As I'm sure you know, older dogs are far more prone to certain medical issues than younger pups. Knowing what to watch out for can go a long way toward giving your companion the best life possible. So, with that in mind, I put together this guide to the most common health issues in senior dogs. It doesn't replace your vet's medical advice, but it will help you pay closer attention and, hopefully, catch any conditions before they become too serious.
Before we begin, let me just clarify that these are the most common health issues in senior dogs. They're far from the only potential issues. Just as with humans, dogs can suffer from a near-infinite number of issues as they get older. So if your pooch seems off at all, even if his symptoms don't match any of the conditions below, call your vet asap. Got it? Good. Let's dive in.
Oh, one last note: This post includes affiliate links where we recommend products to help keep your pup healthier. If you buy anything through these links, SeniorPups earns a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!
Did you know that an incredible 80% of all dogs over age three suffer from some sort of periodontal disease? That's the bad news. The good news? It's almost entirely preventable AND treatable! I should also mention that the 80% statistic encompasses ALL dental issues, ranging from severe tooth decay to a mild case of bad breath, so it's not quite as horrific as it sounds.
Dental problems in dogs can be the result of so many different things, ranging from diet to genetics. Of course, like humans, it can also be the result of poor oral hygiene, which causes plaque and tartar buildup on your pup's teeth.
Plaque's a sticky substance made up of bacteria that forms on your dog's teeth. Just like with people, if it's not removed it hardens into tartar. That's where the real problems begin. A buildup of tartar can cause everything from bad breath and mild gingivitis (characterized by inflammation around the base of the tooth) to severe tooth decay and painful gum disease.
Left unchecked, those can in turn lead to difficulty chewing, loss of appetite, weight loss, abscesses (pockets of infection), and tissue damage leading to tooth loss. So, dental disease is a very serious problem that should be addressed as soon as possible. Some signs to watch out for include:
As I mentioned earlier, though, dental disease is one of the few health issues in senior dogs that you can almost entirely prevent (barring any genetic issues). Regular checkups that include teeth cleanings are vital. In between visits, you can help keep Fido's mouth healthy by regularly brushing his teeth and giving him dental treats (like these vet-approved chews) instead of regular bones.
As with people, arthritis is a common condition that can affect any dog at any time, but it's especially common in older dogs. This degenerative disease is a painful condition that causes stiffness and swelling of the joints. In dogs, it typically affects their hips, elbows, and back. There are several different types, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, septic arthritis, and osteochondritis dissecans. Out of all of the common health issues in senior dogs, arthritis is one that almost all of our pups will have to deal with. So, let's talk about it in a bit more detail.
Arthritis can be caused by many different things, including genetics; injury to the joint; infection in the joint; overuse of joints (like jumping up on furniture); obesity (which puts extra strain on joints); or other diseases like hip dysplasia or panosteitis (a bone disease).
It's also common in dogs with chondrodysplasia (short legs), such as Dachshunds, Corgis, Basset Hounds, Frenchies, and Pugs. Chondrodystrophy, a condition caused by a separate genetic mutation and characterized by short legs plus intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) can also cause arthritis in senior dogs.
Pain is the most common symptom, especially when your dog gets up from a nap or while walking around on a hard surface. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to identify when your dog is in pain. Not only are they unable to tell you that they're hurt, but most dogs will actively hide their pain. If you pay close attention, though, you'll notice that he's less active, slower to stand up or lay down, and whines or winches with certain movements.
Other symptoms of dog arthritis include:
While some vets can diagnose arthritis based on symptoms and a routine examination, a definitive diagnosis requires more in-depth testing. Your vet may run a blood test called the Canine trypsinogen-like immunoassay and/or order x-rays to look for signs of joint damage. If neither of those tests provides enough information, your vet may move on to more in-depth diagnostic tools, such as an MRI or CT scan.
Treatment depends on the type of arthritis affecting your dog, and only your vet can determine the best course of action. Typically, though, treatment includes pain medication, physical therapy & exercise, massage therapy, and even hydrotherapy (swimming).
You can also talk to your vet about using a hip and joint supplement. There are a lot on the market to choose from, but I really like Hemp & Hips Plus CBD from Vet Naturals. It's 100% natural and made in the USA. Along with joint-supporting supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin, it also contains CBD oil and turmeric to help alleviate pain.
Sensory decline is a catchall phrase that covers everything from mild hearing and vision loss to more severe issues like Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), which is very similar to dementia or Alzheimer's disease in humans. Since it encompasses such a massive variety of ailments, it's hard to pinpoint one specific cause. In most cases, these changes are simply a normal part of aging, although genetics can play a role in determining when and how severe it starts to happen.
Since it's such a vague term, the signs of sensory decline vary depending on what's affected. For example, if your dog's eyes start "going," you may notice her bumping into objects around the house or moving more slowly as she tries to adjust to her lack of peripheral vision. For hearing issues, she may not respond when you call her name or may stop racing into the kitchen every time she hears a bag rustle.
If your pup shows signs of vision or hearing loss, there are things you can do to make life easier for her. For example, if she has a hard time seeing, you can move obstacles out of her path so she can navigate her environment with a bit more ease. If you know she's having a hard time hearing, you could train her using visual cues rather than verbal ones. Brain games and puzzle toys are also great tools for keeping your pup's mind sharp.
If your dog shows signs of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, however, you'll need to take things a bit further to make her life as comfortable as possible. You'll definitely need to talk to your vet to determine the best course of action. As of right now, there's only one medication that's approved for CDS treatment in dogs.
Just like heart disease is the #1 killer in humans, heart problems are among the most common cause of death in senior dogs. The good news is that as with people, they can be managed with medications and diet.
