If you are struggling with how to care for an aging dog, it’s time you and I had a chat.
The passage of time, the challenges of getting older etc etc etc… We know all that, but what too many don’t know is…
Old dogs –
- Do not have one foot in the grave simply because they’re older
- Need to see the vet twice a year, if not more often
- Should not be left in pain because it’s considered a “natural part of aging”
- Still require proper nutrition
- Can exercise
- Require mental stimulation
- Can learn new tricks
- Need as much love as everybody else
Time to chat
In this guide to caring for an aging dog I will be covering the following topics:
- A reminder of the joys of living with a senior dog
- Finding the right vet
- Signs of aging
- Senior dogs feeling the cold
- A senior dog friendly home
- A comfortable place to lay his head
- Health and wellness
- Oral hygiene and health
- Exercising your senior dog
- The importance of mental stimulation
- Mobility and other aids
- Saying goodbye
A reminder of the joys of living with a senior dog
Overwhelmed with our dog’s health issues, struggles with having to say goodbye and the financial strain of high vet bills can all overshadow the pure joy of living with a senior dog.
I don’t know what it’s like to experience an entire dog’s life with them, to raise them from puppyhood and spend 9 or 10+ years together. I adopt unwell senior dogs and nothing gives me greater joy than bringing them home from a shelter and knowing the last weeks, months or even years will be their best ever.
When you take your dog out for a stroll even if he’s slowing down, marvel in the sheer joy of him still being able to enjoy the great outdoors. When he’s resting on his bed smile at how gorgeous and peaceful he looks. When you’re sitting around together, remember the years of love and companionship he gave you, and the good and bad times you shared together.
It’s perfectly normal to get impatient at times but try and move past that quickly and remember – showing kindness and compassion to these wonderful creatures who brought so much joy into our lives over the years, is what it’s all about.
CLICK THIS → The Joy of Living With a Senior Dog
Finding the right vet
This is going at the top of my tips because of its importance for senior dog health. I believe in continuity of care, seeing the same vet each time whenever possible. Differing opinions from various vets on the right way to treat Red is not acceptable.
Whether you’re falling out of love with your current vet or moving towns, cities or countries and need to find someone new, these tips will help.
CLICK THIS→ How to Find a Veterinarian: My Top Tips
Attitude towards seniors
This is crucial because, unbelievably, I have encountered a couple of vets who didn’t have the most compassionate views about old dogs (and I assume that extended to old cats as well). Okay, they never came out and said “we don’t believe senior dogs are worth caring for” but their attitude said it just the same.
How many years of experience practicing veterinary medicine will give you confidence in his or her abilities?
Do you need to “click” with your vet, or are you happy enough for him/her to have the necessary experience? Personally I have to have a connection and be comfortable, but that’s just me.
I believe sharing the same philosophy with your vet vis a vis pet care is important. For example, f you don’t believe in heroic measures should your pet ever be seriously ill, but your vet gives you attitude and tries to push more and more treatments, how would you feel about that? I’ve been there and it’s not a situation I plan to find myself in again.
Other things to consider
How far are you willing and/or able to travel? Be realistic when it comes to your work schedule and home life, traffic etc…
Would you have to take time off work because they don’t have early opening, late closing or weekend hours?
What type of medicine would you like to see them practice? Are you “traditional” all the way, won’t do anything that isn’t natural and holistic, or would you like a bit of both?
Veterinary practices can be 1 man or woman operations with a small staff and some basic testing done on premises, to super hospitals that can rival the best human medical centres. My vet in Toronto was a one woman operation with all the basics needed and she was wonderful. I’ve been to a super hospital in Florida where I felt my only purpose was to help them pay for their expensive equipment, and a multi vet practice in England with an amazing vet who has done wonders for Red.
It’s up to you to decide whether your practice has to have more than the basics in house, or are you okay going to a specialist hospital should your dog need something like an MRI or complicated surgery for example.
Signs of aging
I often hear guardians talk about their dog’s issues, dismissing them as nothing more than a natural part of aging. That attitude worries me because some changes are due to illnesses that will go untreated, leaving their dog to suffer.
