Is Your Dog a 'Senior' by This Definition? What to Do Next

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

senior dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • For purposes of health care, dogs are considered “senior” at around the age of 7
  • As your dog approaches this milestone, there are many things you can do to ensure the second half of his life is as comfortable and joyful as the first half
  • Keeping your dog’s aging body comfortable, feeding a diet that includes high-quality protein, ensuring he gets regular exercise and twice-yearly wellness checkups (with age-tracking bloodwork) are a few of the ways you can ensure he enjoys a good quality of life as he ages

All of us who love and share our lives with dogs are keenly aware of how short their time here is. As their loving guardians, we want to do everything possible to ensure our furry family members remain healthy, happy, and with us for as long as possible.

As your canine BFF enters her golden years, it’s important to recognize that just as she required extra care and attention as a puppy, she will as a senior as well. When your pet is around 7 years old, which is the age at which dogs are considered senior for purposes of their health care needs, it’s a good time to begin to switch gears and think about how you can make the second half of her life as healthy and happy as the first half.

In case you’re curious, there’s a general guideline many veterinarians use to convert a dog’s age to human years. The following chart is provided by the American Kennel Club (AKC):1

dog human years

As you can see from the chart, dogs of all sizes do a lot of growing and maturing during their first year. It takes the average human 12 to 15 years to reach the same level of maturity. In their second year, dogs zip through another 9 to 10 years in human time, and then the aging process slows down a bit at year 3 except for giant breeds, who add another 9 human years from ages 2 to 3.

By age 10, larger dogs are from 10 to 23 years older in human years than small dogs and the gap continues to widen in successive years.

5 Tips to Keep Your Older Dog Healthy and Happy

1. Take steps to keep your dog’s aging body comfortable — If your dog seems physically uncomfortable, it's important not to assume it's just a natural part of aging. You want to make sure he's not in pain, so a visit to your veterinarian is in order. The sooner a health problem is diagnosed and treated, in most cases, the better the outcome.

Keeping your dog at a healthy weight and physically active will help control arthritis and degenerative joint disease as he ages. Chiropractic adjustments, water exercises, and acupuncture can also provide enormous benefits in keeping dogs mobile in their later years.

There are also a wide range of supplements that can be added to your dog's diet to help maintain healthy tendons, ligaments, joints and cartilage. 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 (herbs like turmeric, proteolytic enzymes and nutraceuticals)

Keeping your pet’s inflammation in check is critical, over time. This can be done by incorporating natural anti-inflammatory supplements into a low-carb diet.

Regular massage can help keep your senior dog's muscles toned and reduce the slackening that comes with aging. Massaged muscles are looser, which makes it easier for your pet to move around comfortably. Massage also improves circulation, encourages lymphatic drainage, and eases joint stiffness.

If your pet is too stiff or has pain that prevents her from leading an active life it’s time to ask your vet for a referral to a rehab professional; physical therapy for pets is a game-changer, in terms of extending quality of life.

2. Don’t skimp on high-quality protein in your dog’s diet — Contrary to what many pet parents and even veterinarians believe, aging pets need more protein than their younger counterparts, and the quality is of paramount importance. 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.

The healthiest food for most pets, regardless of age, is whole, unprocessed, and in its natural form — and this includes animal meat, which should be the foundation of your healthy dog’s diet throughout his life. Foods that have not been processed are the most assimilable for the body and minimize metabolic stress.

I recommend you steer clear of any commercial pet food that contains a high percentage of carbs, no matter your dog’s age or weight. The presence of excessive carbohydrates in commercial pet food is marketed to consumers as a healthy addition for “energy”, very similar to how carbs are marketed in human food. Carbohydrates in excess of 20% can offset the amount of protein from meat that’s necessary for a healthy body to function over time.

3. Make sure your dog gets daily exercise — Senior and even geriatric dogs still need daily exercise to maintain good health and a resilient frame. This is probably the most underutilized anti-aging strategy we know of for pets. While it’s true older dogs can't exercise or compete with the same intensity as their younger counterparts, they still need regular walks and other age-appropriate physical activity. There are three types of strengthening exercises that can also be of tremendous help to aging canine bodies:

  • Passive range-of-motion (PROM) exercises can benefit both incapacitated and physically healthy pets.
  • Balance and proprioception (spatial orientation and movement) exercises help older pets remain flexible while also encouraging improved balance and physical stability.
  • Targeted strengthening exercises are designed to work the big muscle groups that help with standing, walking and running.

Gentle stretching is also a great natural tool to improve the well-being and longevity of your dog.

4. Schedule twice-yearly veterinary visits — Because my goal is to help people help their dogs live long, active, and healthy lives, I like to see all my canine patients at least twice a year, but this is especially true for senior and geriatric dogs.

Around the age of 8 (younger for some large and all giant breed dogs), research points to pets “falling off the metabolic cliff,” or having a metabolic cascade of events that can quietly open the door to a host of degenerative, hallmark, age-related changes. One of the easiest ways to predict when this shift may happen is to monitor your pet’s A1c levels.

A1c screening was originally created to monitor overall control of diabetic patients, but just as in human medicine, longevity practitioners now use this simple, inexpensive and easy tool as a means of monitoring cellular aging in non-diabetics. Long before mammals’ immune systems crash, their A1c levels begin to climb, so periodic testing is a great assessment tool.

Senior pets age more rapidly than midlife animals. This means your dog's wellness and nutritional needs can require fine-tuning every 4 to 6 months. In older pets it's very important to review weight, muscle tone, joint range of motion, diet, supplement protocol, and exercise habits at least semi-annually.

The senior pet wellness screen +A1c and BNP testing 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. Most importantly, if your pet’s bloodwork shows abnormalities you can address them immediately, giving your pet the best chance for a favorable outcome.

5. Give your dog regular opportunities for socialization and mental stimulation — No matter how old your dog is she still needs regular social interaction with other pets and people. As is the case with humans as we age, if your four-legged family member doesn't stay active and involved in life, her world can become a confusing, scary place.

She needs regular exposure to other pets and people but take care not to over stimulate her — short periods of socialization and playtime in controlled situations are ideal.

Enriching her environment can help alleviate or stall the mental confusion and decline of cognitive function that often come with old age. In addition, sticking to a predictable daily routine can help reduce anxiety and mental uncertainty, and treat release and food puzzle toys provide fun and mental stimulation. Enrolling in a nose work class is a great retirement hobby for your dog’s brain and body. Supplements that can help improve mental decline in aging dogs include:

  • SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine)
  • Commercial NAD+ supplements
  • Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil
  • Also: jellyfish extracts, resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), ginkgo biloba, gotu kola, and phosphatidylserine

Consult your integrative veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog.

+ Sources and References