Thanks to improved diet and veterinary care, our pooches are living longer than ever before. This also means that, like us, they experience age-related conditions and challenges as they get older, and they might have a new set of needs. So, how do you ensure your aging pup is a happy senior dog?
If your dog is 6-7 years of age, they’re generally considered a senior pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). In human years, this is the equivalent of the mid-40s for small to medium breeds and early 50s for large breeds.
Our happy senior dogs can develop many of the same physical problems that humans experience as we age, such as heart disease, diabetes, vision problems, joint issues and weakness. You might also notice behavior changes such as confusion, increased vocalization, more anxiety, changes in sleep cycles and house soiling.
For many four-legged friends north of 7 years old, their favorite game of catch might feel too strenuous. They might not be able to jump up to their favorite seat by the window, or they may not be able to hear us call them in for dinner. Though dog seniors may need a little extra paw-holding, it’s more honor than burden—especially after all the times they’ve been there for us over the years!
If you’re wondering, how do I make my old dog happy, here are 12 ways to have a happy senior dog and help them navigate these new challenges.
1. Double up on Vet Visits
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends that we take our happy dog seniors to the vet every 6 months. Early detection is crucial, especially at their advanced age.
“Semi-annual wellness exams are a wonderful way to keep on top of any medical conditions,” says Tonya Wilhelm, a Toldeo, Ohio-area dog trainer and founder of Raising Your Pets Naturally. “By doing this, the veterinarian is able to do a full exam, look for any concerning lumps, listen to the dog’s heart function and evaluate hearing and eyesight.”
2. Keep Your Senior Dog’s Handicaps in Mind
You might find that your happy senior dog has developed a few more health issues than when they were younger. As a result, everyday tasks might become new hazards.
“Many senior dogs have decreased hearing, vision and mobility, so make sure the environment is safe,” says Judy Morgan, DVM, CVA, CVCP, CVFT, an integrative veterinarian and owner of Clayton Veterinary Associates and Churchtown Veterinary Associates in Clayton, New Jersey.
She recommends blocking off stairways so your dog can't fall while using them, and avoiding moving furniture and re-arranging the house because that requires senior dogs to learn new pathways.
“Slippery floors are a nightmare for dogs with mobility issues,” Dr. Morgan says. “Having carpet runners or rubber mat runners is much safer and more comfortable for them.”
For dogs experiencing vision or mobility issues, providing dog steps makes it much easier and safer for your pooch to reach his favorite places.
“We’ve had to put stairs beside beds and couches as they get older,” says Francine Coughlin, CPDT-KA, IAABC, owner of Bark n’ Roll in North Reading, Massachusetts. “My three seniors are very active, and they tend to still try to do what they used to do, but their joints and balance can’t always manage it. Teaching them to go up a ramp or dog stairs through training helps them so they aren’t hurting themselves getting up to or down from elevated places.”
Another tactic for how to make your dog happy is to remove large furniture items from main paths so it’s easier for a vision-impaired or unsteady senior pet to navigate. Also, watch your step! If your pet is small and cannot hear you coming, it could result in a nasty fall for both of you.
3. Help Your Senior Dog Maintain a Healthy Diet
Dana Cichocki, who has a 10-year-old Pit Bull rescue named Jada, says she does her best to make sure Jada eats well.
“We give Jada joint supplements and fish oil pills to help keep her joints from hurting and her heart ticking,” she says.
Dr. Morgan has five senior dogs in her household, with the youngest at 7 years old. She gives her elder dogs a boost with joint dog supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids for brain, skin and joint health.
“Omega-3s help with joints, brain and skin,” she explains. “So does hyaluronic acid, which is also good for eyes. Glucosamine, chrondroitin and MSM are good for joints.”
While we might be tempted to fudge on our senior dog’s diet, maintaining balanced nutrition with high-quality ingredients is one of the best ways to love them. Because obesity shortens a dog’s lifespan and increases their risks of developing diseases and other problems, watch for excess weight.
