Are you considering adopting a senior dog and wondering how their care or nutrition might be different from a younger dog’s? Or do you already have a dog and have questions like “Does a dog’s appetite decrease with age?” If so, this is the blog for you!
We’ll discuss what to expect when adopting a senior dog and whether your older dog could benefit from a senior diet. But first, let’s find out why a Great Dane is considered a senior long before a Chihuahua is.
What Makes a Dog a Senior Dog?
If you’re wondering at what age dogs become seniors, the short answer is: there is no exact number. Every dog ages on their own timeline, depending on their breed, size, genetics, nutrition and environment. In general, the larger the breed or size of the dog, the shorter their life span. Research on why small breeds live longer suggests that large dogs simply age faster than small dogs and appear to have more wear and tear on their bodies.
If you’re looking for a clearer definition of what a senior dog is, look at the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) guidelines for canine life stage definitions. The AAHA categorizes five life stages for dogs — puppy, young adult, mature adult, senior and end-of-life — based on the different approaches to preventative care that are needed for each stage. The AAHA definition of a senior dog is “from the last 25 percent of estimated life span through end-of-life.” End-of-life is defined as “the terminal stage (depends on the specific pathologies).”
Interesting Side Note: The Dog Aging Project
Everyone wants their pet to live a life as long and as healthy as possible, and a group of researchers at the Dog Aging Project are attempting to learn how to make this a realty. Their goal is to understand how genes, lifestyle and the environment influence aging, and to use that information to accelerate medical breakthroughs for dogs (and people) and increase the period of life spent free of disease.
The Dog Aging Project is a collaboration between dogs, owners, veterinarians, researchers and volunteers that follows tens of thousands of dogs for 10 years. By following the lives of these dogs, the researchers hope to identify what biological and environmental factors maximize healthy longevity. An important part of their research is not just to help dogs live longer but to make sure those added years are also healthy years.
Senior Dogs May Have Special Needs — or Not
Aging itself isn’t a disease, but it can be associated with a variety of health conditions because an older dog’s body can’t repair and protect itself as effectively as a younger dog’s. For example, being older tends to increase the likelihood of developing a chronic disease like kidney disease, heart disease or arthritis. These diseases can mean an older dog needs extra veterinary care as well as extra care at home.
Nutritional needs can also be affected by age-related changes. For example, metabolism naturally slows, reducing your dog’s energy requirement, and activity levels tend to decline, decreasing muscle activity and energy expenditure. They can also have a decreased sense of smell and taste and a reduced ability to use protein and fat from food.
But, and this is a big “but,” not every senior dog will need special care or special nutrition. Some dogs can remain healthy and active their whole lives and thrive on an adult maintenance diet. This is more likely to occur if they receive optimal nutrition and preventative veterinary healthcare (e.g., annual checkups) which can help promote longevity and quality of life.
So, Is Adopting an Older Dog Worth the “Trouble”?
If you’re considering adopting a dog and are looking for advice on “What to avoid when adopting a dog?” you shouldn’t automatically include “adopting older dogs” on that list. There are plenty of myths out there about adopting a senior dog, and most of them aren’t entirely true.
Some people believe that older shelter dogs must have been surrendered due to their bad behavior. That may be true for a small minority of dogs, but there are many other (more likely) reasons that older dogs are surrendered. Similarly, senior dogs sometimes aren’t adopted because people think the dog won’t want to bond with them. But they can be just as affectionate as puppies — they want to be loved, too! And despite the old adage, you can teach an old dog new tricks, so this shouldn’t stop you from adopting an older dog — if you’re lucky, they’ve already been trained.
Older dogs can have age-related health conditions that increase the cost of veterinary bills, but many older dogs are perfectly healthy. Plus, younger dogs can have health issues, too, so a younger dog doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier (and less expensive) dog.
Expert Tips for Adopting a Senior Dog
You fell in love and decided to adopt a grey-muzzled, senior-citizen canine from the shelter. Yay! But wait, not only do you have to think about “How should I prepare to adopt a dog?” you also have to think about what might be different about bringing home an elderly dog compared to a young ’un. To help you out, Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips, has some senior dog adoption tips and advice on what to be prepared for when bringing home a dog “of a certain age.”
Long-term health issues like arthritis, tummy troubles and forgetfulness are more likely with an older dog, so you should be prepared to provide extra care, including veterinary and hospice care. Potty accidents are also more likely, which means your dog will need to be let outside more often and may need “doggy diapers” to help prevent accidents. Remember that not every dog will need this amount of care — some will be healthy all the way through their twilight years.
Another senior dog adoption tip is to prepare your home to make life a little easier and more comfortable for your new grey-haired friend. This could include adding ramps to make going up and down stairs easier, placing nightlights around the house or feeding your older dog at different times than your other pets. Being older can make dogs a little more wary and irritable, so make sure they’re given opportunities to escape from boisterous younger pets (and humans) if they need to.
Could Your Older Dog Benefit from a Senior Diet?
As we mentioned earlier, every dog ages at their own pace. But all dogs start to experience some internal changes as they age, and some are likely to develop health issues. The type of changes that can occur include increased or decreased body weight, decreased appetite, difficulty chewing or eating, changes in muscle mass and tummy troubles.
When to feed your dog a senior food is a question you should discuss with your veterinarian, but if your dog has age-related health issues or is undergoing physical changes, they may benefit from switching to a senior diet that is a variation of adult maintenance diets. Some “old dog diets” are lower in fat (calories) and higher in fiber and may also have added supplements to help with joint issues or digestive problems. Not all senior foods are formulated the same, so it’s important to discuss with your veterinarian which food is best for your senior dog.
Is Senior Dog Food Necessary?
Optimal nutrition is essential for promoting healthy aging, maintaining health, preventing disease and managing health conditions. Many adult maintenance and all life-stages dog foods can be beneficial or even better for some dogs than a senior diet. But if your dog has a health condition or has signs of the physical changes often seen in older dogs, your veterinarian may discuss the pros and cons of a senior vs. adult dog food, as a senior diet may help improve their symptoms or slow disease progression.
Older dogs have the same nutritional requirements as younger dogs but the amount per pound of body weight may need to change or the way the nutrients are provided. For dogs that are losing weight or have a reduced appetite, an energy-dense, palatable food will help them maintain or gain weight. A moderate protein content in the diet can help improve the taste, which can also help encourage them to eat.
Some of the additives that may be in senior diets include omega fatty acids that are important for skin health, and antioxidants that support your dog’s immune system and help protect against harmful free radicals. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate can help rebuild joint cartilage along with other benefits.
Your dog may fit into the “senior” category, but if they’re healthy, in good body condition and eating a complete and balanced diet, they may not need a senior dog food.
Just like for people, your dog’s age is only a number. Many dogs live long and happy lives and can stay healthy well past the average life span of their breed. Optimal nutrition, appropriate veterinary care and a comfortable home can go a long way to keeping your furry friend around for as long as possible.
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