CLICK HERE→ Signs of Aging in Dogs
Here are some behaviours to look out for that may signal a problem:
- Ignoring you when you call
- Accidents inside, peeing more frequently
- Bumping into things
- Spending more time on his bed
- Less/no interest in walking
- Change in eating habits
They could be signs of anything from dementia and kidney problems, to loss of vision and painful joints. Any changes in behaviour, no matter how slight, should warrant a trip to the vet. The sooner it happens the better the odds of treating, or at least managing the condition.
CLICK HERE→ How I Care For Red Who Has Dog Dementia
Senior dogs feeling the cold
Senior dogs can definitely feel the cold more quickly and easily than younger ones, and that is certainly the case with my sweetheart Red. She is approximately 15 ½ years old, has short hair and spent most of her life in Florida. Now that she’s living in a cold climate she’s feeling it, so I am diligent when it comes to keeping her comfortable.
Here are a few things you can do for your dog:
Buy a sweater and a coat
I’m not a fan of dogs wearing dresses and silly outfits, okay I can’t stand it. However when it comes to warmth I’m the first one to buy a sweater. Even when the heat is on Red shivers, so she wears a sweater 24/7 for several months of the year. When we go out I add a coat on top of that.
Keep the bed in a warm spot
Be sure there are no draughts where the dog beds are, and if they are on a tile floor a piece of carpeting or even a blanket underneath will add a layer of warmth.
Blankets on beds
A blanket on every bed is also a good idea, not only for added comfort but warmth as well. If Red ever feels chilled she wraps herself in a blanket.
We all have different “cold” tolerance levels, and if you’re happy with the heat turned down low and wearing a couple of sweaters that’s great, but what about the dog? Either turn the heat up in the room she sleeps in or add a small heater. She probably doesn’t have that same tolerance level you do.
Watch those clippers
Your dog needs grooming no matter the month on the calendar, but don’t clip him too short in the coldest months, and don’t forget that sweater.
A senior dog friendly home
Just as you would child proof a home to keep kids safe, have a look around yours and see what can be done to keep your senior dog free from harm. It’s good to know even small changes can make huge differences.
For example, if your dog is blind or having vision problems, save the redecorating for pillows and other accessories rather than moving furniture around. You’ll also want baby gates so he can’t climb stairs when no one is around.
Keep your floors free from clutter as even the smallest toy or shoe could cause your dog to stumble or injure himself.
Raising food and water bowls off the ground will be more comfortable, especially for big dogs that have to strain their neck to reach the floor. Red is a small little dog but I found that she’s happier when I elevate her food bowl.
Ramps and steps for climbing onto the couch or into bed makes things safer for your dog, as jumping on and off could cause injury. If you have a large dog, or you have trouble lifting a dog of any size, a ramp is a great help for getting them in and out of the car.
Your dog may be less tolerant of noise and activity then he used to be, for that reason a bed in a quiet area may be appreciated.
I love a warm house in the winter, yet I know people who don’t seem as bothered by the cold and even keep a window open. Think about your dog who may not be as keen and keep the area where he hangs out warm.
CLICK HERE→ Making Your Home Senior Dog Friendly
A comfortable place to lay his head
The type of bed your dog finds comfortable may change over time. For quite some time Red has loved to sleep on a comforter. I buy a single size, put a sheet over it, a fleece blanket over that for softness, then another blanket if she gets cold. Think about a bed that is easy to climb into with the front lower than the other sides. Extra padding or orthopaedic memory foam are also good choices as they feel good on stiffer joints.
Deciding on what to feed your dog is a little more involved than just choosing a senior dog food brand. Actually, who says a senior has to eat senior!
I don’t believe there is a “one size fits all” solution when it comes to any dog’s nutritional needs. I do believe it’s important to educate ourselves about the types of foods available as well as how to interpret an ingredient list.
Organic, all natural, grain free, canned food, dry food, freeze dried, raw… What!!!
Another thing to add to the mix are the differing opinions on what the best food is. Some vets believe it’s raw, others are convinced condition specific food is the way to go. Some “experts” claim a specific brand of dry food is the best thing you can do for your senior, while others say dry is nutritionally dead.
See what I mean?
I recently started taking Red to a holistic vet for two reasons. I believe in the holistic philosophy of treating a whole being not just the “problem,” and she has been taking so much medication for quite some time, I was worried how her little body was able to process it all.
For several years she was on a prescription diet, first a heart formula then kidney. I was unpleasantly surprised by the ingredient list and couldn’t understand how her nutritional needs were being met. My vet honestly believed her kidneys were doing really well as a result so I couldn’t argue with that. I have no problem questioning, but this vet is so amazing and did a wonderful job of caring for Red, I totally trust him.
