As much as we’d like to pretend it doesn’t happen, just as humans, our pets also age and grow old. The puppy and kitten stages pass in less than a blink of an eye, and before we know it, they reach adulthood. Adulthood then gradually advances in our pets’ senior years.
So what are some of the most common changes we can expect as our pets reach their more advanced years? We’ve made a list of the top 10 changes we see:
All dogs’ hair and fur color change as they age. Depending on the breed, most dogs grow their adult undercoat when they reach their teenage stage (around 10-14 months old). As they continue to age, many dogs start to grow gray and white hairs, just like humans! The grays and whites typically start appearing around the muzzle and gradually spread to include more and more of the face. Some dogs develop gray and white hairs on other areas of their bodies as well, such as around the belly and inside the ears.
Most dogs become calmer as they advance from puppyhood into adulthood, and then continue to slow down as they move further into seniors. There are many reasons for slowing down, including behavioral changes, joint damages, muscle loss, and arthritis.
Larger dogs tend to be more prone to developing arthritis, especially in the carpal bones (front wrists), stifles (back knees), and hips. Dogs with long bodies and short legs, such as corgis and dachshunds, are prone to arthritis between the vertebrae of the spine and commonly suffer from intervertebral disc disease.
Intervertebral disc disease can be life-threatening, so it’s important to discourage dogs prone to developing it from jumping up and down and running on stairs. Keeping our dogs lean and muscular, as well as providing joint supplements early on for dogs that are more prone to joint problems are great ways to keep them as limber and youthful for as long as possible.
As dogs decrease their activity levels and their metabolism slows down, many dogs begin to gain weight. It’s prudent to encourage a healthy and controlled diet in order to avoid all of the illnesses that can come with weight gains, such as exacerbation of arthritis, joint problems, and diabetes.
Most dogs develop cloudiness in their eyes as they age. There are many different eye-related diseases that can look like this, so it’s important to get a diagnosis from a veterinarian. However, the most common of these is a condition called ‘nuclear sclerosis’ or ‘lenticular sclerosis’.
When dogs develop nuclear sclerosis, their eyes appear to have a gray to a bluish tint that can be especially visible in brighter lighting. The good news is that, unlike cataracts, nuclear sclerosis doesn’t cause significant vision impairment or discomfort.
Bad breath and dental disease
Just like humans, plaque, bacteria, and food particles build up over time on dogs’ teeth. And just like your human dentist would advise, daily or twice daily brushing of the teeth is important for maintaining good canine oral hygiene. Unfortunately, most dogs don’t understand or tolerate it. Over time, the gunk on the teeth and under the gum line hardens into a substance called calculus, which is almost impossible to remove without an ultrasonic cleaner. Calculus causes inflammation and infection within the mouth and slowly eats away at gum tissue, periodontal ligaments that hold teeth within the gums, and even the surrounding bone within the jaw. If these methods seem too difficult, you can also try Wellnergy Pets Dental Care Water Additive and Dental Care Wipes. They're my favorite combo improving our feline friends' dental routine!
Heart murmurs are a common age-related development in senior dogs. A heart murmur is an abnormal sound that occurs at the same time as a normal heartbeat. The heart, like all muscles, can start to become weaker with age; four valves in the heart open to allow blood to flow through the heart in one direction, and close (the closing of valves is what causes a heartbeat sound) to prevent blood from flowing backward. As the valves weaken with time, blood escapes and flows backward, causing an abnormal ‘whooshing’ sound. Dogs with heart murmurs should take supplements that improve heart health while avoiding sodium in their diets. It’s important to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations on how to monitor your dog’s heart murmur, which can include further diagnostic tests and other medications.
It’s important to note that age-related heart murmurs are not the same as breed predisposed or diet-related heart murmurs. If you are worried about a heart murmur in your dog, please consult with your veterinarian.
Many dogs suffer from hearing loss as they grow older. It’s important to remain patient with your dog and to develop visual cues you can use to communicate with your dog.
There are many different causes for coughing, but older dogs are more prone to developing a condition called ‘chronic bronchitis’. Bronchitis is a condition in which the lungs become inflamed due to an over-reactive immune system and without the presence of infection, cancer, or other externa cause. Bronchitis can be diagnosed by your veterinarian with a set of chest x-rays and once diagnosed, can be managed by a few different medications.
An inherited but often age-exacerbated coughing condition is called ‘tracheal collapse’. Many smaller breed dogs inherit this condition, where the trachea, or windpipe, spasms and closes on itself, causing coughing fits. This most often occurs when barking, exercising, or panting.
Lumps & bumps
Lumps and bumps, or masses, start appearing as dogs advance to middle and old age. These can grow anywhere on the body, including on the skin, under the skin, or deep within the body cavity. It’s important to pet and examine your dog at home for superficial growths because while many are benign and harmless, cancerous masses can develop as well. Any new mass should be examined by a veterinarian, especially if it is growing quickly, bothers your dog, or changes in any way. Internal masses are much more difficult to find, so that’s why it’s important to have your veterinarian perform annual physical exams, bloodwork, and possibly even x-rays to look for any signs of disease.
Believe it or not, just like humans, dogs can develop dementia as well! Dementia is a disease of exclusion, meaning it can only be concluded after other diseases are ruled out. A dog with dementia may pace, wander, bark, howl, or generally act ‘off’ behaviorally.
We hope this list helps you identify some signs of age-related changes your dog may be experiencing. Please contact your veterinarian if you have any pressing questions or concerns about any of the above, or if your dog is experiencing any unusual behaviors. Of course, feel free to reach out to our team on Facebook, Instagram, email, or the comments section below if you have any further questions. We’d love to see pictures of your older pups so don’t forget to tag #wellnergypets!
About the Author:
Dr. Debra Chen, D.V.M. has been a practicing companion animal veterinarian for over three years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to moving to the Bay, she received both her veterinary and undergraduate degrees at the University of Minnesota. After spending a third of her life in Taiwan, she is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Her veterinary interests include preventative medicine, animal behavior, and surgery. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Chen can be found camping, hiking, eating, or traveling with her husband and Formosan Mountain Dog, Tuna. They also share a home with their two feline overlords, brown tabby cats Cairo and Khaleesi.