Every dog ages differently and the dog’s body is affected by age in different ways based on activity, genetics, and nutrition. Larger breeds tend to age quicker but all dogs are eventually affected by age-related issues (1). These issues can affect the dog’s ability to process food, their behavior, mobility, and temperament. As your dog ages, your dog will need different care and providing the best quality of life requires an understanding of what’s happening to them (2).
The first sign of normal aging shows itself through age-related diseases. Just like humans, there are a host of degenerative diseases that are more likely to affect older dogs. Two of the most frequent are joint disorders and cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which can be managed but not cured. Unfortunately, cancer and liver failure are also common in older dogs. However, not all changes are related to disease. For example, you may begin noticing fatty lumps underneath your dog’s skin. These are called lipomas and are caused by the metabolic system using less energy. Lipomas are harmless, but you should still get lumps checked by a vet, as they could also be caused by cancer.
Dogs of every age experience digestive issues from time to time, but as they get older, annoyances like constipation, diarrhea, and gas can become increasingly common. Aspects of their physical health change naturally with age, but poor diet, reduced digestive enzymes, and unbalanced gastrointestinal flora can wreak havoc on both their digestive and immune systems. With age often comes reduced amounts of gastric, pancreatic and other digestive system secretions. Additional problems like poor dentition, inadequate diet, and an unhealthy microbiome can set the stage for weak digestion and reduced nutrient absorption. This can lead to reduced immune function and leakage of unwanted molecules into the circulatory system (aka leaky gut), which can cause adverse outcomes for other systems of the body. Occasional gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, poor elimination, temporary fatty stool, fatigue, headache, and numerous other local and systemic outcomes may be indicators of gut health decline. Generally speaking, enzymes are catalysts that speed up biological reactions. Digestively speaking, they lower the amount of energy that is required to transform the foods your dog eats into molecules that are small enough to pass through the intestines and into circulation. These can be your dog’s own self-produced enzymes or enzymatic supplements taken with meals (3).
Examples of the most common enzymes are amylases that digest carbohydrates, lipases that digest fats, and proteases that digest proteins. Without these enzymes, they would be unable to break the molecular bonds that hold their food together to unlock the nutrients and energy within. While their bodies do produce their own enzymes, it is clear that production can decrease with age and ill health. Fortunately, wise diet and lifestyle choices play a role in the way they age and may be of great help in supporting digestive and overall well-being.
Another sign of an aging dog is behavioral changes (4). There are a variety of ways that aging can affect a dog’s behavior. Your dog may be less enthusiastic about greeting you, or more cautious about exploring when on walks. A dog suffering from cognitive dysfunction may also appear confused or unstable at times. While cognitive dysfunction and symptoms of dementia aren’t curable, there are treatments and healthy aging supplements that can help reduce the effects. You may notice strange behaviors, such as staring at a wall, slow response times or an unwillingness to go outside. As you would expect, older dogs also tend to sleep more and have less energy. They need longer periods of uninterrupted rest, so try to avoid disturbing your dog when he’s sleeping during the day.
Infected gums and teeth issues are some of the most common and observable issues that can be seen in the dog as it ages. Tooth decay and infected gums are common problems for older dogs. Common signs include bad breath, plaque, swollen gums and a loss of appetite. Aside from being uncomfortable, decaying teeth can allow serious infections to enter the bloodstream (5). Fixing dental issues can increase your dog’s happiness, allow him to eat more comfortably and prevent infection. Along with teeth and gums, you’ll also notice that your dog’s skin becomes less elastic as the number of available collagen declines.
Joint pain and stiffness are signs of an aging dog and they are caused by joint degradation. Dogs instinctively hide aches and pains, so symptoms may not be immediately obvious. But as joint deterioration gets worse, you may notice they are less mobile especially in the morning or after a long walk. It’s important to adjust your dog’s exercise schedule to accommodate these changes. Long and vigorous walks are almost guaranteed to make them sore and may speed up joint degradation, so it’s best to go on multiple short walks instead. An orthopedic bed that evenly distribute your dog’s weight when sleeping is also essential, as these can help reduce stiffness and soreness. Aside from less vigorous exercise, there are joint health supplements that can help improve your dog’s joint health and quality of life. Supplements featuring glucosamine and chondroitin can provide advanced joint support for senior dogs.
The next sign of change in an aging dog consists of the loss of senses (6). A dog’s sense of smell, eyesight, and hearing all begin to degrade as they get older. Some dogs may eventually become blind or deaf especially if the underlying cause isn’t treated. The first signs of hearing or sight loss are often subtle. Your dog may be more easily startled (or even become aggressive) when someone approaches them, as they might not be aware of the person. They may also become less responsive to commands. Both of these signs are often mistaken for “bad behavior,” which can lead to punishment and even greater stress for the dog. For this reason, it’s important to make small changes to make daily life easier for your dog. Make sure that water bowls, food, and his bed are always in the same place, so they are easy to find. You should also avoid making sudden movements, even if it’s just to stroke your dog, as these can be frightening.
Another sign of aging I would like to point out is weight loss and/or weight gain. Both weight gain and loss can be caused by aging. Reduced exercise can mean more of your dog’s calorie intake is stored as fat, but issues with digestion or lack of appetite can have the opposite effect. Senior dog foods often have fewer calories, which makes it easier to manage your dog’s weight gain. Whichever food you use, always weigh each portion so you know exactly how much your dog is eating. The only way to properly manage your dog’s weight is to weigh them regularly and adjust the diet.
The final sign of aging I would like to focus on is the possibility of incontinence. Dogs often find it more difficult to control their bladder as they get older. While most don’t lose complete control, the occasional indoor accident is a common side effect of aging. Accidents can be distressing for the dog, so they should never be punished. Instead, try to give your dog more opportunity to do their business throughout the day.
In conclusion, all dogs age differently, so it’s important to care for your dog in a way that meets their unique requirements. The first step is to understand and identify the issues caused by aging. You should visit your dog’s vet if you notice behavioral changes, lumps, incontinence or any other symptoms, as these could be caused by a treatable (or at least manageable) disease.
1.Pg. 273, SACN