet can check for vision and hearing loss, as well as and heart disease, and take blood to monitor the liver, kidneys, and pancreas.
- Routines. Consistent mealtimes, rest time, walks, and play periods are especially comforting to your dog as she ages. Try to avoid disruptions in your dog's daily routine. Since being in a strange environment can be disorienting and stressful, traveling may not be an option for a senior dog.
- TLC. Just like humans, dogs need extra tender loving care as they adjust to the changes that accompany aging. You can ease your dog through these transitions with patience, attention and affection.