When Is a Dog Considered a Senior?

According to guidelines published by Tufts University, "The point at which a dog qualifies as 'aged' varies. Veterinarians generally consider small dogs to be senior citizens at about 12 years of age, while large dogs reach the senior stage at 6 to 8 years of age. This roughly corresponds to the 55-plus category in people."

Beyond actual age, however, there are signs and behaviors that can, as you say, clue owners into the aging process of dogs. The Senior Dogs Project says that one of the first signs of aging in dogs is slowing down. Basic movements like getting up and climbing stairs may take a while longer, which may be evidence of possible internal changes, such as arthritis.

While we cannot prevent such physical changes from occurring, we can help to slow their rate. Robin Downing, DVM, of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo., shared a story with HealthyPet Magazine about a dog named Molly: “Molly wasn’t leaping on and off the beds anymore, and she didn’t want to go for long walks. Her family was worried that this dog had just suddenly succumbed to old age, but when I did a geriatric workup on her, we discovered Molly had a thyroid condition and arthritic back pain. A maintenance prescription of thyroid replacement hormone, pain and anti-inflammatory medication for the osteo-arthritis in her back, and Molly was back in business.”

Downing described a particular medical course of action for Molly, but there are some more general things you can do to stave off aging and related diseases. According to the Senior Dogs Project, these steps include:

  • Keeping your dog’s weight down (through good nutrition and regular exercise)
  • Keeping its teeth clean
  • Taking it to the vet for regular checkups
  • Being observant about symptoms that might indicate a health problem and getting prompt and appropriate veterinary attention

The good news is that dogs are now living longer, higher-quality lives. With good genes, good care and some good luck, there’s an excellent chance that your senior dog still has many more years left to enjoy with you.

Healthy Nutrition for Your Senior Dog

Are you feeding your dog age-appropriate food? As a general rule, dogs are considered to be mature when they reach 7 years of age, and true seniors at around age 11. Large breeds skew a little earlier, and small breeds skew later. While 7 might seem like a young age to change the food of a dog that’s still active and playful, experts say looks can be deceiving. “Aging brings with it physiological changes. Some are obvious, others are not,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian and technical services veterinarian for Iams who specializes in diet and nutrition. “Skin and hair coat changes may be obvious, while lean muscle mass loss and digestive or immune system failing may be less evident or hidden. Changes also include joint/mobility/flexibility concerns and oral health.”

Dog Food for Mature Dogs

Some dog foods tailored to seniors may offer lower calorie levels, which are appropriate for an assumed decrease in activity. But Dicke says food for active older dogs needs to provide enough calories and address the physiological changes happening inside. Ingredients to look for include: antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to help support waning immune system function; glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health; sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) for dental health; and prebiotics, like fructooligosaccharide (FOS), to support the digestive system. “A prebiotic fiber selectively feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and starves the bad bacteria,” says Dicke. “This can create an optimal environment in the gut that can promote better digestion and actually have an influence on the immune system, as 70 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract.”

The right protein is another important factor at this age, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian based in Alexandria, Va. “High protein in elderly dogs adds pressure on the aging kidneys. Low protein, conversely, doesn’t supply them with an adequate amount to preserve normal bodily functions, muscle mass or skin and coat. Therefore, moderate levels are ideal,” says Nelson.

How to Switch Foods
Both experts advise using the guidelines above as a starting point for discussions with your veterinarian, who should be involved in the decision to switch foods. From there, they suggest implementing the change slowly and gradually. Decide on a time period between seven and 10 days, and then give your dog a different mixture every few days. “The first two days, 25 percent of the current food volume should be replaced by the new food and gradually increase until your dog is eating 100 percent of the new product,” says Dicke.

As your dog gets even older and goes from the mature stage to the true senior stage, you may want to switch again to a food that suits a more sedentary lifestyle. That decision should be made with the close supervision of your veterinarian. If many of the early age-related changes may be hidden, the ones that follow into the senior years can be unpredictable. “Dogs, like people, age differently depending on their lifestyle and health condition,” says Nelson. Luckily, there’s likely to be a specialized food out there to help any dog age gracefully.

