Supporting Senior Dogs


Adapt diet, exercise and your home as your dog ages
By Jennifer Gangloff   |   Photography by Grape Soda Photography

At nearly 14 years old, our Chocolate Lab, Sophie, is in rough shape.

With muscle wasting and weakness in her hind limbs, she frequently stumbles, drags a back paw or even falls sideways when a leg gives out. Super well-behaved throughout her life, she now sometimes has accidents in the house. When outside to go potty, she often stands in the grass staring into space for long minutes, apparently unsure what to do. She can’t go up or down the stairs without help. And she has a variety of lumps, cysts and growths on her abdomen and sides. She is sometimes anxious, licking herself or panting. She’s at least half deaf and blind. A few times, I’ve found that my kids have snuck out of bed at night to sit next to her, bawling and trying to offer her comfort. “We don’t want Sophie to die,” they cry.

But still, Sophie powers on, and for the most part she enjoys her twilight season. She loves encouraging pats on the head with a friendly nudge of her snout, snuffling fresh air through an open window, and gobbling up whatever Pop-Tart crumbs she can scavenge before the cats do.

With a little support, well-timed care, and some tricks of the trade, Sophie and other senior dogs can live comfortably, adapt to their deficits and even thrive as their body ages.

Veterinary Care

If you have an aging dog, be sure to maintain a good routine of veterinary care. “Sure, it’s going to be inevitable that your dog is going to experience problems, but you might be able to slow things down so that she can live a longer life, or at least be more comfortable in the time she has left,” notes Garren Kelly, D.V.M., the owner of Meadow View Veterinary Clinic in Byron, Minn.

As your dog ages, be aware of changes in eating and drinking habits, bathroom habits—such as diarrhea or urinating more frequently—and in energy levels. 

Even a change in personality can herald a problem that needs to be addressed. A normally happy dog can turn temperamental and snappy if it’s in pain, for instance. 

Your dog might need bloodwork to check for a kidney problem or diabetes. A thorough vet evaluation of joint problems can suggest whether your senior dog can be helped by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, chiropractic care or even rehabilitation therapy using an underwater treadmill. Cold laser therapy and even stem cell injections are options for dogs today, Dr. Kelly says.

Don’t Wait

Not every problem is an indication that it’s time to give up and start thinking about euthanasia, Dr. Kelly notes. “The biggest thing we see is that people wait too long to bring the dog in, and then things are failing beyond what we can help them with,” he says.

“There are many reasons for delaying a visit to the vet. They might think their dog will get better, and then it doesn’t. They might not be able to afford it. Or they might be pretty sure their dog is dying of cancer and there’s nothing we can do anyway.”

Some experts recommending switching from annual vet visits to semi-annual visits for aging dogs—and sometimes even more often than that. This more frequent approach, though perhaps a bit pricier, allows problems to be discovered and addressed sooner, when they might still be treatable. 

Sophie, for example, has a sizeable lump on a hind leg, and we feared the worst. Her vet at Quarry Hill Park Animal Hospital in Rochester, however, assured us that it’s simply a cyst.

Diet and Supplements

Your dog might need an adjustment in diet, too, as he or she ages. While some dogs gain weight because they become more sedentary, some lose weight. Sophie, for example, is now all sharp edges—all ribs and backbone and unable to keep weight on, in stark contrast to the muscular dog of a few years ago who would play fetch until she dropped from exhaustion.

Your vet can help you determine which type and amount of food is best as your dog ages, perhaps suggesting that you switch to food that is more easily digested, that has fewer calories or that has more protein. 

Dental issues can also require a change in the type of food. Sophie has always been fed three times a day, but now she also gets water on a schedule along with food to help minimize accidents in the house—and just like the kids, she doesn’t get much to drink right before bedtime.

Popular nutritional supplements for dogs include glucosamine and chondroitin for cartilage and joints; fish oils and omega-3 fatty acids for the coat, skin and heart; probiotics for digestive health and the immune system; antioxidants for brain function; and various vitamins. 

Also gaining popularity, Dr. Kelly says, is cannabidiol, better known as CBD oil. CBD is a compound found in cannabis and hemp, but most CBD oil doesn’t have THC, which is what gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. 

For dogs, CBD oil can be purchased as an oil, as pills or as an ingredient in specialty treats. Although there’s a serious lack of research on the use of CBD oil in dogs, some pet owners say it helps with pain, seizures, anxiety and other conditions. 

And while all types of pet supplements remain a big business, consult your vet first to see what might be right for your dog’s situation—even so-called natural products and remedies can have dangerous side effects.

Age-Proofing Your Home

As your dog ages, you might need to make changes around the house to accommodate its needs, especially if they have decreased hearing, vision or mobility.

Special nonslip pet steps can help your dog maintain access to furniture and beds. Just make sure your dog isn’t able to fall off the steps and get injured when you aren’t around to supervise. If you have a smaller dog, you might be able to simply carry it up and down stairs or lift it into a vehicle.

For larger dogs with mobility difficulty, slings and lift harnesses might be an option. These are specially made harnesses with handles that allow you to provide lift support for your dog where needed, such as in the hind quarters. 

Because they come in a wide variety of sizes and uses, from a rear lift to a total body harness, make sure you find one that’s right for your dog’s situation and that you can use it correctly to reduce risk of further injury.

Evaluate your house similar to how you might do so for an aging parent. You might need to re-arrange furniture to accommodate a dog with low vision—for example, moving end tables or chairs to create wider pathways. 

You might need to add nonskid rugs to slippery tile floors. Consider closing off areas of your house or putting up barriers to stairs and other hazards, especially when your aging dog is home alone. We recently purchased an indoor security camera, and with just a tap of an app, we can check up on Sophie when we’re not home.

Because Sophie now tends to sleep sprawled out, instead of curled up, she has two orthopedic dog beds pushed together in her main sleeping area on the second floor, which she can only access with help, and a third dog bed on the main floor, where she spends much of her time during the day. On the coldest nights, she wears a sweater or even just a T-shirt to help stay warm (yes, we set our thermostat very low at night).

Be sure to keep a close eye on even the most well-behaved pets when they’re outside. Sophie, who in her younger days had quite a bit of obedience and agility training and has always been able to be off-leash in our yard, is now closely monitored, hovered over or leashed because of her apparent dementia and vision and hearing problems. She has a hard time hearing us call her back inside. She once stood under a shrub for several minutes, seemingly lost. A couple times, she has even walked away from us as we try to bring her in.

Enjoy the Time You Have

Don’t forget that your aging dog probably still enjoys some low-key activity, mental stimulation, variety and companionship. 

Sophie can’t go on true walks anymore, but she loves lying in a sunny patch on the front lawn or ambling about smelling for rabbits and squirrels. Hide treats for your dog, swap out toys, take them on outings—and continue to give them lots of attention and affection.

“Remember,” Dr. Kelly says, “early detection of old-age problems is the key to keeping your dog happy.”  

Jennifer Gangloff, a Rochester-based writer and editor, says that Sophie has been a very good girl. Every night at bedtime, she gets two Milk-Bones (Sophie, not Jennifer).