A Senior Dog’s Health Needs: Advice From a Veterinarian

Do you have a dog that’s at least 7 years old? In this article, Dr. Kenya Crawford, DVM, discusses senior dogs’ health needs.

Senior dogs' health needs

We all know that dogs do not live as long as we do.

Often those years approach quicker than we realize. It’s a hard truth to face, but if your dog is at least 7 years old, he or she is now a senior citizen.

For a senior pet, the specific needs have changed. Routine visits with the veterinarian, proper nutrition and an awareness of common symptoms of illness will greatly aid in the life expectancy and quality of life of your dog. In this article we will discuss the special love your dog now requires.

As a veterinarian, I often find that my clients look at me with perplexity when I announce their beloved dog is a senior.

Their expressions quickly turn into concern and worry. “Doc, how much longer will he be around?” and “What can I do?” are questions that immediately follow.

Get to Know Your Veterinarian

First, it is important to have a great relationship with your veterinarian.

We are among your greatest sources for advice. I recommend that every senior pet have an examination at least every six months. It’s amazing the changes that can occur month to month in animals as they grow older, and waiting a year (or more) between examinations can become a gamble to your pet’s health.

During exams, veterinarians often pick up on subtle differences you may not be aware of. Believe me, it is best to know about potential problems before they become problematic!

I also strongly recommend that at least once a year, general blood work be conducted. General blood work gives us a peek into the overall internal function of your pet. Once again, if subtle changes are detected sooner, we can stop problems before they start.

At times, clients have said to me, “I would rather not know if something is wrong; I just couldn’t take hearing the bad news.” In my opinion, that is the equivalent of saying, “I would rather not help if something is wrong.”

Veterinary medicine has greatly evolved. Each day new discoveries are being made that will increase the life of our pets. But we cannot help or change what we aren’t aware of.

With that said, visit the veterinarian at least twice each year, and at least once each year request that general blood work be performed.

Watch for These Signs of Trouble

Second, you should be aware of certain non-discrete signs pets may have when something is wrong.

Some symptoms are obvious, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and not eating or wanting to play. Other symptoms aren’t so obvious.

Here is a general list of common signs to keep in mind:

  1. Constantly thirsty and drinking a lot of water
  2. Heat seeking — always appears to be cold and staying by heated places
  3. Gradual loss and/or thinning of hair
  4. Persistent cough that is slowly becoming worse
  5. Increased trouble going up and down stairs
  6. Bad breath
  7. Losing weight slowly
  8. New lumps and bumps on skin

If your aging dog experiences any of the above signs, don’t panic. Just call your veterinarian today. Together we can help make sure your pet has many more enjoyable birthdays.

Arthritis in Senior Dogs

Now let’s discuss one of my favorite topics to educate dog parents about: arthritis.

Answer the following questions:

  1. Can your dog go up and down the stairs as quickly as in years before?
  2. Is it harder for your dog to stand up after lying down?
  3. Does your dog walk a little bit more stiff?
  4. Does your dog seem to walk worse when the weather is cold?
  5. Does your dog limp or cry at times when he or she walks?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, it is very likely your senior dog has arthritis.

Arthritis in larger-breed dogs such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and pit bulls begins sooner in life and is more pronounced.

Arthritic animals deal with pain every day and are less happy. The good news is that there are many simple things we can do to help.

  1. Diet: Diet, Diet, Diet! What are you feeding your dog? It is important to feed a food that is specific to the age and size of your dog. Look for a mature/senior diet. If your pet is a larger dog, get a food made just for large breed senior/mature dogs. Most senior formulas have joint supplements in the food. So every time your pet eats, he or she is getting joint vitamins. If your pet has more severe signs of arthritis, talk with your veterinarian about prescription joint diets such as Hills J/D. Also, make sure to measure and feed only the recommended amount that is on the food label. You don’t want your pet to become overweight.
  2. Weight loss: It is tremendously important to make sure your dog isn’t overweight. The increased weight adds more pressure to the joints, thus worsening arthritis. An overweight dog will not have energy to exercise and will only continue to gain weight — which continues to worsen arthritis. Obesity will reduce the joy and life of your dog. If your dog is overweight, talk with your veterinarian about developing a weight-loss plan.
  3. Glucosamine and Chondroitin: These are great joint supplements that can be given daily. These joint vitamins are safe and come in many forms, such as treats, tablets, powder and paste. They can be found in any pet store.
  4. Adequan injections: In veterinary medicine Adequan was originally used to reduce trauma in the joints of race horses. Adequan is now available for dogs. It is a series of injections (given by your veterinarian) that helps to protect the cartilage inside joints. I love this product because it has very few side effects and has worked well to reduce arthritis in my patients.
  5. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These medications quickly reduce pain and symptoms of arthritis. Often it is given every day, but daily administration of NSAIDs will gradually have a negative effect on internal organs. Thus, it is important to monitor organ function yearly with general lab work. The most common NSAID used in dogs with arthritis is Rimadyl (Carprofen).

Arthritis is one of the most common and uncomfortable conditions of older dogs. Some animals lose their ability to walk.

Luckily, we have many defenses against this disease. Start helping your pet today by assuring the proper diet, weight and addition of daily supplements.

Begin speaking with your veterinarian about Adequan and weight-loss plans, and whether NSAIDs are appropriate for your dog.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Kenya Crawford, DVM. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Feb. 4, 2019.