“Excess weight strains the heart and the joints,” Dr. Morgan says. “Fat cells actually produce hormones that increase inflammation in the body, leading to more pain. More pain means more lethargy, which means more obesity. It's a vicious cycle.”
Rather than only feeding highly processed foods, Dr. Morgan says that whole foods are extremely beneficial when it comes to how to make your dogs happy. She offers these whole food tips:
- Foods high in omega-3s, such as fish and egg yolks, are very helpful.
- Homemade bone broth is great for bone and joint support.
- Digestive enzymes and probiotics can help dogs digest and absorb nutrients better.
- Pumpkin can be used to increase fiber and help with bowel issues—both constipation and diarrhea.
- Steamed or gently cooked dark greens, such as kale, broccoli, spinach or dandelion, used as food toppers are great blood tonics since many senior dogs are prone to anemia. They also are a great natural source of vitamins.
4. Cater to Your Senior Dog’s Aching Joints
A common issue for older dogs is arthritis. Aside from dog supplements and medications, there are other ways to relieve joint pain.
“Some pets with arthritis will do well with something to help keep them warm,” Dr. Morgan says. “Warm towels from the dryer placed over sore joints can be very soothing. Additionally, our old dogs get massage, acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments to keep them moving well.”
In addition to feeling great, “massage keeps muscles soft and supple and increases blood flow to muscles and joints,” Dr. Morgan says. Acupuncture provides pain relief; chiropractic adjustments help counteract the stress arthritis can put on the spine. She adds that cold laser helps increase circulation and provides pain relief.
Comfy beds help make for happy senior dogs. When choosing one, know your pet; do they seem chilly or get too hot? For example, Coughlin’s 12-year-old Labrador mix, Finnegan, has trouble regulating his temperature and is always warm. Because she lets her dogs sleep with her, he often gets down on the floor to cool off.
“We have an air mattress bed that most of our animals love as well as ‘snuggle ball-’type beds they can burrow in,” Dr. Morgan says, “Orthopedic beds are great for the bigger dogs that really need that joint support.”
5. Keep Your Senior Dog Active, But Don’t Overdo It
Slowing down is a natural process with age, and it means you might need to coax your four-legged friend to exercise.
“Muscles support joints,” Dr. Morgan says. “Without good muscle tone, mobility decreases drastically. This is why pet physical therapy has become so commonly used. Joints in motion stay limber; joints not in motion get stiff.”
If you and your pet used to go for runs, a leisurely stroll may be more their speed now. Iris Salsman’s 12½-year-old Great Dane-Rottweiler mix has slowed down in her older age, but she is in good health and is happy to stay active.
“Taking her on really long walks keeps her entertained,” Salsman says. “We go to places where she can sniff out new smells. She moseys along investigating everything. It doesn’t count as exercise for me, but it stimulates her senses.”
Keeping your pet physically fit as they age is crucial.
“A dog with an ideal body weight and who continues to be active has a better chance to ward off inflammation and stiffness, [and] having a leaner body weight will have less pressure on a dogs’ joints and heart muscle,” Wilhem says.
Mix it up to keep things mentally interesting as well. Try a new toy, alternate between a swim and the dog park, or change up the route around the neighborhood.
“A lot of senior dogs love to swim in their human’s pool or at a facility with hydrotherapy,” Coughlin says. “It’s great exercise that’s cardiovascular as well. Nice low-impact exercises for senior dogs are swimming and water play.”
6. Watch Your Senior Dog More Carefully
You may be used to letting your dog out in the backyard on their own, but as they age, they might need you to keep an eye on them while outdoors.
“Dogs with decreased hearing and vision may get [confused], wander from the yard accidentally and not be able to find their way home,” Dr. Morgan says.
