Tips for Keeping Your Senior Dog in Top Form – And Out of the Vet’s Office!

September 22, 2023

By Sarah Griffiths, DCH

Senior dogs are an absolute joy to have around. For those of us who’ve had our dogs since puppyhood, all of the hard work we’ve put into integrating them as younger dogs starts to really pay off as they age. They become so easy, effortless and enjoyable to have around. The downside is that dogs don’t live as long as we do and they age exponentially faster. Their relatively short life spans are the price we must pay for the love we experience when having dogs. Because they age quickly, we need to be mindful during all of their life stages to ensure that their golden years are happy and of the best quality possible.

Today’s article is all about how to help your dog age gracefully so you can enjoy those wonderful years together without a lot of stress and discomfort. Your dog will return the favor in the ways only a dog can – with unconditional love and loyalty.

What defines a dog as “senior”?

Senior is certainly a relative term (dogs don’t think of themselves as ‘old’) but technically, dogs can be considered seniors depending on their physical size as well in combination with their actual age. Small dogs generally have much longer expected life spans than large or giant breeds. Traditionally, your dog will be considered a senior following this breakdown:

Small breeds: 10-11 years

Medium-Large Breeds: 8-10 years

Giant Breeds: 5-6 years

But as we all know – we can feel younger or older than our age. So let’s discover what helps our dogs feel young in their minds and their bodies!

What can I do during all life stages to prevent issues in old age?

There are some great ways to help with your dog’s longevity if you’re lucky enough to have them right from the start of their life. Puppies are young a vibrant but there are also key factors to growing them up correctly so that they will benefit at all stages of life. If you happen to adopt an adult dog, there are still so many ways to improve their life by following my tips below:

1. A Balanced Fresh Food Diet! This is a HUGE factor. The healthy growth of young dogs heavily depends on what they are fed while they are growing, from 8 weeks until 18 months. I always recommend a balanced fresh food diet with no processed foods to grow your pups properly. If you’d like to learn more about why it’s so important for dogs to eat fresh food, check out my blog – Canine Nutrition: What Should They Really Eat? Puppies need low starch diets with lots of protein, moderate fresh fats from meat and a balanced mineral ratio in order for their bones, joints and ligaments to develop correctly. Adding starch can drastically change the course of their development, causing inflammation during the growth phases and causing joints to form improperly. This becomes excruciating as the dog ages and can significantly decrease quality of life and lifespan too. Adult dogs can also benefit from switching onto fresh food from a commercial diet, reducing inflammatory processes in all areas of the body. And, if you’re worried you’re going to be missing nutrients using fresh food, don’t be! A properly formulated fresh food diet has all the things your pup or adult dog needs and nothing that they don’t. (1) Nutrient deficiencies can happen with both fresh and commercial diets so you need to do your research or get help from a pro. Dietary needs might change as your dog ages – use your spidey senses to notice when changes need to be made.

2. A Healthy Gut! This ties into having a healthy diet that is species-appropriate.

Science proves that dogs that eat a fresh food diet have healthier microbiomes than those who don’t. (2) A healthy gut ensures that the immune system is able to modulate inflammation throughout the entire body (yes, EVERY body system!). Healthy gut microbiology also promotes the production of key metabolites and healthy absorption of nutrients. (3) Chronic inflammation is the precursor for all disease processes – from joint disease to allergies to gut disease to cancer – so it’s vitally important to prevent it in the first place.

3. Appropriate Exercise. Dogs are so exuberant and enthusiastic that they can sometimes over-do life. It’s important to understand, especially for first time dog owners, that some breeds will push beyond their physical limits as youngsters and as adults because we have bred them to do just that. It becomes our job to protect their orthopedic health by engaging in activities that are age-appropriate and benefitting their bones and joints rather than causing injury. Injuries can turn into painful chronic mobility issues if not managed correctly and can deeply affect animals as they age. Stay tuned for another article that flushes this subject out in great detail.

4. Weight Control. A lean fit dog is going to benefit immensely later in life. Obesity has been shown in human and animal studies to cause chronic inflammation all over the body and can even predispose your dog to heart diease and certain types of cancers. (4) Providing healthy diet and exercise are pillars to success in creating a majestic senior dog.

5. Extras! This is where you can create the ultimate life for your dog to ensure that aging is an enjoyable experience for your dog. Extra love and care can greatly increase the chances that your dog remains healthy and comfortable in old age. Extras can include:

A rotation of antioxidant-rich supplements – antioxidants reduce inflammation and free radicals in the body and protect against cancer. They come in many forms including super green foods, dark berries, mushroom extract, herbs and many are found in a well-formulated fresh food diet.

Bodywork – this can come in many forms but a few of my faves are osteopathic therapy and body conditioning exercises. Body maintence can help to increase physical comfort and decrease stress hormones – a very important thing to stay on top of

Cross-training – providing different types of exercise is a great way to maintain a healthy body eg. not doing the same repetitive exercises over and over each day (which can promote wear and tear and injury), running, jumping, swimming and balance work can all be great ways to alternate the muscles groups your dog is engaging and avoid using the same ones over and over

Mental stimulation – creating problem solving tasks and training new behaviours is a great way to keep the mind young and your dog feeling engaged and important in your family. Don’t underestimate the power of a short training session that invokes new learning. This not only keeps life interesting but it also helps with neurological health. It is totally true that old dogs can learn new tricks!

