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Caring for an Aging Dog

In This Chapter

People flip over puppies, but a well-loved older dog is also beautiful. An older dog has a nobleness about him, a look in the eyes that speaks of years of the special love only a pet can give — trusting, nonjudgmental, and unwaveringly true.

Your dog’s health as he ages is not entirely in your control, but you can have a real impact on his attitude. When you see those first gray hairs appear on his muzzle, getting a little upset about them is natural. The normal life span of a dog isn’t even remotely close to ours, after all, and those first signs of aging remind us that the years between a puppy’s first gasp and the last sighing breath of a dying dog are not really that far apart.
But consider the following: Unless the guesses and assumptions of science are wrong, your dog doesn’t know he’s getting older. His gray hairs do not concern him, nor does he worry about the other visible effects of time, including the thickening of his body and the thinning of his limbs. He doesn’t count the number of times he can fetch a ball before tiring and compare that to his performance when he was a young dog in his prime. He doesn’t know that his time is growing shorter and that he’ll get weaker or grow blind, perhaps, or deaf. He doesn’t know that he’ll die someday.


You know all of that, but this information is a secret best kept to yourself. Your dog takes his cues from you, and when you’re upbeat, encouraging, and loving, he’ll be at his best no matter what his age. Keep your aging dog fit and healthy, and don’t exclude him from your activities. This time can be a special one for both of you, and it’s up to you to make the most of it.

Special Care for Canine Seniors

Next to you, your dog’s best friend as she ages should be her veterinarian. Preventive care is not only more cost-effective than crisis care, but it’s the only way to catch problems before they lessen the quality of your dog’s life.
Maybe you’ve had such a healthy dog that you’ve rarely taken her to the veterinarian. Take her in for a thorough senior-dog physical anyway when she hits 8 or so (as early as 6 for giant breeds, as late as 10 for tiny ones), including whatever tests your veterinarian recommends — blood, urine, and so on. The information these tests provide can spot treatable problems early and provide baseline information against which your veterinarian can compare new data as problems develop.
This rapport with your vet is never more important than when you’re guiding your pet through her senior years.


Your dog’s nutritional needs change as he gets older, and so, in most cases, should his food. If you have been satisfied with a particular food, you may be able to switch to the brand’s formulation for older dogs. If not, your veterinarian may be able to suggest something suitable.
The biggest food-related problem for older dogs is obesity, which puts pressure on joints and internal organs that aren’t able to withstand the pressure. If your pet is portly, talk to your veterinarian about safe ways to trim him down slowly.


Unlike us, dogs have no control over how much they eat: Your dog’s weight depends on your self-control, not his.

Dogs with chronic health problems may end up on a special diet available only through your veterinarian. These diets — which come in both canned and dry varieties — are formulated to address your pet’s particular health needs. Some pets may not like them, especially compared to the fat- and treat-based diet they were on before, but don’t sabotage your pet’s care by adding goodies to the mix. A simple strained broth made from boiling chicken bones with a crushed garlic clove or two — no added salt — may make the diet more palatable. Check with your veterinarian, though, before adding anything else to a prescription diet.
For the rundown on dog food — what’s in it, what your dog needs, and how to choose — see Chapter Ready, Set, Stop: What You Need to Know Before You Choose a Dog.

Putting junior in his place

If you have an older dog and a younger one, the competition between them can be frustrating to the older dog. Here’s an exercise that lets the older dog win and improves the obedience of the younger:
After your younger dog has chased a few balls to get rid of his excess energy, put him in a “down-stay” (make him lie down and tell him to stay — see Chapter Basic Training and Beyond). If you’ve never tried this exercise under such tempting conditions, leave his leash on and then stand on it. Repeat the “stay” command and then throw the ball — a short throw — for your senior dog. Let him get the ball a few times, and then release the younger dog and praise him. Then tell them both they’re wonderful.


“Use it or lose it” is true for both humans and dogs. No matter what her age, exercise keeps your dog’s body in good condition and brightens her outlook.
The secret as dogs age is increasing the frequency and diminishing the intensity. Instead of taking your dog to the park once a week to chase tennis balls until she’s exhausted, take her for a daily walk. When you throw a tennis ball, keep it low to avoid leaps, twists, and hard landings, and consider walking to the park and back rather than driving. Warm-ups and cool-downs are more important for older dogs, whose bodies aren’t as able to withstand the pounding a younger dog endures without pause. Inactivity punctuated by bouts of overexertion isn’t good for any dog, but for the older dog it can be painful or even dangerous.
Despite your best intentions, sometimes an older pet will make like a puppy and play hard. The next morning, she’ll surely feel it. Give her buffered aspirin, 5 milligrams per pound of body weight, every 12 hours. If the stiffness lasts for more than a day, consult your veterinarian. If your dog is on other medications, check with your veterinarian first.
Walking is good exercise for older pets; supervised swimming is another if you have a dog who enjoys it. (Choose a lake or pool rather than a river, and keep her close to the bank.) Keep her moving every day. Push her a little on the distance and the time, or at least try to maintain what you’ve got going, but don’t overextend her — let her set the pace.

