The signs your dog is getting old are well worth knowing if you have a senior pup who’s entering into their golden years. From physical signs to mental and behavioral changes, the more tuned in you are to these signs the more you can help your canine companion to age gracefully.
Even with the most delicious and nutritious dog food that money can buy, a comfy bed, lots of physical and mental stimulation, and plenty of the longest lasting dog chews being dished out as treats, all dogs get old - but the rate at which they age will differ from breed to breed.
Large pups, like the Great Dane, are typically classified as seniors at around six years of age, while smaller breeds, like the Chihuahua, don’t normally get awarded the title of wise elder until around 10 years of age. Vets consider the final quarter of a dog's expected life to be their ‘senior’ years, and you can expect to see some changes in their health and behavior at this point.
It’s important to understand that your dog can be old and yet perfectly healthy, as aging itself is not a disease. However, many diseases are more common in old age and it’s worth being aware of the common symptoms and what you can do about them. Check out our guide to the best dog food for senior dogs or read on as vet Dr. Joanna Woodnutt shares the key signs your dog is getting old.
After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands, UK. Dr Woodnutt is specifically interested in consulting and helping her clients understand their pets better, whether it’s around medical problems such as dermatology, behavior, and nutrition.
1. They're getting stiff
You might have noticed your dog being a bit stiff in the mornings, or after getting up from rest and thought “bless him, he’s getting old!” However, according to a study published in the Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice journal, stiffness isn’t related to old age itself, but is actually a sign that they could be suffering from arthritis, a painful joint condition that affects 80% of dogs over the age of 8.
Whilst many dog owners think that stiffness is a normal part of aging, it’s better for them to see a vet to get some pain relief and other suggestions for easing arthritis pain. For example, buying them the best orthopedic dog bed, can usually soothe these signs your dog is getting old.
2. Going deaf
One of the big signs your dog is getting old is a lose of hearing to some extent, although it can sometimes be difficult to tell if they’re genuinely deaf or just have selective hearing in their old age – they seem to come running to the biscuit tin all the same!
Unless it’s accompanied by ear pain, a head tilt, or swellings of the skull, deafness isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. However, you might decide to stop letting your dog off the lead, or teach them some sign language commands.
3. Cloudy eyes and sight loss
Your dog’s eyes can cloud over in a condition called nuclear sclerosis – one of the more common signs your dog is getting old. Whilst this might look a bit like cataracts, due to the blue-white shine, it’s considered normal for older dogs. You may also notice your dog appearing to lose their sight, although this will be very gradual and most dogs with nuclear sclerosis will be able to see well for a long time.
Nuclear sclerosis is nothing to worry about, and vets don’t tend to recommend any treatment, as it’s a normal part of aging.
4. Dental disease and smelly breath
Dental disease and dog gum diseases can affect dogs of any age, but it gets more common and more serious as your dog ages. Smelly breath is often the first sign that pet parents spot, but if you get into the habit of examining your dog’s teeth regularly you’ll also notice green-grey tartar developing.
Dogs should have their teeth checked annually by a vet, and ideally should be cleaned under an anaesthetic. You might be worried about putting an older dog under anaesthetic for a dental, but if they’re otherwise healthy it’s usually the right call – dental disease is painful, and leads to increased likelihood of heart and kidney problems. Read our article on how to keep dog teeth clean for more advice.
5. Becoming forgetful
According to the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, canine dementia (properly called ‘canine cognitive dysfunction’ or CCD) affects somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 2 dogs over the age of 8, becoming more common as dogs get older. Symptoms include forgetfulness, anxiety, changes in behaviour, and changes in sleep-wake pattern. Developing CCD is definitely a sign that your dog has reached his senior years.
Many dogs can improve with treatment using brain-boosting supplements. You can also keep your dog’s brain active by playing games and giving food puzzles – the canine equivalent of a Sudoku.
6. Weight changes
You may also notice your dog’s shape changing as they age. One of the signs your dog is getting old is that their metabolism slows down, making it easier for them to gain weight, and they’ll start to lay down fat at the expense of muscle. Conversely, elderly dogs might have less of an appetite and be less efficient at digestion, causing them to lose weight. Many diseases of old age can cause weight loss, although arthritis can cause dogs to become reluctant to exercise, causing weight gain.
Whilst weight changes aren’t exclusive to the elderly dog, old dogs are more prone to unexplained weight changes than younger dogs are. If you notice weight gain in your dog ask your vet for advice on the best dog food for senior dogs. If you notice weight loss, a vet visit is in order to ensure there’s nothing stopping him from being able to gain weight.
7. Getting out of breath
Young dogs seem to be able to run all day and barely break out into a pant. Your older dog, on the other hand, may struggle more and get out of breath more quickly. You may see this as lagging behind on walks.
This may be due to chronic lung conditions, heart changes, anaemia, or pain and stiffness causing reduced mobility. All of these are conditions for the vet to diagnose, so it’s best to book a check-up to make sure all is well.
8. Going grey
Many dogs with dark fur will turn grey as they age. This usually starts around the muzzle, but can also happen on the chest, neck, back, or legs.
Going grey is completely normal in dogs, and isn’t anything to worry about. It usually starts at around 7 or 8, but may be later in life.
There are lots of possible signs that your dog is getting old to look out for, but ultimately, you’re the one that knows your dog best. Whilst aging changes are inevitable, it’s best to visit the vet if any changes worry you, as many are signs of underlying diseases.
If you have a senior dog and want to help them stay as healthy and comfortable as possible in their golden years, be sure to check out our helpful guide to joint pain in dogs where we break down the causes and treatment options for conditions like arthritis.
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After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.