Two months ago we relocated and needed to find a new vet, and yes I found a holistic practice. A 45 minute serpentine highway drive is hardly convenient, but it’s worth it.
He was very sad by the amount of drugs Red was prescribed, and not a fan of the prescription food. He took blood tests, and based on the results created a whole foods recipe tailor made for her. It consists of very specific amounts of chicken, brown rice, quinoa, olive oil, broccoli, raw carrots and raw apple. She loves it!!
The best advice I can give you is research and find what makes sense to you. Get your vet’s view of what to feed your dog, then ask why he’s recommending a particular brand or type. Bear in mind not all vets are as well versed in nutrition as you’d expect them to be.
If you’re intrigued by my situation and Red’s whole food diet, find a holistic vet and have a chat about their views on nutrition. Go with who you trust and what makes sense to you.
Health and wellness
When we talk about health and wellness we mean –
- Regular vet checks
- Feeding your dog a balanced, nutritious diet
- Exercise consistent with ability
- Mental stimulation
- Lots of love
I also believe in the use of supplements, alternative therapies and a holistic approach to health care. It may sound farfetched to some, but there are too many success stories to ignore this branch of veterinary medicine. Many holistic vets will be happy to set aside some time to explain their philosophy and approach to health and wellness. It can’t hurt to have a chat, but it’s entirely up to you.
The importance of oral hygiene for overall health
I’m encouraged by the number of people starting to realise the connection between dental health and overall health. Not caring for your dogs’ teeth leads to dental disease, which in turn can lead to serious organ damage, not to mention the pain your dog is already likely experiencing.
Some of the signs that dental disease is present include:
- Bad breath
- Pawing at the mouth
- No interest in eating
- Swallowing without chewing
If you’ve notice these or other behavioural changes, make an appointment to see your vet right away. It’s quite possible the only course of action by this time will be dental surgery. I know it’s not what you want for your senior dog, I certainly didn’t want it for Red, but doing nothing is often much worse than going ahead.
If your dogs are difficult like mine, brushing will be a challenge if not impossible. I’m not trying to discourage you, but rather to let you know it’s not an unusual occurrence. Don’t give up after one try or one brush. For Red the only thing I’m able to get away with is gauze wrapped around my finger, with some tooth gel on it. She’s blind so I think it’s a scary procedure for her but I manage.
Toothpastes come in various flavours and consistencies, including a brushless formula so again, trial and error.
Additives for your dog’s water bowl will help freshen breath, some even claim to prevent tartar. Don’t rely on them as your sole dental care plan, but in combination everything helps.
Dental chews and raw bones are other options some people swear by. Look at the ingredient list of the chew and if it’s the length of your arm and you don’t understand most of what’s written, walk away. I recommend speaking to your vet before you give your dog a raw or even cooked bone.
Some chew toys are braided rope, others ribbed rubber or sturdy plastic. What’s great about toys over chews – no calories! Keep things interesting by rotating them.
I can’t understand why some people don’t think old dogs need to be groomed. They leave their dogs with matted fur, long nails they can barely walk on and smelling rank. All dogs need grooming…period!
As a dog ages, going to the groomer can become quite a stressful event – failing eyesight, the pain of arthritis, disorientation due to dementia or a host of other reasons. Perhaps a mobile groomer would be a better option. They park in your driveway in a fully outfitted van, and all the grooming takes place right there.
If you’re having trouble finding a groomer, ask everyone you know who has a dog, including your vet and staff. Some of the large chain pet supply stores have groomers in house (or in store I should say), and because they work behind glass you can actually see how they handle the dogs.
Not every groomer is comfortable or experienced with old dogs, especially ones who have issues. Yes I speak from personal experience on this one.
What about bathing your dog at home, and letting the groomer (mobile or otherwise) do the clipping. That may help to significantly reduce his stress levels. If you’re feeling adventurous, learn the whole grooming process so you can groom your dog from start to finish in the comfort of your own home.
CLICK HERE→ Senior Dogs Also Need Grooming
Exercising your senior dog
Of course senior dogs need exercise, and the type, length and intensity will depend on what shape he’s in! I meet tons of older dogs running like the wind, but if your dog is on the slower side there’s still plenty he can do.
