Is your dog slowing down and looking a bit grey around the muzzle? Today, the veterinary team at our Santa Cruz County clinic discusses when a dog is considered senior, and how to care for your dog as they age.
When is a dog considered senior?
Similar to humans, dogs are more likely to display signs of illness or health conditions such as arthritis (which should not be ignored) when they enter their senior years. You might notice your pooch slowing down a little, becoming less playful and maybe a touch more impatient with younger dogs.
They will also likely start to go gray around the muzzle. Many of these signs actually parallel symptoms of aging in humans!
Understanding when your pet has reached their senior years is an important aspect of being a pet parent as this will be your cue to watch for changes in habits or behaviors that you might need to take action on to keep your dog feeling happy and comfortable into their golden years.
You might be surprised to learn there is no firm age when a dog goes from being an adult to becoming a senior. Instead, when your dog enters this stage can vary greatly depending on your pooch's breed and size.
While many people estimate the average age at which a dog becomes a senior at about 7 years old, this can actually vary considerably between the ages of 5 and 12.
Dog Ages & Breeds: How old is a senior dog?
Most dogs are puppies until they are around 6 months to 1 year old. They then become adult dogs, a stage that lasts until they are around 5 or 6 before the signs of old age marking the senior life stage begin to make themselves apparent. Some dogs will reach 12 years old before they begin to dramatically age.
While there may be some anomalies or varying data when the question, "What age is a dog a senior?" is asked. That said, in general we expect that the 'senior' life stage is the last quarter to one-third of a dog's expected life span.
Dogs smaller than about 20 pounds reach their adult age more quickly than larger breeds, since they are often fully grown by 6 to 8 months old. However, they age more slowly after this.
A small-breed dog's lifespan is typically longer than a large-breed dog's. In fact, many small dogs can live as long as 16 years. So, a small, healthy dog might not be considered a senior until they are 12 years old.
That said, there are always exceptions to the rule and that's the case here. Some small breeds, including Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, have a shorter lifespan and are considered senior at about 8 years old.
Large dog breeds tend to have shorter lifespans, meaning they enter their golden years more quickly than smaller breeds.
Labradors are an excellent example of 'the average' large breed dog. Their typical lifespan is about 12 years, so they would enter their senior years at 8 to 9 years old. Giant breeds such as the Bernese Mountain Dog, or Irish Wolfhounds have significantly shorter lifespans living to be an average of 6 to 8 years old. That means that giant breeds are considered senior at around 4 to 5 years of age.
Signs Your Dog is a Senior or Aging
For a few reasons, it can be confusing to say your dog is a senior when they reach the final quarter of their expected life. After all, it can be challenging to guess the life expectancy of a mixed breed and if you've adopted a rescue, you might not know their exact age.
But there are some reliable signs of aging to watch for as your dog reaches their senior years. As they embark on their golden years, your senior dog might:
- Suffer from stiffness in their limbs, particularly in the mornings (this sign of arthritis should be flagged with your vet)
- Grow more impatient, especially with younger, more energetic dogs
- Go gray around the muzzle
- Slow down in general
You also may see signs of canine cognitive dysfunction. In senior dogs, signs of cognitive dysfunction include interrupted sleep, loss of smell, unusual night-time or evening activity and anxiety.
Senior Dog Care
Provided they receive diligent care from you and your vet, your senior dog may stay spritely and active for some time to come. The most important elements to keep in mind are annual veterinary care, proper nutrition and exercise appropriate to their age and health status and mental stimulation.
Geriatric and senior dogs are more susceptible to certain diseases such as osteoarthritis and cancer. Existing health conditions and general health status can also change rapidly in your dog's aging body, which is why it's important that our Santa Cruz County vets see your older dog for a physical exam and checkup at least once a year (perhaps more based on your vet's recommendation) and any recommended tests.
If your veterinarian is able to detect a disease early, they'll have a better chance of effectively managing or curing the condition and helping your furry best friend maintain a good quality of life.
Obesity can become a problem in dogs once they start to slow down, as it can exacerbate arthritis pain and shorten the length and quality of your dog's life. If you are unsure about your dog's ideal weight and diet, ask your veterinarian for their recommendations.
Physical & Mental Exercise
While they may slow down, your senior dog will still need exercise to keep their bodies limber and to maintain healthy joints. Since every dog is different, allow your pooch to take the lead when choosing their exercise regimen. You might consider trying a few exercises with your dog to learn what he likes best.
Training and cognitive exercises also play a role in keeping your dog's mind sharp. Old dogs can absolutely learn new tricks so perhaps try training classes or a game such as a puzzle feeder, which rewards your dog with food as they figure out how to get the kibble.
At Aptos-Creekside Pet Hospital, our vets are experienced in assessing senior dogs' health and treating any health conditions, diseases or disorders that may develop, as well as providing advice on aging, exercise, nutrition and physical health issues.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.