Think about games she can do just as well — or better — than when she was younger, such as Sniff Out the Hidden Toy. In my house, senior dog Andy no longer chases tennis balls at a gallop. Put your dog on “stay,” show her a toy, and hide it for her to find.
Very few dogs, even young ones, get enough exercise to keep their nails short without trimming; senior dogs certainly don’t. Arthritis and muscle stiffness make moving around hard enough for older dogs; overgrown nails make things worse, and they’re something that you have the power to fix — so do it. (See Chapter Caring for Nails, Teeth, Nose, Ears, Eyes, Face, and . . . Elsewhere for tips on how to keep nails short.)


One of the most important recent advances in the care of older dogs is in the care of their mouths: Canine dentistry is an area of preventive care that you ignore at your pet’s peril. (See Chapter Caring for Nails, Teeth, Nose, Ears, Eyes, Face, and . . . Elsewhere for a full discussion of dog dental care.) Start teeth brushing when a dog is a puppy — an older dog may never allow you to brush his teeth for the first time.
Preventive care involves brushing your older dog’s teeth — two or three times a week is fine — using gauze wrapped around your finger or a toothbrush, whichever your pet tolerates best. Toothpastes made just for dogs are available, with flavors that appeal to the canine palate and ingredients that can be swallowed. Because dogs can’t spit and rinse, people toothpaste and baking soda, which is high in sodium, aren’t recommended.
Before you start your at-home regimen, your pet will likely need some help from your veterinarian. A complete dental work-up under anesthesia takes 45 minutes to an hour and involves not only cleaning and polishing the teeth, but also treating broken or rotting teeth, cavities, abscesses, and periodontal disease. This procedure is especially important if you’ve neglected your pet’s mouth: Brushing prevents plaque from forming, but it won’t help much with the muck that has already built up — and it won’t fix bad teeth or infections.
Dental care is very important in older dogs, especially small ones, who tend to have mouths crowded with teeth. Neglected mouths can make eating painful. Infections are a problem, too, and the adverse effect of bacteria from chronic mouth infections takes a toll on your pet’s internal organs and can overwhelm his immune system. Bacteria can even travel through the bloodstream from your dog’s mouth to his heart and infect his heart valves.
The benefits of such care extend to more than the elimination of bad breath in an older dog: When your pet is no longer fighting infections and pain, his spirits lift along with his health, all of which can spark his appetite.

Some Common Age-Related Health Problems

Although every dog is an individual, a few age-related maladies seem to strike many of them. You should, of course, discuss how they affect your dog and the best approach to treating them with your veterinarian. But knowing a little bit about what you’re dealing with before you go in is helpful. 

Decline of the senses

Deaf and blind dogs do just fine, as long as you do your part to keep them out of any danger their disabilities may cause. Blindness, in particular, is a problem dogs adjust to with an ease that stuns their owners. But consider the following: Dogs don’t have to read the newspaper, they don’t care about TV, and they count on you to read the ingredients label on a bag of kibble. Sight isn’t their primary sense anyway — they put much greater stock in their senses of smell and hearing. After they learn the layout of the land, they rarely bump into things (as long as you don’t keep moving the furniture).
Handicapped pets should never be allowed off-leash on walks, because they can’t see danger and cannot hear your warnings.


How do you know if your dog is really blind? Lunge at his face menacingly with your finger (don’t make contact!). If he doesn’t blink, he’s blind.

Even if your older dog is blind (or deaf — check by clapping your hands behind his head), you may be able to do something. Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a specialist such as a veterinary ophthalmologist. Problems such as cataracts may be treatable with medications and surgery.