Walking is a great activity, going at a pace that’s comfortable, but try and stick to even surfaces and avoid hills when possible. Swimming is another great option, with no pressure on painful joints. How about hide and seek or a game of fetch in the house. Tossing a ball or rope a very short distance across the room, or hiding behind a curtain in the same room your dog is in will get him moving just a bit, and provide some fun as well.
Have a chat with your vet and ask what he thinks before you start anything new.
CLICK HERE→ Keep Your Dog Active: Physically and Mentally
The importance of mental stimulation
In my experience, most pet parents I meet are unfamiliar with what mental stimulation is. Simply put it’s about keeping your dog’s brain active, which can stave off boredom, drain energy and perhaps even delay, lessen or prevent dementia. It’s especially important when the weather is bad and they aren’t able/willing to go out as much as they should.
It’s easy to do, doesn’t have to cost a penny and should be included in your dog’s daily routine.
Here are a few ideas to get you started
Grab a muffin tin, hide a treat in a few of the cups, put a tennis ball in each then watch as your dog pushes out the tennis balls to get the treats. Use low calorie, homemade or fresh food treats.
Grab a cup your dog can knock over, but not too easily. Hide a treat underneath then say “find it.” Increase the challenge by adding another cup, than another. I use three.
Teach him the names of toys. Pick one (a pig for instance), hold it in one hand, say the word pig and as he grabs it give him a treat. Repeat and repeat until he gets it. Now put it on the floor and say pig, reward when he picks it up. Try it with another toy going through the same process. Then have both toys on the floor and ask him for the one you want. Do this training in short blocks of time so he doesn’t lose interest.
If you’ve never taught your dog to sit, now is the time. If you have, find another trick to teach him.
Mobility and other aids
If your dog is not as agile as he used to be, and walking, jumping on furniture and into the car have been too difficult, help is available. Hydrotherapy, supplements and acupuncture are a few options as well as mobility aids like ramps, steps, slings, dog wheelchairs and pet strollers.
A sling, for example, can be very helpful for extra support while on a walk, and rolling a stroller with you means your dog can stop when he’s had enough yet still enjoy being outside with you. Steps are such a big help for getting on and off furniture, and ramps work well for beds, cars and even boats.
As most of us know, saying goodbye is the absolute worst part of sharing our lives with dogs (any pets of course!). It’s so heart breaking I’ve met many people who will give up the joy of a furry companion, because they cannot cope with the loss.
It’s normal to be devastated and we all need time to grieve, but we also have to be cautious of not sinking into a deep depression we’re having trouble climbing out of.
Support from people who can truly relate is everywhere, so please don’t look for comfort from those around you who aren’t shy in letting you know “it was just a dog.” Finding it is as easy as typing “pet loss grief support” into your search engine, to locate both local and online resources. Many shelters run bereavement groups so check locally. If you can’t find something in your area, consider starting your own group. It may be therapeutic for you, honouring your dog in such a significant way, while helping others.
There are many other things you can try to help you cope –an engraved memorial stone for your garden, a beautiful urn that takes pride of place in your home, creating a scrapbook of memories or writing a poem to name just a few.
I always have a terrible time getting over a loss, and one time in particular was especially rough. One thing I did was light a virtual memorial candle and that did give me comfort.
Are you struggling with how to care for an aging dog – conclusion
I know how tough, and sometimes stressful caring for a senior dog can be. Worrying if they’re feeling okay, panicking that something will happen in the middle of the night, knowing the time to say goodbye is closer than we’d like.
On my website in general, and this post in particular, I have shared a lot of what I’ve learned over the years. Sometimes they’re tips or tricks I’ve discovered and other times they’re just musings on my own experiences.
I have struggled at times with the stress and worry, but I always remember to take a step back and focus on how much I love Red and the seniors who came before her. I feel blessed to adopt old dogs and to share their last weeks, months or years with them. Sometimes I will take a moment to watch how peaceful Red looks when she’s sleeping, and nothing matters but the love I feel for my sweet sweet girl.
If you’ve been struggling with how to care for an aging dog, I sincerely hope this post has helped in some way.
If you have any questions, a story to share, need advice or just someone to talk to, please contact me and I will do my best to help in any way I can. Send me a private message, post a comment below or on my Facebook page. I do look forward to hearing from you.