Older dogs: what to expect, how to deal

Lily will be 12 in February, and Cash 9 in August. My dogs are officially elderly (not that they’d believe you if you said it!). If you know your dog’s history, you’re probably going to have a decent idea of how they age. I may not know if Cash is going to get arthritis, but I do know he’s had a good diet with supplements and exercise all his life, which decreases the chances of aliments in general.

But what about those people who don’t know their dog’s history, or who maybe only learned later that diet and exercise can make a difference? What can you expect if you rescue an older dog?

Dog abilities change as they age; that’s no surprise. The behavior can change, too. Dogs are like people; some get less energetic, others retain their energy, some minds slow down, others don’t, some bodies break down, others stay healthy. We’re going to take a look at some of the things you can probably expect, and what to watch for.

Physically

Physically, dogs suffer from all the same ailments that people do. By the time a dog is 7, they’re considered a senior, equivalent from a biological perspective to a fifty-year-old human. (I know, we humans don’t feel senior at fifty! Dogs don’t feel senior at 7, either, but that’s when arthritis and the ilk set in.)

If you haven’t started supplements, now is the time. I recommend Dasuquin, for the way it removed Lily’s minor hip dysplasia (started when she was 9), and fish oil for the joint lubrication and mental sharpening facilities.

You might notice that whereas your dog could play fetch for four hours straight before, he can still play fetch for four hours straight… but now he’s stiff the next day. Watch for these types of things. Like us people, it might be fun to do something like that, but it’s not healthy. Unlike us people, dogs don’t stop and think of the consequences. Start cutting back on your dog’s behalf, if necessary. (Note: dogs can have one coated Aspirin every 24 hours. If you’re needing to give them more than once a month, though, take your dog to the vet and get some proper doggie pain meds.)

By the time most dogs are 9, age is noticeable. Cash, for instance, didn’t jump high enough to get into my van the other day. After that, he was hesitant to try again, and needed the confidence boost of a running start. He’s missed before (usually for reasons like not waiting until I moved something), but he’s never felt particularly hesitant afterward. This is my cue: his body isn’t working like he expects, and it’s startling to him. I’ve made a mental note, now, to keep an eye on how often I ask him to get in and out on a given work day. This is a consideration I already take for Lily (who can get in and out 3-5 times, depending on the day, but after that might need a hand).

Some time in here you’ll also often see fatty lumps on your dog. Have them checked out, but know that often they’re benign tumors. Warts appear as well, and have those checked out, too.

As your dog gets sore easier or surprises herself with NOT being able to get in the car, make sure you’re going for walks. Like people, dogs do better with steady, low-impact exercise. I’ve had to recently make it a point to take Cash and Lily for walks, instead of using work as their exercise, even though work is, in many ways, enough. They need help building muscle and keeping lean now, in a way they didn’t when they were younger.

Dogs are going to stay strong or deteriorate at their own rate. Our job is to keep watch, because they can’t tell us when something is wrong. Once a dog reaches 10, if you have no health issues, give yourself a pat on the back. Things are going remarkably well!

Mentally

Mentally, it’s a different ballgame. As your dog ages, they’re most likely going to become less tolerant of whippersnappers (both human and canine). If you have a young creature in the house, protect the dog. They didn’t choose to have this critter join them, and grandparents shouldn’t have to babysit if they don’t want to!

If you haven’t taught your dog how to retreat when annoyed, now is the time. Set up a safe space for your older dog, where they can go and be left alone. When they retreat from annoyance, reward them. When they don’t, show them how. (You can tell if a dog is stressed because the ears pinch, the whites of the eyes show, and they pant heavily. For photos of this, check for stress in the body language tag. If your dog is showing any of these signs around a whippersnapper, remove your dog.)

As they become less steady or more arthritic, they may also become more defensive of their personal space. Often, the first inclination we have that our dogs are uncomfortable is when they get snappy in situations that they’d been fine in, before. (I jokingly refer to this as “cranky old dog syndrome.” “I don’t want to deal with whippersnappers, I’m sore and don’t want them near me, and they need to GET OFF MY LAWN!”) While supplements or pain killers might help, you want to make darn sure that you also keep your dog from being jumped on. Just because they don’t feel pain doesn’t mean it won’t damage them.

A playful elderly dog will most likely shift to tug of war, or standing in one place wagging and occasionally snapping playfully while the younger dogs run around them. That’s fine! If they’re enjoying it, encourage it. The more active your older dog stays, the healthier they will stay as well.

You’ll see odd habit changes, too. Cash has decided he’d rather sleep in Lily’s smaller beds with the bumpers than his own large bed or on the floor. It’s entirely likely that his joints are getting achy on the floor, or he’s getting tired holding himself in a ball instead of letting the bumpers on the bed do it. (I bought two more beds so they can always have one.)

You might see your dog get needy. This can be a sign of discomfort somewhere, but it can also be a reaction to being unable to do the things they used to. Keep a schedule that your dog can keep up with (this might include daily walks that are shorter than they used to be), so that your dog knows the rules are still the same. Let your dog know that the rules are still the same! Maybe now we have stairs to get onto the bed, but they still have to ask before coming up, for instance. You might have to adjust the way you do things; if you normally bump your dog out of the way when they jump on you, you might need to shift to using a squirt bottle to keep from tweaking joints.

Finally, while some dogs slow down mentally, not all of them do. Bones, toys, puzzle bowls, kongs — all of these are things that will help keep a dog mentally sharp, even if they move a little more stiffly than they used to.

Watch for physical and behavioral changes, and find a way to work around them. If your dog suddenly has a major behavioral or physical change, call the vet and then, if needed, call a dog trainer. The biggest thing with age is to make sure it’s not a physical issue before working with the behavior!

As for when all of this happens, any of it can happen any time after 7. What order it happens in, or if it happens at all, depends on the dog, their history, and their genetics. The important part is to love your dog, and remember: they’ve earned their assisted living apartment!

Jenna

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