Many dog owners start wondering why their older dogs are no longer house-trained — and how to get them back on track. The first rule of any sudden-onset behavior problem is to make sure that it’s not a health problem, and it could well be a health problem if an older dog is suddenly urinating in the house. Your pet could have an infection or, if she’s an older, spayed female, she may be suffering from the loss of muscle tone related to a decrease in her hormone levels. Both are treatable; see your veterinarian.
At a certain age, a little dribbling of urine is practically inevitable, especially while your older dog is sleeping. You may want to place old rubber-backed bathmats in her favorite sleeping area. They catch the dribble and are easily washable, keeping odor and dampness — and flea eggs — under control. Living with pets, like living with children, can be one big mess.

Lumps and bumps

Benign fatty tumors are common in older dogs, and the vast majority are nothing to worry about. Benign tumors are round and soft, with well-defined edges. You can usually get your fingers nearly around them, and they don’t seem well anchored. Showing them to your veterinarian for a more complete evaluation is important, and you should inform her of any changes in size or shape, especially if they happen rapidly. Your veterinarian may be concerned enough about the size, appearance, or location of a mass to suggest its removal and a biopsy; most bumps, however, are left alone. The best time to check for lumps and bumps? During regular grooming — weekly, at least. Run your hand over every inch of your dog, and don’t forget to talk sweetly — he’ll think it’s petting.


Some breeds — Boxers, for one — are much more prone to cancer, and you should be more aggressive in investigating lumps and bumps. Work with your veterinarian closely to catch any problems early. 


Your veterinarian can help you determine whether the stiffness is because of temporary muscle soreness — say, from overdoing it — or the onset of arthritis. Many dogs feel worse in cold weather and first thing in the morning. Arthritis is common in older dogs, and although no cure exists, treatments are available that can make your pet comfortable. Your veterinarian may prescribe buffered aspirin, food supplements, or anti-inflammatory medications, all of which your pet may need to take for the rest of her life. For your part, you need to be sure that your pet is not overweight and is kept consistently, but not strenuously, active.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories — the best known is Rimadyl — have made life bearable for tens of thousands of older dogs, but they are not without risk. Rimadyl has been implicated in the deaths of many dogs — Labradors, especially, seem to be vulnerable. Don’t let these tragedies dissuade you from considering a medication that can work wonders, but do press your veterinarian to explain all the risks and benefits so you can make the best decision for your pet.

Older dog and new puppy

All the trials of old age can make a dog downright cranky and make some people long to have a puppy in the house. Of course, you want to be sure that your older dog enjoys the change, or at least tolerates it. So should you add a puppy to an older dog’s life?
That depends. For some older dogs, a puppy is a big boost to the senior’s enthusiasm. For others, a puppy’s energy and attention are enough to make an older dog want to leave home. You must determine which of these attitudes your older dog has.
In general, older dogs who are still fit and full of life probably get the most out of an addition to the household; elderly or severely debilitated dogs enjoy it least. No matter what your dog’s age, try to keep tabs on the interaction until you’re sure how things are progressing. Don’t let your older dog overextend himself, and put the puppy in his crate or behind a baby gate to give your oldster a break from time to time. Finally, save some exclusive energy and time for dog number 1: Spend time together, just the two of you, so he realizes he is still very much loved.


Some dogs lose strength in their hindquarters as they age or become paralyzed because of a spinal injury. This condition need not mean euthanasia. A company called K-9 Carts manufactures wheeled devices that allow a dog to be mobile again (see

Reasonable Accommodations

The number of ways you can give your oldster a break is limited only by your imagination. Consider a few tips to get you thinking:

Beds: Think soft. Think cushioned. Think low. Think heated. Your dog will thank you for all these thoughts, especially in cold weather.

Clothes: Canine clothing isn’t just for Poodles anymore. Older dogs, like older people, have a harder time maintaining their body temperature. This problem is even more pronounced in slender, short-coated breeds like the Greyhound or Whippet. So check out the sweater selection at your local pet-supply store, or consider altering one of your own for the task.

Dishes: Raised food and water dishes are a kindness to tall dogs of any age, but they are especially easy on the back of an oldster. You can find them at pet-supply stores or you can make your own.

Ramps and steps: If your dogs are allowed on the couch and the bed, you should be able to find or build something to help the dog who can no longer make it in one jump.