Senior Black Homeless Dogs in Crisis

For all dogs in shelters, the statistics are dismal. According to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year, with 3 to 4 million of those euthanized. Although some puppies are killed, younger animals most often steal the show at adoption events as adult dogs quietly sit alone. “Older animals, animals with special medical or behavioral needs, and the more plain and nondescript animals are more difficult to adopt than puppies and kittens,” says Inga Fricke, director of Sheltering and Pet Care Issues for the HSUS.

She further says that larger animals also tend to be more difficult to adopt than smaller dogs in part because of the “cuteness” factor, but also because many Americans tend to live in urban areas and perceive smaller dogs to be a better fit.

San Francisco SPCA spokeswoman Jennifer Lu says that her organization also has trouble finding homes for special-needs dogs, even if those needs are minimal. “Any factor adding a layer of responsibility may change the commitment level, with people concerned about the financial commitment,” explains Lu.

Black, Senior Dogs Are Often Overlooked
Stephen Musso, executive vice president of the ASPCA, says many shelters report that large, black dogs are often not adopted. Some shelters even have a name for the problem: “Big black dog syndrome.” Even if a black adult dog is in perfect health and has a sweet nature, it may still remain in a shelter.

One reason is simply that black dogs are more common, perhaps because this color is just genetically more dominant among canines. Old stereotypes may also be to blame, with “Beware of Dog” signs often showing big, menacing black dogs. Books and movies, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Harry Potter series, tend to present such dogs in a menacing light. The biggest reason may simply have to do with how well the dogs photograph. In this social media age, people often surf the Net before visiting shelters. Professional photographers aren’t always available to snap the most flattering shots of scared homeless canines, so some dogs disappear into dark backgrounds and poor lighting.

Turning the Tide
Groups across the country are trying to increase the rate of adoptions for all dogs, especially those that need the extra boost. Fricke shares that the HSUS has joined together with Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council to create the first-ever public advertising campaign to promote adoption: The Shelter Pet Project. Wyoming-based Black Dog Animal Rescue and other organizations are also building awareness while finding dogs homes.

There’s good reason to pay attention. As Fricke says, such frequently overlooked dogs often make better pets. “Older animals, for example, are beyond the annoying chewing stage, are typically fully trained and are much more ‘What you see is what you get’ than younger animals who have not fully developed their personalities yet,” says Fricke.

Christina Alvarez, executive director of Hopalong & Second Chance Animal Rescue in Oakland, Calif., adds that such dogs also tend to be:

  • Potty-trained
  • Reserved and well-behaved
  • Adapted to home life
  • Appreciative of love and care
  • Eager to bond with supportive owners

Lu, who has adopted three adult dogs, advises that anyone who desires a new pet “should go in with an open heart and open eyes. Rather than sticking to predetermined characteristics, make a love connection.”

Fricke agrees: “We would love for people to bear in mind that most pets wind up in shelters through no fault of their own -- not because they have problems, but simply because their owners had personal problems, such as they needed to move, had a new baby, etc. They are wonderful, family-ready pets who only need to be given an opportunity to show how wonderful they are.”

Top 5 Ways to Improve Life for Your Senior Dog

Staying in tune with your dog’s health and needs can make the difference in improving its quality of life as it ages. It doesn’t require great effort either, say dog owners and experts.

Manage Your Dog’s Senior Years

Five simple steps will help your furry friend age well:

1. Visit your veterinarian frequently. “Instead of seeing the veterinarian once per year, make an appointment every six months,” says Dr. Gary Ryder, a veterinarian and pet expert on JustAnswer. “This will help catch any diseases, tumors or ailments before they progress too much. Many times, we can catch something before it spreads and offer a cure, or at least greatly improve the quality of life.” Annual blood work will help you monitor the function of your dog’s internal organs. It’s smart to get a baseline blood panel when your dog is 7, the age most dogs are considered to be senior, advises Dr. Debbie Van Pelt of the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado.

You’ll also want to discuss with your veterinarian any aging issues related to your dog’s breed. Too often, says Van Pelt, dog owners assume there’s nothing a veterinarian can do for common aging problems, such as arthritis. However, you should know that many new medications, particularly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs designed for dogs and cats, have been developed in the last couple of decades. “We see a lot of older dogs and cats who have arthritis, and owners are giving them baby aspirin,” notes Van Pelt. “That’s really doing them a disservice.” Both you and your veterinarian should regularly evaluate your dog’s dental care as well. Poor dental hygiene can lead to gum disease and numerous health problems.

