Just like people, dogs age and start to develop symptoms of aging. Aging is not a "disease". It is part of their life span just like people.
But like you, I wanted to know what things I should expect.
So here is some information regarding what happens to your doggie as he ages.
What is "old age" for dogs?
The old classic "one human year equals seven dog years" is an easy way to calculate and relate to your dog's age, but isn't the most accurate. Large breed dogs (i.e. Great Danes) are considered a senior at 6 or 7 years of age, whereas small breeds (i.e. toy poodle), aren't considered a senior until their teen years. I have seen more than one poodle in the 18 to 20 year range. There are studies to suggest that certain breeds are more long-lived than others, too.
As a general rule of thumb, a dog who is 7 years or older should be considered middle to senior aged, and a consultation with your vet is in order to determine the best health care maintenance program for your dog as s/he ages. For smaller breed dogs, your vet (in consultation with you) may elect to wait a couple of years before doing any geriatric monitoring.
What things should I expect as he ages?
Slowing down - You may notice that you dog slows down some with aging. This isn't always the case, but look for subtle changes in how s/he gets up, lays down, and uses stairs. Is there any hesitation or stiffness? Does a change in the weather (rainy, cold) make it worse?
Arthritis - is common in dogs as they age, particularly large breeds. Arthritis can occur in any joint, most commonly the legs, neck and back (spine). There are many different medications available to help ease the discomfort of arthritis -- see your vet if you notice any signs of slowing down in your dog.
Graying around the face, muzzle - most dogs commonly show a bit of gray starting at middle age (5-6 years).
Reduced hearing - Is your dog hard to wake up after sleeping or does s/he become startled easily if you approach from behind? Hearing loss or deafness may be a reason for this. There isn't a lot that can be done for age-related hearing loss, but a vet exam should be done first to rule out other medical problems, such as an infection, growth, or foreign body in the ear. If your dog does experience hearing loss, take care to protect him/her from hazards, such as cars and kids that s/he may not hear (or see). Dogs do learn and adapt well using hand signals to come, stay, sit, and so on. It is a good idea to "cross train" your dog early in life to recognize basic hand signals.
Cloudy or "bluish" eyes - As they age, dog's eyes often show a bluish transparent "haze" in the pupil area. This is a normal effect of aging, and the medical term for this is lenticular sclerosis. Vision does not appear to be affected. This is NOT the same as cataracts. Cataracts are white and opaque.
Muscle atrophy - Mild loss of muscle mass, especially the hind legs, may be seen with old age. Be sure to have your vet check this out if any muscle loss is noted.
How can I keep my pet more comfortable in his senior years?
Regular checkups and communication with your vet will ensure that you are doing all that you can medically to help your pet enjoy the senior years. To help your pet at home, here are some pointers:
- Provide a comfortable clean bed - there are many "orthopedic" beds available now at pet supply stores to ensure comfortable rest. NOTE: I just recently bought two of these for Sebastian, one for upstairs and one for downstairs.
- Provide fresh water daily (note changes in water consumption) and a healthy, age-appropriate diet.
- Don't expect too much from your senior dog - s/he may want to run and play Frisbee like the good 'ol times, but go slow -- heat, arthritis, age-related muscle atrophy, and other age-related effects can take their toll.
- Ease distractions - senior pets can be easily startled by or become fearful of: kids, loud noises, and general commotion as they age. Conditions such as arthritis can make the dog fearful of getting hurt (or the potential to get hurt) with sudden movements of kids or being stepped on.
If you see these changes happening in your aging dog, it's okay, it is all part of their lifespan. Keep them comfortable and keep loving them. Remember, you made a promise the day you got them that you would love them for the rest of their lives !