Anesthesia: Weighing the risks

As common as anesthesia is in veterinary medicine, many misconceptions exist about its use where older animals are concerned. Veterinary findings no longer support the idea that the risk of anesthesia outweighs the importance of preventive veterinary care.
The risks can be greatly minimized by a few basic tests, including a laboratory evaluation of blood and urine, a chest X-ray, and possibly an electrocardiogram. Although these tests admittedly add to the cost of a procedure, they allow your veterinarian to provide the life-enhancing and life-extending benefits of preventive care to the pets who need them most.
Your veterinarian may also recommend IV or subcutaneous fluids while your pet is under anesthesia, and, for dental procedures, pre- and post-surgical antibiotics.
No discussion of anesthetic danger can be complete without a few words on your responsibilities where anesthesia is concerned:
– Follow your veterinarian’s instructions on preparing your pet for surgery. If no food is specified, make sure that you deliver a pet with an empty stomach. Following this one piece of advice is one of the easiest and most basic ways to reduce risk. Under anesthesia, a dog can regurgitate and inhale the contents of a full stomach into her lungs.
– Be prepared to provide special home care for your pet after surgery. Releasing animals before the preanesthetic sedation wears off is common practice. Such animals must be kept safe from hot or cold environments because their reflexes are reduced. If you don’t feel comfortable caring for a sedated pet, arrange for your veterinarian to extend the care.
– Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Make sure that you understand what the procedures are and what to expect. For example, pets commonly have a cough after anesthesia because the tube used to deliver the gas may cause some irritation. If the cough does not clear up in a couple days, call your veterinarian.
No matter what the age of the pet, chances are very high that the anesthetic will present no problem if both you and your veterinarian work to minimize the risks.

Knowing When It’s Time to Let Go

Euthanasia, the technical term for putting a person or animal to sleep for humane reasons, is one of the hardest decisions you will ever make, and it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times over the years you face it. Your veterinarian can offer advice, and your friends can offer support, but no one can make the decision for you. When you live with an elderly or terminally ill pet, you look in her eyes every morning and ask yourself, “Is this the day?”
Some owners don’t wait until their pet’s discomfort becomes pain and choose euthanasia much sooner than others would. Some owners use an animal’s appetite as the guide — when an old or ill animal is no longer interested in eating, they reason, he’s not interested in anything at all. And some owners wait until there’s absolutely no doubt the time is at hand.

What about the remains?

You can handle your pet’s remains in many ways, and doing so is easier if you make your decisions beforehand. The choices include having your municipal animal-control department pick up the body, burying the pet in your backyard or at another site (where it’s legal and with the land owner’s permission, of course), arranging for cremation, or contracting with a pet cemetery for full services and burial. Some people even choose to have their pets preserved like hunting trophies, or have a part of them cryogenically saved for cloning later. Again, no choice is wrong. Whatever feels right to you and comforts you best is what you should do.
The next topic is difficult, but you must consider it. If your pet dies unexpectedly or while under the care of your veterinarian and theirs is any question about the cause of death or your veterinarian believes lessons can be learned by performing a postmortem examination, you should agree. This procedure may not help your dog, but it may help hundreds or thousands of others. What better way to demonstrate your love for dogs than to assist in the advancement of care for other pets with similar health problems?
Each guideline can be the right one, for some dogs and some owners at certain times. You do the best you can, and then you try to put the decision behind you and deal with the grief. Ironically, the incredible advances in veterinary medicine in the past couple decades have made the decisions even more difficult for many people. Not too long ago, the best you could do for a seriously ill pet was to make her comfortable until that wasn’t possible anymore. Nowadays, nearly every advantage of human medicine — from chemotherapy to pacemakers — is available to our pets.
If you can afford such extensive care and have a realistic expectation that it will improve your pet’s life — rather than simply prolong it — then it is an option that you should pursue. But let nothing push you into making a decision based on guilt or wishful thinking.


Euthanasia is a kindness extended to a treasured pet, a decision we make at a great cost to ourselves. It is a final act of love, nothing less.

Evaluating euthanasia options

As performed by a veterinarian, euthanasia is a quick and peaceful process. The animal is unconscious within seconds and dead within less than a minute; the euphemism “put to sleep” is actually a perfect description. People who attend the procedure usually come away reassured that their pet felt no fear or pain.

