Senior Dogs: What’s Normal Aging and What’s Not?

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One of the inevitable realities of having pets is that they will age. The actual age at which a dog is considered a senior varies by breed and size. Larger dogs, who typically have shorter lifespans than small dogs, will reach their golden years sooner. In general, any dog over the age of seven may be considered a senior.

The question of what constitutes “normal aging” isn’t an easy one to answer. Some experts say that no health problem can truly be called normal. While this makes a certain amount of sense, it’s also true that there are certain conditions which will occur in the majority of aging dogs.

These include arthritic changes, changes in appetite and tastes, and diminishing vision and hearing. Senior dogs may become less active and may tire sooner from exercise. Your dog’s typical health issues and behaviors will tend to be increased when he reaches his senior years. For example, a dog who has always had a delicate digestive tract will be more likely to experience stomach upset. Dogs who have always been a bit nervous around strangers will be more so as they age. These conditions may not require medical intervention, but you should take your aging dog to the vet at least once a year, preferably every six months.

The same medical and nutrition advances which have allowed humans to live longer, healthier lives have done the same for our pets. Chronic conditions can now be diagnosed more easily and treated more effectively through medication and other supportive options.
The main signs that you should watch for which may indicate the need for a visit to the vet are loss of appetite, any weakness or unusual lethargy, increased thirst with or without increased urination, loss of housetraining, coughing, abdominal distention, significant weight loss or gain, lumps, vomiting, diarrhea, and unusually bad breath.

These symptoms may be of less concern in a younger dog, with whom you may be able to take a wait-and-see attitude. With a senior pet, the sooner you become aware of a serious or potentially serious health problem, the more likely you will be able to begin treatment that will keep your beloved companion with you a lot longer.

If you do find yourself faced with a serious health condition, discuss your options frankly with your vet. Get a second opinion if you feel the need. If the situation is not critical, give yourself a day or two to consider. Any decisions you make should be based on the best interests and comfort of the dog. For most people, cost is definitely a factor, but your vet may be able to work with you so that it is not the defining factor. Pet insurance is now more readily available and helps to take financial worry out of the equation.

Providing good nutrition, preventive care, and regular veterinary visits throughout your dog’s life is the best way to ensure that she will live a long, healthy life. Know her habits and typical state of health, so that you will be able to identify changes quickly for the best chances at treatment.

NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.

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