Heart disease occurs when fatty deposits build up within the heart muscle itself. This can lead to arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), congestive heart failure, and weakness of the muscles that pump blood through the body. The signs are similar to those seen in people: shortness of breath, fatigue, weight loss or gain and fainting spells.
While not specifically a heart disease per so, heartworms are another concern for older dogs. These nasty little parasites are transmitted by mosquito bites. They enter your pup's bloodstream and, as the name implies, make their way to his heart. As they grow, they block off blood flow throughout your dog's heart and lungs. This, in turn, leads to severe respiratory distress.
The bad news is that active infections aren't that easy to treat. The good news is that heartworm is entirely preventable with medication. So, even if Fido doesn't spend as much time outdoors as he used to, make sure you're keeping up with his heartworm preventative.
While heart disease is one of the most common fatal conditions in senior dogs, cancer is THE #1 cause of death in ALL dogs worldwide. In fact, some estimate that it affects 20% of dogs.
Dr. Jennifer Edwards, a veterinarian at Ponemah Veterinary Hospital in Amherst, New Hampshire, explains, "Cancer is affecting our pets at alarming rates, and it is devastating for both the families of these pets as well as the pets themselves."
As with people (see, we're not so different from our pups after all when it comes to health issues), there are a number of different types and stages of cancer in canines. However, skin cancers and mast cell tumors are the most common.
Fortunately, they're also easily treatable with surgery if they're caught early enough. Sadly, though, many pet owners don't realize that there's an issue until it's too late, especially with super fluffy pups.
If you see any of these signs, don't panic. Many of them can indicate something far less terrifying than cancer. Just get your dog to the vet asap for a checkup. That way, if it is the worst-case scenario you'll have a far better chance of catching it early and getting your pup treatment.
Treating cancer in dogs is very similar to treating it in humans. As with people, it depends entirely on the type, location, and severity of the disease. Your vet will go over all of your options, but they include:
If you're looking for ways to prevent your dog from getting cancer, there are some things you can do. Feeding a high-quality diet that doesn't contain preservatives or artificial flavors and colors is one of them. Giving your pet plenty of exercise will also help lower their risk of developing cancer. Keep in mind, however, that genetics plays a huge role in determining whether or not a dog will develop cancer.
Vision loss is another common health issue that's hard to avoid. While some mild eye deterioration falls under "sensory decline," true vision loss encompasses a wider range of conditions that can cause complete blindness.
Some of these conditions include cataracts (clouding), macular degeneration (the breakdown of cells in the central area of the retina), and glaucoma. These can be detected through an eye exam from your veterinarian.
I recommend checking out our article on the causes of vision loss in senior dogs to learn more. For now, let's look at some general signs.
If you think your dog is losing his vision, look for these signs:
It’s important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other health issues, so it’s imperative to take your dog to the vet if you notice any changes in her vision. Your vet will perform an eye exam and may recommend further testing such as bloodwork and an MRI if they suspect another health issue is causing your dog’s vision problems.
While treating your pup's actual medical condition is something you'll need to talk to your vet about, there are some general things you can do to make your dog's life easier. Senior pups can benefit from a slower pace and a little extra TCL. If you adopt an older dog or have one of your own that's approaching his golden years, here are some things to keep in mind:
Senior dogs may be less able to get around as easily as they once did—or at least not for as long. Pay attention to how much exercise and outdoor time your senior dog needs every day (you'll probably want to spend more time with them on walks).
While regular vet visits are important at any age, they're absolutely 100% no negotiation vital to your senior dog's overall well-being. Many of the health issues mentioned above can come on suddenly and escalate even faster. Early treatment is key to ensuring that your pooch lives as long as possible AND as comfortably as possible.
Yes, senior dogs need more attention than younger ones do—but they still can have a high quality of life. Don't assume that your pooch doesn't want to play anymore just because she's a bit slower than she used to be. My German Shepherd loved playing fetch right up until her 14th birthday. She just couldn't chase the ball quite as far as she could in her youth.
Common health issues in senior dogs include arthritis, periodontal disease, weight loss, diabetes, urinary incontinence, kidney disease, cancer, cognitive decline, vision and hearing loss, and heart disease.
Signs of pain in senior dogs may include whimpering, reluctance to move, changes in appetite, changes in behavior, changes in posture, panting, excessive licking, and limping.
Senior dogs may have special dietary needs, such as lower-calorie food, a higher-fiber diet, and foods that are easier to digest. They may also require additional nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin.
Low-impact activities such as walking, swimming, and short play sessions are good exercise options for senior dogs. It is important to ensure that your senior dog is not over-exerting herself and to adjust the duration and intensity of the exercise accordingly.
There are a variety of aids available to help senior dogs with mobility issues, such as ramps, steps, and harnesses. Talk to your veterinarian about what type of aid would be best for your senior dog.
Depending on your senior dog's health needs, your veterinarian may recommend giving supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin, probiotics, or joint support supplements.
Signs of cognitive decline in senior dogs may include disorientation, confusion, changes in sleep patterns, increased anxiety, changes in behavior, and difficulty learning new things.
Treatment for incontinence in senior dogs may involve changing their diet, providing them with medication, or providing them with aids such as diapers. Talk to your veterinarian about what treatment plan would be best for your senior dog.
Signs of vision or hearing loss in senior dogs may include difficulty navigating, confusion, reluctance to move, changes in behavior, and changes in sleep patterns.
Overall, senior dogs can be a joy to have in your life. They’re often calmer and more content, which makes them great companions. But they do need extra special love and care. If you happen to own a senior dog and are interested in learning more about their health issues, it’s important that you talk to your vet before making any decisions about treatment options.