Is Your Dog a Senior?

Older dogs have a lot to offer.
Photos by Jane Sobel Klonsky, Project Unconditional

Just like people, dogs slow down with age. But how do you know if your dog is a senior? And what can you expect as he gets older? Similar to people, aging in dogs is highly variable based on dog breed, size, health, and environment. But there are some universal signs to watch for that indicate your dog is getting older, and steps you can take to ensure he enjoys his golden years healthfully and comfortably.

How Old Is a Senior Dog?

Traditionally, we often use the familiar equation 1 dog year = 7 human years to determine when a dog becomes a senior. While this calculation is a helpful reminder that your seven-year-old dog is no longer the whippersnapper he once was, it’s important to know it’s a general guideline only. When your dog becomes a senior depends upon his size; on average, small and medium dogs live longer than large dogs. A healthy 10-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi, for example, is approximately 56 to 60 in human years, while the human age of a 10-year-old German Shepherd Dog is between 66 and 68. Giant dogs have the shortest canine life spans, with breeds such as St. Bernards and Great Danes rarely living beyond age 10.

How to Tell a Dog’s Age

The best way to tell your dog’s age is through your own observations and regular checkups at the veterinarian’s. Like humans, dogs today live longer than ever due to advances in medicine, nutrition, and safety gear. The focus has shifted to your dog’s health span above and beyond his lifespan. The goal is not simply extending your four-legged friend’s geriatric years, but extending the years he is thriving and enjoying life to the fullest. Doing this requires knowing your dog, watching for changes in his physical health and behavior, and recognizing the signs of aging.

Signs Your Dog Is Aging

Eventually, every dog gets older and begins to show signs of aging. Here are the key indications your dog is entering his senior years:

  • Graying muzzle and facial fur
  • Slower movements
  • Reduced activity
  • Housetraining accidents
  • Shifts in behavior, such as confusion and not responding to common commands
  • Difficulty sitting and lying down, and difficulty getting up again
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Eating less
  • Bad breath
  • Coat and skin problems
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Increased digestive issues, such as gas and constipation

While many of these symptoms are the natural consequences of aging, many indicate common ailments in senior dogs. But caring for your senior dog can slow or even improve many canine age-related conditions. These are the main areas of concern for older dogs:

Joint Ailments

Though osteoarthritis and hip dysplasia can afflict young dogs, age is a risk factor for both joint ailments. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage protecting your dog’s joints begins to deteriorate, causing painful bone-on-bone rubbing. In hip dysplasia, the “ball” of your dog’s femur doesn’t fit properly into the hip socket, also causing painful bone-against-bone rubbing.

To prevent and manage joint ailments, keep your senior dog at a healthy weight. It’s also important to provide him a comfortable environment that protects his joints from further damage. Orthopedic dog beds are an important first line of defense against joint deterioration in older dogs. They protect your dog’s sensitive joints from the cold, which worsens symptoms, and gently reduce pressure on his joints. Dog ramps and stairs help him reach his cozy spots on the bed or couch, while carpeted floors prevent him from slipping and straining.


Optimal nutrition for older dogs is different than for younger dogs. Your senior dog requires fewer calories as he moves less and his metabolism slows. At the same time, he’ll likely need highly digestible proteins and fats that maintain muscle mass, and more fiber to prevent constipation. A specialized diet will help prevent the weight gain that is common in older dogs, and ensure he gets the vitamins, fats, fiber, and minerals he requires.

Before switching your dog to a senior diet, talk with your veterinarian about the most healthful diet for your dog’s unique needs.

Cognitive Decline

Most older dogs lose some of their mental sharpness. But dementia (Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome) in dogs has more serious symptoms and requires extra treatment and management. Bring your dog to the veterinarian if you notice heightened irritability and anxiety, constant licking, ignoring common commands, disorientation, and the sudden onset of ‘going’ indoors. The vet may suggest nutritional supplements to help slow cognitive decline. At home, provide your dog with frequent games in the yard, obedience training, and regular exercise, which offer mental stimulation that can prevent or delay the onset of dementia.

Dental Issues

The risk of cavities and gum disease increases in senior dogs, and proper dental care is critical as your dog ages. Gum disease is preventable, and is a risk factor for heart, kidney, and liver ailments. Continue brushing your dog’s teeth every day, be attentive to foul doggy breath, and watch for issues such as cracked teeth, redness, bleeding, or inflammation. Chew toys and dog treats can help clean his teeth and promote gum health.

Vision Loss

Older dogs are prone to cataracts and cloudiness of the eye lens, known as lenticular sclerosis. Surgery can help improve severe or partial blindness caused by cataracts, while cloudiness usually results in only mild vision loss. Help your vision-impaired dog navigate the homestead by clearing floors and resisting the urge to rearrange the furniture.


Approximately 50 percent of dogs above the age of 10 are diagnosed with canine cancer. Check your dog regularly for unusual bumps or lumps, and watch for sudden weight loss, low energy, loss of appetite, and resistance to exercise.

The pace of life slows as your dog transitions from middle age to his senior years. Walks become more leisurely and snuggles last a bit longer. How you care for your dog also shifts as you watch for senior dog health issues. But some things must remain steadfastly the same: your dedication to your dog’s comfort and happiness, and your undying love for your best friend.

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