Pet Care

Care of the older dog

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What is it?

As your dog gets older, you may notice that they cannot walk so far, tire more easily, and are less able to jump in and out of the car, or climb the stairs. These are often due to underlying diseases such as arthritis, but may also be a natural consequence of old age.

Why is it important?

Quality of life is a very important consideration when caring for an older dog. We as vets have the privilege to end a pet’s life peacefully and painlessly when they are suffering from an illness which will prevents a good quality of life, or age related deterioration of joints mean that they can no longer get up and about as they would want to.

There are a number of problems that may need to be managed in older dogs:


This is the term given to age related degeneration of the joints, when the cartilage wears away and the body cannot replace it. Joint surfaces become roughened and the body tries to heal by laying down new bone, which further restricts joint movement.

These are some of the ways which we can help with pain caused by arthritis:

  • Pain relief - non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which can be prescribed by your vet. Do not use human painkillers (they can be toxic), and there are no “over the counter” painkillers for long term pain relief in dogs.
  • Joint supplements - glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin are building blocks for cartilage and can help support joint health.
  • Surgical joint replacement - often expensive, and very case specific, but can give dogs a new lease of life by replacing worn-out hips and, sometimes, elbows.
  • Hydrotherapy.
  • Acupuncture.
  • Cartrophen injections - giving the body some help to support the cartilage.
  • Keeping your dog at a healthy weight - weight gain can seriously reduce the dog’s mobility, as well as affecting heart and organ function, and increasing the risk of diabetes.
  • Making sure that the dog has plenty of comfortable places to rest - such as beds containing memory foam bedding.
  • Helping the dog in and out of the car, sometimes with the aid of a ramp.
  • Consistent, regular exercise appropriate to your dog’s requirements.

  • Organ disease

    Many organs deteriorate with age, for example liver, kidneys, and heart.

  • Blood tests, chest X rays, and/or heart scans will identify these issues.
  • Your dog can be fed a prescription diet that supports their liver and kidney function, as well as given medical support for these organs.

  • Cancer (tumours)

  • Common types of cancer in dogs include lymphoma (cancer of the white blood cells), bone, skin, intestines, liver, spleen, mammary glands, and testicles.
  • Each cancer has a different treatment and prognosis, and it is important to consider how the dog will be affected when deciding on a treatment plan.

  • Tumours of the spleen

  • Tumours of the spleen can develop with no signs of the dog being unwell.
  • These tumours often are composed of abnormal blood vessels, and may rupture, causing severe internal blood loss and sudden collapse.
  • The spleen can be surgically removed, but the tumour causing this is usually a haemangiosarcoma, which carries a poor long term prognosis.

  • Mammary tumours and pyometra

  • Getting your female dog spayed early in life if you are not planning to breed her can significantly reduce the risk of mammary cancer later on in life.
  • Pyometra (infection of the uterus) can occur in any age entire female dog, but it is more common in older females who develop inflammation and fluid production in the uterus which becomes infected, causing pus in the uterus and a life threatening infection.
  • Mammary tumours (breast cancer) are also very common, but the risk is reduced approximately 200-fold by early neutering. About 50% are malignant, but if caught early complete surgical removal is often possible.

  • Dental disease

  • Dental disease is a leading cause of poor welfare in dogs.
  • Older dogs often have more wear and tear of their teeth, and may suffer from dental abscesses or advancing dental disease.
  • Home care and tooth brushing should ideally be carried out throughout your dog’s life.

  • Slipped discs

  • May result in the dog becoming paralysed. Typically caused by a bulging disc in the older dog with pressure on the spinal cord.
  • Treatment may sometimes be surgical, or sadly even require euthanasia if the dog is paralysed with little chance of recovery.
  • In many cases, however, dogs with a “bad back” can be managed with pain relief and assistance to jump or climb stairs while they heal.

  • Reduction in sight and hearing

  • Cataracts are common in older dogs. Cataracts can be surgically removed if appropriate for the patient.
  • Dogs with reduced hearing are less obvious, and usually not treatable, but can be trained to respond to hand signals, maintaining a good quality of life.

  • Weight loss

    Sudden weight loss can be a sign of organ disease, such as kidney or liver problems, diabetes, or the development of a tumour.

    Cushing’s disease

  • Panting and drinking excessively are signs of Cushings, which can be diagnosed with blood tests.
  • Cushing’s is usually treated with life-long medication.

  • Diabetes

  • Overweight dogs are particularly prone to diabetes.
  • It can be managed at home with daily insulin injections.
  • There are cost considerations for long term treatment and an unstable diabetic can be a very sick patient.

  • Urinary and faecal incontinence

  • Can become difficult to manage at home. Urinary incontinence can be managed medically depending on the cause.
  • Sometimes this is due to senility - see below.

  • Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

  • Also known as senile dementia, this is quite common in older dogs.
  • It typically involves changes in behaviour, altered sleep/wake cycles, and often confusion and distress as well as loss of toilet training.
  • Treatment is typically with medication to improve brain function, and providing a regular routine. Sadly, in many cases, the end result is euthanasia, but the medications will often slow down the progress and give a period of good quality of life.

  • Vestibular disease

  • Caused by damage to the nerve controlling the balance centre in the middle ear.
  • The dog may collapse with his eyes flicking back and forth as if he is dizzy. In many cases, it looks as if the dog has had a stroke, but fortunately it is much less dangerous than that.
  • This can usually be managed medically - it generally resolves over 2-3 weeks - but a few dogs may be left with a permanent disability.

  • How can I protect my pet?

    While old age is inevitable, the associated problems can often be managed more effectively if detected early. Regular vet checkups are therefore really important in the older dog!

    Other top tips to help support them include...

  • Ensure your older dog has a comfortable environment, such as soft bedding, and non-slip flooring.
  • Groom and clip nails regularly to avoid overgrowth and discomfort.
  • Feed an appropriate diet to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of obesity related illness.
  • Blood tests when recommended.
  • See your vet for a checkup as soon as possible if you notice any of the following signs in your dog: weight loss, cough, passing urine or faeces in the house, blood in the urine, vomiting or diarrhoea, drinking more, stiff or lame, getting tired on walks, bad breath, or you have noticed any lumps that are suddenly getting bigger.
  • Know when to say goodbye to an old friend. Assessing your dog’s quality of life with the help of your vet will enable you to decide when the time is right to put them to sleep if they are suffering from age related illness.