Dental maintenance – your dog’s mouth needs to be healthy in order for them to age gracefully. Dental disease can wreak havoc on the body, especially the heart and other internal organs. Starting with good oral health practices in young dogs is the best way to prevent oral disease in your senior. This means getting them used to having your hands and other objects in and around their mouth. Spend the time to make this process a non-issue. Good oral hygiene practices include:

-Feeding size-appropriate raw bones for chewing and scraping plaque off of your dog’s teeth. Science shows that this is undeniably one of the best ways to reduce plaque buildup (5) Even one or two bones a month can do the job. Just remember that bones must be large enough that they cannot be swallowed whole. Knuckle (joint) bones from large animals (beef or buffalo) are the very best type of bone for removing stubborn plaque from the back molars where plaque is more likely to develop.

-Tooth brushing is an added bonus to a healthy fresh food diet – you can use a combination of enzymatic toothpaste along with therapeutic-grade coconut oil to reduce tartar build-up on the teeth.

-Veterinary dental cleanings might be indicated as your dog ages. Do as much preventative maintence as you can to reduce the number of anesthetic procedures your dog has to have. Always weight the risks and benefits of the individual when deciding on veterinary dental procedures. Small breeds often have to have more dental maintence than large breeds.

Homeopathy – One of my favorite subjects and specialties, homeopathy is an energetic modality of medicine that helps the body stay as close to homeostasis as possible. It’s a great tool in both preventative health and when disease is present. It now has a growing body of research showing the clear health benefits in a variety of disease processes.

Love – yes, this might sound cheesy but the energy of love is real. The feeling of love is scientifically defined by a chemical that gets released in our brain called oxytocin. This chemical plays a role in how we form bonds and trusts with other individuals, including dogs. Feeling safe is a part of feeling trust and when animals feel safe and loved by their people, their stress levels go down. This can be tracked through a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol which reduces in the presence of oxytocin. Oxytocin and cortisol are both released in accordance to environmental factors. We can’t control all environmental things but we can control some – and this is a really important one! Promoting the release of oxytocin and reducing cortisol levels can help reduce chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease in the body and greatly influences social learning and behaviour. (6)

Use Your Intuition!

As mentioned above, there are a lot of things we should be considering as our dog goes through the various stages of life. It is imperative that you keep your intuition working to notice when your dog needs a change in any of the above areas. If they are finding something too hard or demonstrating physical or mental discomfort, it’s our job to notice well before it turns into a chronic issue. Don’t’ ignore the little things and they won’t snowball into big things!

What Veterinary Maintenance Should My Dog Have As They Age?

Veterinary maintenance is an individual choice and I always try to weight out the risk vs. the benefit of any procedures that need to be considered. Here is what I recommend to my clients:

A yearly wellness exam – This is simple a physical exam that can help you spot early signs of disease. A wellness exam does NOT include vaccination, only a physical check. Read below for vaccination info.

-Yearly blood work after 5 years old (or sooner if indicated) – a full geriatric blood panel plus urinalysis which will look at your dog’s red and white blood cell function, liver, kidney, pancreas and thyroid function. These results are great baseline indicators of health and can reveal problems well before symptoms develop so you can stay on top of your dog’s health.

Avoiding unnecessary chemical flea and tick treatments – flea and tick treatments are serious neurotoxins that can adversely affect their neurological health when given regularly. (7) This is not a form of preventative care that I recommend at all. All flea and tick medications should be used with extreme caution, especially in dogs that have known health issues. Consider using natural alternatives whenever possible and only using chemicals if it is absolutely necessary, in other words, if there is an actual flea or tick issue. Stop treatments as soon as the issue is resolved. Do not use chemicals as preventative care – the risks far outweigh the benefits when they are used too often! A great natural topical alternative is using aromatherapy flea and tick sprays that effectively deter external parasites as your dog makes their way through the world.

Titer testing instead of vaccination – once your dog has had their initial vaccinations, titre testing is a non-invasive way to check (via bloodwork) if your dog is maintaining healthy antibody levels against the core viruses that veterinarians vaccinate for. These include parvo, distemper and rabies. By titer testing every 1-3 years, you can avoid unnecessary vaccinations which can increase inflammation in the body and disturb the immune system. Stay tuned for an article on this very controversial subject.

Additional minimally-invasive diagnostics – depending on the individual status of your dog’s health, other diagnostics may be indicated for exploring the possibility of underlying disease. It’s important to consider these as part of a preventative wellness plan. Some procedures that might be indicated include ultrasound, fine need aspirate (when determining the origin of a lump), echocardiogram, CT scan and MRI.

Be Your Dog’s Advocate

Remember that YOU are your dog’s best friend. You know them best and can notice their needs well before anyone else can, including your vet. Your veterinarian requires good feedback from you in order to help you care for your dog. And you need to be paying attention so the little things get addressed in a timely fashion. Don’t be scared to say no to procedures or treatments that don’t feel right to you and stick with your gut feelings if you think something might be off.

I hope this guide helps you to better navigate life with your senior canine friends!

References:

  1. Honey’s Raw Proof Report – 2 year study on serum parameters on raw fed dogs vs. commercially fed dogs, 2020
  2. PLOS ONE: The fecal microbiome and metabolome differs between dogs fed bones and raw food (BARF) diets and dogs fed commercial diets, 2018
  3. Frontiers in Veterinary Science: Gut microbiota development in the growing dog: a dynamic process influenced by maternal, environmental and host factors. 2022
  4. Frontiers in Veterinary Science: Obesity, inflammation and cancer in dogs: Review and perspectives, 2022
  5. Australian Veterinary Journal: Raw beef bones as chewing items to reduce dental calculus in Beagle dogs, 2016
  6. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: The physiological function of oxytocin in humans and its acute response to human-dog interactions: a review of the literature, 2019
  7. Veterinary Medicine and Science: Survey of canine use and safety of isoxazoline parasiticides, 2020