11 Loving Gestures To Make Your Dog's Last Chapter a Happy One

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

caring for senior dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Senior pets need special care and attention, and tending to your aging dog’s needs can be rewarding for both of you
  • Taking precautions to prevent injuries is important for dogs with limited mobility or failing vision
  • Aging dogs need to stay active, receive fresh, species-appropriate food, and be mentally stimulated
  • Senior pets need veterinary check-ups at least twice a year and you’ll want to keep a close eye out for signs of pain
  • Extra love and affection, and a comfy place to sleep, will make your senior pet feel cared for and loved

Senior dogs are some of the most loyal and sweetest pooches on the planet, and they've earned the right to spend their golden years in comfort and with dignity. Unfortunately, senior pets are also those most often overlooked at animal shelters so those who have been surrendered may spend their final days feeling lost and lonely instead of cared for.

Organizations like Muttville, a California-based nonprofit founded by Sherri Franklin, are trying to change that. At Muttville, older dogs get a second chance at life. Each year, about 1,000 older dogs are rescued from shelters and adopted or placed into foster care or a hospice program by Muttville.

"At most shelters, seniors are more difficult to find homes for, and shelters reach out to Muttville to find homes for their older dogs, many who would otherwise be euthanized," the organization explains.1 According to Franklin, every dog who comes to Muttville gets veterinary care to give them the best quality of life possible.

For dogs that are terminally ill, Muttville's "Fospice" program, which is hospice and foster combined, pairs the dogs with families to care for them and covers the cost of palliative care. "We thought we wouldn't have a lot of people who would actually sign up for something like this. And what I get back from people in our Fospice homes is how rewarding it is to give an animal a happy last chapter," Franklin told CNN.2

This is such an important point, one that every pet owner can benefit from. Caring for your senior pet gives you a chance to give back to your best friend, and many people find doing so gives them a sense of pride and purpose, while your pet will be forever grateful. During this chapter of your pet's life, some special attention, using the tips below, will go a long way toward helping her maintain her quality of life.3

11 Tips to Care for Your Senior Dog

1. Consider the Use of Ramps — If your dog has mobility issues that make getting up on your bed or couch difficult, try adding a ramp or stairs so she doesn't have to jump. This can also help prevent injuries in aging dogs.

2. Take Precautions to Prevent Injuries — If your dog is having trouble with balance or vision, consider gating off stairways or adding safety treads to prevent slipping. Be sure to add rubber grippers under any throw rugs to prevent falls. Cover slick surfaces with yoga mats to prevent slips, trips or falls.

For dogs with failing vision, you'll also want to avoid rearranging furniture, which can make the space difficult for your pet to navigate, and use extra care to ensure they don't wander off when they're outside.

3. Keep Your Pet Active — Senior pets still need exercise. In fact, exercise requirements increase as pets age, due to muscle atrophy issues. You'll need to watch for signs of pain, and you may need to start slowly with a short walk, gradually increasing the distance as your pet's endurance grows. If you're looking for more of a challenge, obedience training is a great way to engage your dog's brain and body at the same time.

4. Stimulate Your Dog's Mind — An aging dog can still learn new tricks! Nose work is one great option that can give older dogs necessary mental stimulation and daily movement without being overly fast-paced. This is my favorite activity for aging dogs, hands down, because it does wonders for cognitive, emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.

5. See Your Veterinarian Twice a Year — Aging dogs typically need to see their veterinarian twice a year to monitor for any changes to their health. The senior pet wellness screen is an excellent tool for early detection of changes in your dog's health so that treatment, including appropriate lifestyle changes, can begin immediately.

Regular wellness screens allow your veterinarian to compare current test results with past results to check for changes that may need further investigation and allow for early treatment should any diseases or illnesses be uncovered. You should also keep a close eye on your pet's condition, including noting any new lumps, skin issues or other subtle signs of illness.

6. Watch for Signs of Pain — Arthritis and degenerative joint disease become more common with age, so watch for signs of pain, such as trembling, not putting weight on a leg, crouching, changes in appetite, restlessness and excessive panting, and get him checked out by your veterinarian if you think pain is an issue.

The sooner you address discomfort, the sooner you'll stop the underlying degenerative process that's causing the pain. If your pet suffers from chronic pain, some options that may be helpful in reducing pain include:

Always remember long before your dog requires natural pain medication he or she should be on chondroprotective agents (CPAs). CPAs markedly slow the rate of joint degeneration and are key at proactively preventing arthritis from occurring. If your vet has recommended pain management of any kind, always ask what supplements they're concurring recommending to slow down the underlying reason your dog needs pain meds.

7. Get Your Dog a Comfy Spot to Sleep — A natural soft or orthopedic dog bed is essential for any aging pet. She'll need somewhere comfortable to rest in other than the floor, so be sure she has a cushiony spot (preferably made of organic materials that aren't off-gassing flame retardants) to call her own.

8. Keep Your Pet at a Healthy WeightObesity in pets is associated with osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease and cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injuries in the knee joints, all of which can make getting around more difficult for your aging pet.

It also places excess strain on joints and muscles, which can exacerbate injuries and pain. Losing even a small amount of weight can make a major difference in your dog's mobility, even encouraging more active play sessions and exercise. Always give overweight animals CPAs to slow premature joint degeneration.

9. Care for Your Dog's Teeth — Regular brushing and professional teeth cleanings can keep your dog's teeth healthy. Oral disease, left untreated, can cause or worsen systemic diseases in your pet as well as be painful. Contrary to popular belief, many older dogs (and cats) can still safely go under anesthesia to have their teeth professionally cleaned. Make sure to check with your vet about how anesthetic monitoring is performed during your pet's procedure and recovery period.

10. Adjust Your Dog's Diet — All dogs need to eat a whole, unprocessed species-appropriate diet, but aging pets typically need more protein than younger pets. The more digestible and assimilable the protein is, and the higher the moisture content of the food, the easier it will be for aging organs to process. For more details, read my past discussion of which foods are best for senior pets.

11. Consider Supportive Supplements — There are a wide range of supplements that can be added to your dog's diet to help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage as they age. These include:

  • Glucosamine sulfate with MSM and eggshell membrane
  • Omega-3 fats (krill oil)
  • Ubiquinol
  • Supergreen foods like spirulina and astaxanthin
  • Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (curcumin, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)

Supplements for brain health may also be useful, including krill oil and other healthy fats, including MCT oil, as well as a source of SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine). Other supplements to consider are SOD (superoxide dismutase) and resveratrol (knotweed). Ginkgo biloba may improve blood flow to the brain. Phosphatidylserine and ubiquinol, which is the reduced form of CoQ10, feeds your pet's mitochondria and improves cellular energy.

What Does Your Senior Dog Want Most of All?

Perhaps most important of all, your aging pet wants to spend time with their favorite person: you! Time is precious, but never more so than when you're showing love and affection to your senior pet. Whether you're playing a game of fetch or giving your dog a belly scratch or doggie massage, the time together will make your pet feel cared for and loved all while strengthening your bond.

+ Sources and References