You’re not alone

You may find talking to others about your pet’s death helpful. Ask your veterinarian about pet-loss support groups. Almost unheard of a few decades ago, such groups are available in many communities today. You may also want to see a counselor.
Veterinary schools and colleges have been among the leaders in creating programs to help pet lovers deal with loss. A handful now operate pet-loss hot lines staffed by veterinary students trained to answer questions, offer materials that may help you (including guidelines for helping children with loss), and just plain listen. These programs are wonderful, and they’re free for the cost of the call. (If you call during off hours, they call you back, collect.)
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) lists many pet-loss hotlines at
Some people stay with a pet at the end, and some don’t, but no decision you make regarding the last few minutes of an animal’s life will change the love you shared for the years before those final moments. If you want to be there, then by all means stay. But leaving euthanasia to your veterinarian is no less a humane and loving gesture.
Call ahead to set the appointment, and make it clear to the receptionist what you’re coming for. (The tone of your voice will probably tip her off, anyway.) That way, the practice can ensure that you don’t have to sit in the waiting room but can instead be immediately ushered into an exam room, if you choose to remain with your dog. Your veterinarian will do his best to answer all your questions and make you comfortable with everything before proceeding. He may clip the fur on your dog’s foreleg to have easier and quicker access to the vein for the injection of the euthanizing agent; he may also choose to presedate your pet.


Crying is normal, and your veterinarian will understand. So, too, will your dog.

You may want to hold your hand near your dog’s nose so the last sniff will be of you. You may want to spend a few minutes with your pet afterward, and your veterinarian will understand that as well, and will give you all the time you need alone to begin the process of coming to grips with your loss.
You may be more comfortable with having your pet euthanized at home. If this is what you want, discuss the matter with your veterinarian directly. Many vets extend this special service to long-time clients. If yours doesn’t, you may alternatively consider making arrangements with a mobile veterinarian.
Several manufacturers offer markers for your yard to memorialize your pet; they are often advertised in the back of magazines like Dog Fancy. Other choices include large rocks or slabs of stone, or a tree or rose bush. Even if you choose not to have your pet’s body or ashes returned, placing a memorial in a special spot may soothe you.


Another way to celebrate the memory of your dog is to make a donation to your local humane society, regional school of veterinary medicine, or other favorite animal charity. A donation in a beloved pet’s name is a wonderful act to do for a friend who has lost a pet as well.

Dealing with loss

Many people are surprised at the powerful emotions that erupt after a pet’s death, and they are embarrassed by their grief. Remembering that pets have meaning in our lives beyond the love we feel for the animal alone may help. Often we don’t realize that we are grieving not only for the pet we loved, but also for the special time the animal represented.
Taking care of yourself is important at this difficult time. Some people — the “it’s just an animal” crowd — will not understand your feelings and may even shrug off your grief as foolish. The company of other animal lovers is very important. Seek them out to share your feelings. In some areas, pet-loss support groups may be available. Search the Internet for pet loss to come up with sites that can help. And don’t forget the AVMA pet-loss hotlines available at the link given in the nearby sidebar, “You’re not alone.”


A difficult time, to be sure, but in time, the memories become a source of pleasure, not pain. Coming to terms with grief has no set timetable, but it happens.

A handful of books and one really fine video may help you help your child with the loss of a pet. From Fred Rogers (yes, Mr. Rogers of the Neighborhood) comes the book When a Pet Dies (Putnam) and the video Death of a Goldfish. Rachel Biale’s My Pet Died (Tricycle Press) not only helps children cope better by giving them pages to fill in, but also offers parents advice in special pages that can be torn out. Finally, Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Aladdin) is a book that experts in pet loss have been recommending for years.

What If You Go First?

First things first: You can’t leave your estate to your dog, because in the eyes of the law, an animal is an “it,” with little more legal status than a chair. Nor can you set up a trust for your pet, for the same reason. The beneficiary of a trust must be a bona fide human being, and the fact that you think of your dog as a person doesn’t really matter, because the courts don’t.
Of course, you should discuss this matter with your attorney, but talking it over with your friends and family is even more important, because you must find one of them to care for your pet after you’re gone. You must state that you’re leaving your dog to that person, along with enough money to provide for the animal’s care for life. You have no real control over the outcome, which is why you need to choose someone you trust and then hope for your dog’s sake that things turn out okay.
No one likes to think about dying. But you have a responsibility to loved ones you leave behind, and that includes your pets. Talk to your friends, your family, and even your veterinarian. Call an attorney. Don’t rely on the kindness of strangers to care for your pet if something happens to you. Your dog deserves better than that.


The Association of the Bar of New York City offers an online guide called “Providing for Your Pets in the Event of Your Death or Hospitalization” at And if you want to read more about caring for your senior dog, pick up a copy of Senior Dogs For Dummies by Susan McCullough (Wiley).

by Eve Adamson, Richard G. Beauchamp, Margaret H. Bonham, Stanley Coren, Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sarah Hodgson, Connie Isbell, Susan McCullough, Gina Spadafori, Jack and Wendy Volhard, Chris Walkowicz, M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD 

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