Changes to Expect as your Dog Grows Older

My oldest dog, Bashir, just celebrated his 12th birthday.

To mark this occasion we shared homemade dog biscuits with his canine friends. I’m sure he would have preferred keeping the treats all to himself, but we shared. It’s hard to watch my good dog grow older but thankfully, Bashir is a healthy 12 years old; he has some arthritis but is otherwise in great health. I have seen some changes as he’s grown older, however. Just as people change as they grow older, so do dogs. Many of these changes, which include physical, health, and emotional are fairly common and seen in dogs of all sizes and breeds.

Activity Level Decreases

Bashir still enjoys our walks, although I’m careful not to walk him during warm weather as he isn’t as comfortable exerting himself when it’s warm. Our walks are shorter, too, as he tires more quickly than he did when he was younger; keeping his body active and his joints moving is still very important.

He still loves to play, and he’ll often bring me a toy to play tug with or to throw. I’m thrilled to see this as a dog who wants to play is a happy dog.

My youngest dog, Bones, encourages Bashir to run and chase him every day and Bashir cooperates. Their chase games are great exercise. This past year, though, Bashir is chasing Bones for shorter runs and his speed has decreased; there is no way he can keep up with or catch Bones anymore.

The activity levels of most dogs will gradually slow as the dog ages. Some of this is due to muscle atrophy and is normal, but an older dog simply may not have the energy he had when he was younger. Since exercise is essential for good health, it’s important to encourage play and activities, but to let the dog establish his limits. When he gets tired or his energy runs out, sit down and relax with your dog.

Good Nutrition is Vital

Bashir has been eating The Honest Kitchen foods all his life and will continue to do so. The best food is one formulated for all life stages. This term, “All life stages” means your dog can eat it from puppyhood through old age and that’s what Bashir is doing. If you have any questions about what your dog should eat, talk to your veterinarian.

The amount you feed may change, however. As your dog’s activity rate lessens if the amount of food remains the same the dog will gain weight. So keep an eye on your dog’s weight and make changes in the amount of food fed as needed.

Some Senses Change

Although the senses of smell and taste seem to remain sharp for most older dogs, other senses can gradually change.

Hearing losses are common. Not all dogs will experience complete hearing loss, but many will lose some hearing. Often it’s in a certain frequency range, and you can determine this by experimenting with a variety of sounds. You may find your dog can no longer hear many sounds in the lower frequencies (deep voices, for example) but can hear higher frequencies (such as a whistle). Knowing what your dog can or can not hear will help you make adaptations for him. Maintaining communication with your older dog is important, both for his safety and to let him know he’s still loved.

Over this past year I’ve noticed a haze over Bashir’s pupils. He doesn’t have cataracts but instead, has lenticular stenosis. This blueish haze doesn’t affect his vision; Bashir can still see well, but the haze is visible to me when I look at his eyes in bright light. Cataracts and other vision problems can also occur as dogs age and these can affect his ability to see. If you notice anything different in your dog’s eyes, contact your veterinarian right away. Treatment can sometimes slow the progression of some vision problems.

©istockphoto/stonena7

©istockphoto/stonena7

Appearance Changes, Too

The first visible sign of the passing of time in many dogs is the appearance of gray hairs on the muzzle. Thankfully Bashir has a naturally white muzzle so his first gray hairs weren’t visible, but as he reached eight and nine years of age, the gray hairs crept up on his cheeks and showed up around his eyes. I also found stray gray hairs in his previously pure black coat. Although those gray hairs don’t bother Bashir at all, they bothered me; they were visible signs that he was growing older.

Besides gray hairs there are other visible physical changes that older dogs develop. Muscle atrophy, mentioned earlier, is usually seen first in the muscles of the back legs. The muscles are simply not as thick and dense as they were when the dog was young. Although severe muscle loss can be a sign of disease and needs to be checked out by the veterinarian, some mild and gradual muscle loss is a part of normal aging.

An older dog’s body shape often changes gradually over the years. His previous slim, tight waist may slacken and droop a bit. The skin around his neck and under his chin may also develop some slackness. He just won’t be as tight, taut, and fit as he used to be.

An old dog’s coat changes, too. If spayed or neutered, expect the coat to become thicker, heavier, and more dense. Bashir now has more coat than he’s ever had in his life. If your old dog’s coat gets thin, his skin is unhealthy, or you see any other problems with the skin and coat, contact your veterinarian as several geriatric health concerns can show up first in coat condition.

Emotions Reign

Bashir has always been my shadow, but I’ve found over the last few years that he’s even more of a shadow; he’d prefer to be with me all the time no matter what I’m doing. This is more common in older dogs than not. I don’t know if old dogs feel the passage of time and want to spend as much of the time they have left with us, but it make sense to me. I want to spend more time with Bashir, too.

Many old dogs seem to be more emotional at times than they used to be. They are more apt to protest being left alone or being excluded from activities. If a younger dog, a child, or even an adult handles the old dog too roughly, the old dog is more apt to protest (often loudly) the injustice.

However, just as the old dog is apt to protest injustices, he is also quick to show his happiness and pleasure. Belly rubs, cuddles, and playtime will all be joyfully acknowledged. Old dogs just don’t see the need to hide any emotions; emotions are to be shared.

Watch for Unexpected Changes

Although some dogs will grow old in good health, many dogs do not. Unfortunately, as your dog grows older, health issues become more common.

If your dog develops anything knew (a cough, hair loss, soreness, mental confusion, or other issues) call your veterinarian. As with most health challenges, early diagnosis and intervention is important. There is no cure for old age, but veterinary care can often help your dog grow old more comfortably.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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