2. Watch your dog’s weight. An overweight dog is likely to suffer more mobility and health issues and find its quality of life to be diminished. Consider switching your dog to a high-quality commercial food that is designed for seniors and adjusting your pal’s calorie intake. It’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian about when to make the switch, since breeds age differently.

3. Keep your dog moving. Walk your dog regularly, alternating between short and long walks. Debra Atlas, an environmental journalist, also keeps her 15-year-old dog healthy with swimming, when it’s feasible. “There is essentially no impact on the joints, but it allows muscle activities and it burns calories,” says Atlas.

4. Maintain training. “As dogs get older, they will lose some of their sight and hearing,” says Ryder. “With that in mind, it’s nice to use hand signals and repetition so that they have a routine. This will help prevent wandering off and accidents due to any old age impairments.”

5. Modify your dog’s environment and activities. Your dog may still want to play but may no longer initiate activity, says Atlas. Know that though your dog is still a puppy at heart, its senior body can’t keep pace, says Sonia Singh, who blogs for Paw Posse, a retail website for big dogs. Be sensitive to how much your dog is able to do. Atlas has installed a dog ramp that enables Magic to descend the steps into her backyard. You might need to make other adjustments, such as moving the location of your dog’s bed for better access, says Van Pelt.

How ‘Adopt a Senior Pet’ Month Is Saving Lives

Each year, Adopt a Senior Pet Month, sponsored by Petfinder.com, grows in popularity and helps to save more and more older dogs from euthanasia in shelters. Adopting a senior dog can benefit shelters and your own home. Here’s how:

Bypass Puppy Training
Puppies offer their own playful companionship and charms, but they also can be high maintenance. “They have incredible energy and require a great deal of exercise,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center and Mobile Clinic Outreach Program. She says that puppies fly out the shelter doors, but owners may, in fact, do better with an adult or senior pet, depending on their particular lifestyle and needs.

Gain an Adult Family Member
Some people worry that senior pets come with problems, but healthy ones don’t often ask for much. They’re usually just looking for a warm place to sleep, companionship, good meals and plenty of love.

Buchwald agrees and walks the talk. She has two pets: an elderly cat and dog. She adds that some owners who take similar medications as their dogs do schedule med times with their pets. “My dog is on a glucosamine chondroitin supplement. A lot of people who also take this supplement for arthritis will take it when they give it to their dogs,” she says.

Senior Pets Are Still Active
Dogs, like humans, often live long, active and healthy lives well past reaching adulthood. “There’s a bias in our culture towards youth, and that extends to our pets,” says Buchwald. “People will fixate on wanting a kitten or puppy, when really their best match might be a senior dog.”

You May Save Money
Many shelters offer adult and senior animal adoption promotions. Check with your local shelter to see what it has in place. Some of the programs help to match senior people with senior pets. The Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends in Atlanta, for example, has a Silver Paws program for older adults who wish to adopt a senior pet. Silver Paws pays for all medical care and even later boarding for adopted dogs.

You can also save money on your medical bills with a senior pet. The Humane Society of the United States reports that the comforting presence of a dog can lower blood pressure and have additional cardiac benefits. Pets also help to ease loneliness, thereby promoting mental health too.

5 Tips on Caring for a Senior Dog

1. Feed your elderly dog a proper diet. “Veterinarians recommend senior diets for older dogs,” she says. Certain dogs may require other special diets if they have particular health issues.

2. Groom and bathe your dog regularly, per recommendations for its breed. If you use a professional groomer, make sure that he or she is informed of any health conditions, such as arthritis, which could require a more gentle touch.

3. Provide regular physical activity, following veterinary guidance.

4. Keep your home relatively quiet. “If your home is like Grand Central Station all of the time, your older dog is likely to become stressed out,” says Buchwald. Make sure your dog has a nice, peaceful spot to retreat to throughout the day.

5. Schedule regular veterinary visits. Prevention and early detection can help to save and extend lives.