At this stage of life, to have happy senior pets, we need to manage environments more by offering support so they don’t get into situations where they can get in danger or hurt others, Coughlin says. For example, an older animal also may have trouble holding their bladder and need more potty breaks.
“Some dogs left alone use a belly band or other diaper product, or puppy pads,” Coughlin says.
7. Give Your Senior Dog Extra Grooming Sessions
Regular grooming is important as dogs age because they can develop more matting with less activity. An incontinent senior dog also needs their hair in the potty area clipped short and checked daily to ensure the area is clean, dry and not irritated, Dr. Morgan says.
Senior dogs can start to struggle to reach all areas on their body.
“Dogs may not be grooming themselves as much, so daily brushing keeps the coat oils spread throughout the coat,” Dr. Morgan says. “It's also a great way to check for new lumps, bumps, cuts, scrapes or irritation.”
Plus, the affection and attention feel good to our pooches!
8. Take Care of Your Senior Dog’s Teeth
Dog’s teeth become more sensitive and prone to infection as they age, and infected teeth can increase the risks of heart disease and kidney disease, according to Dr. Morgan. If pet parents have not taken good care of doggy dental health before now, their dogs often suffer with loose, infected teeth in their senior years.
“Even with daily brushing, periodontal disease is very common,” Dr. Morgan says, “just as we see in aging people.”
“Using dental drops or products to decrease bacterial overload can be very helpful,” Dr. Morgan says. “Pay special attention to the teeth. Professional dental cleaning is imperative if there are any loose or infected teeth. Those teeth are very painful, even though most dogs don't let on that they are suffering.”
9. Give Your Senior Dog a Social Life
Dogs love to be with their humans, so if your dog has always loved company, consider putting play dates on your calendar.
“I have friends, human and canine, over for [my dog] to interact with,” Salsman says. “She doesn’t really play with them, but she loves the attention and brings out all her stuffed animals to show them.”
Some changes you might see, even in happy senior dogs, is “less tolerance for younger or very active dogs who might be invading their space,” Coughlin says. At her facility, she finds that “some older dogs love when the younger dogs come in, and some even get more active.”
She advises pet parents to honor their dog’s social habits and get to know what their canine companion does and does not enjoy in their new season of life.
10. Take Your Senior Dog on Special Outings
Taking your senior pet for a short walk around the block, out for a car ride or even a day trip can make them feel special and loved. Elizabeth Megan, pet parent to an 18½-year-old Shih Tzu named Baxter, brings her senior pet on family outings.
“To keep him happy and comfortable, we have increased the number of family outings that we call an adventure,” she says.
And you can teach an old dog new tricks, Wilhem says.
“Just because a dog may already know how to sit and lay down, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t enjoy attending a positive dog training class to have a fun weekly outing,” she says.
11. Keep Your Senior Dog’s Mind Sharp
To keep Jada’s mind sharp, Cichocki plays dog-friendly brain games with her.
“We play the ‘find’ game,” she says. “We hide treats all around the house and say, “find!” and she has to use her nose to smell and find all the dog treats! She really loves it!”
Dr. Morgan says these types games are great mental stimulation, adding that some senior dogs suffer from cognitive dysfunction and may need vitamin or nutritional support.
Puzzle toys and mats are excellent options to challenge their minds to figure things out, Coughlin says. You can still expect your dog to work, she says—just within their new limitations.
“Enrichment sessions—sniff around the property or at appropriate dig spots or a sand box—are great to help tire them out, give them a nice outlet and benefit them,” she says. “Whatever lets them be dogs—foraging, hunting, tearing apart something fun—still are great activities for senior dogs. It keeps their doggy instincts sharp.”
12. Show Your Senior Dog Lots and Lots of Love
“The main advice I can give for any older dog [parent] is to just give them lots of love,” Cichocki says. “That’s what Jada loves most.”
Special time together, even if it’s just cuddling on the couch, is what our happy senior dogs cherish most. And, fortunately, that’s very simple for us to deliver!