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When is a Dog Considered a Senior?

The age at which a dog is considered a senior is generally considered to be when the dog has reached the last 25 percent of their estimated lifespan.

A woman pets her black senior dog.

The age at which a dog is considered a senior is generally considered to be when the dog has reached the last 25 percent of their estimated lifespan.

By: Dr. Juli, DVM

Puppyhood goes by quickly. One moment, your shoes are covered in bite marks and slobber; the next, your bouncing puppy is sporting the most perfect gray muzzle. Your dog's golden years are special; like people, changes will occur in and on your dog's body. According to the American Animal Hospital Associate (AAHA), senior dogs (and cats) represent approximately 44% of the pet population.

Pet owners must understand the aging process to know when their furry friend is transitioning to their gray muzzle years. Aging dogs require special considerations to adequately meet their physical, mental, and environmental health needs.

So, when is a dog considered senior? The answer is not straightforward and depends on numerous factors.

A woman pets her black senior dog.

What Age Is a Dog Considered a Senior?

The common myth that the "dog years" are equivalent to a human year by multiplying your dog's age by 7 is not entirely accurate. Determining your dog's rate of aging in their golden years is a more complicated process. Your dog's life span and aging rate are based on various factors, including breed size, genetics, and proper care during all life stages.

Experts define being a senior when a dog has reached the last 25% of their estimated breed life span, and, generally, small breeds live longer than large and giant breeds. According to data collected by the American Kennel Club (AKC), the following is an estimate of when breeds are considered to be seniors based on size and genetic factors:

  • Toy and small breed dogs (< 20 lbs) like Chihuahuas, toy poodles, Pomeranians, and shih tzus are considered seniors at 8-11 years old.
  • Medium breed dogs (20-50lbs) like Boxers, French bulldogs, and cocker spaniels are considered seniors at 8-10 years old.
  • Large breed dogs (50-90 lbs) like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds are considered seniors at 8-9 years old.
  • Giant breed dogs (>90 lbs) like Great Danes, Bernese mountain dogs, and Mastiffs are considered seniors at 6-7 years old.

Common Aging Signs and Diseases of Concerns in Senior Dogs

Old age is not a disease, but as your dog transitions from adulthood to senior status, their body will begin to change physically and mentally. Depending on their breed and size, most dogs will start transitioning to their senior years when they are seven.

Like humans, your pup's body, brain, internal organs, immune system, and digestive system will not function as optimally as they did when they were younger. One of the most common signs pet owners notice in older dogs is increased sleep and decreased activity. Learning to recognize and monitor for aging changes is a critical part of responsible pet ownership. Understanding how your dog ages will provide clues as to when to seek veterinary care for your senior dog.

Common signs your dog is aging include:

  • Changes in fur color (i.e., graying of the muzzle or face)
  • Fur coat texture changes (i.e., coarse, dry, or oily fur)
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Difficulty standing, running, or walking
  • Decreased muscle tone (muscle atrophy)
  • Tooth loss 
  • Hair loss
  • Decreased or loss of hearing
  • Vision loss (monitor for a blue coloration or hazing over the eyes)
  • Changes in sleep/wake cycles
  • General weakness or disinterest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Joint pain
  • Changes in bowel movement frequency or consistency  
  • Decreased mental sharpness 
  • Behavior changes

Some changes may not be cause for concern. Still, bringing your pup for a veterinary examination is vital to ensure your old dog is adequately supported and rule out underlying disease. Abnormal behavior, changes in weight, or temperament could be the first clue of an illness like diabetes.

Common health issues in senior dogs include:

  • Heart disease
  • Cataracts
  • Dental disease
  • Liver disease (hepatitis)
  • Kidney failure
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Adrenal disease (i.e., Cushing's, Addison's)
  • Cancer
  • Skin masses 
  • Urinary tract disease (i.e., incontinence, bladder cancer)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cognitive dysfunction(doggy dementia

Senior and Geriatric Dogs Need Regular Veterinary Visits

Many dogs dread going to an animal hospital, so pet parents are often reluctant to bring their aging dogs for an examination. However, twice yearly or more frequent veterinary visits are critical during your dog's senior years to properly manage their aging bodies and address any underlying health issues.

Your dog's health can rapidly change as they age. Ensure to inform your veterinarian of any changes in your dog's behavior or mental health because subtle changes like increased panting may be the first clue that your dog is experiencing pain. Regular monitoring and early disease detection will give your veterinarian the best chance to treat underlying health problems properly.

A senior dog examination may include blood work to monitor organ function and advanced imaging, including x-rays and ultrasound, to examine bone and organ health. Sometimes, your veterinarian may recommend specialized blood tests to rule out other health conditions affecting their endocrine, digestive, and immune systems. Additionally, the AAHA has established recommended guidelines for diagnostic tests specific to senior pets

A black and gray senior dog smiles at the camera.

How to Help Your Senior Pup Live Its Best Life

Taking proactive measures to support your aging and senior dogs will improve their overall wellness and quality of life. Dogs thrive on routine, so gradual changes will help decrease aging stress and help prevent anxiety or mental decline.

In many cases, your senior pup will require a senior dog food diet to ensure they continue to receive the necessary nutrients for proper organ function. Additionally, dogs with underlying diseases like kidney disease or diabetes may require veterinary prescription diets to help treat their illness. Always discuss diet changes or nutritional concerns with your DVM to ensure you feed the optimal diet. Changing your dog's diet or feeding the incorrect food can exacerbate or create an additional illness in your aging pet. For healthy senior dogs, ensure you feed them an AAFCO-approved complete and balanced senior diet. These formulations contain added nutrients, like glucosamine, to support aging joints.

Other ways to help your senior dog include:

  • Provide your dog with an orthopedic pet bed to support their joints and prevent pressure sores.
  • Place carpet over tiled areas where your dog frequently walks to provide improved traction.
  • Maintain a consistent daily routine and slowly adjust it based on your dog's needs and energy levels. 
  • Place ramps or stairs in areas where they have to climb (e.g., bed, couch).
  • Provide regular exercise and adjust the intensity based on your dog's energy and joint health. 
  • Give your pup veterinary-approved supplements to support aging joints, like Native Pet Omega Oil and Native Pet Relief Chews.
  • Give your dog mental stimulation with brain games, like puzzle toys filled with their favorite treat.
  • Brush your dog regularly; this is a great way to bond, especially for dogs who cannot groom themselves as they did when they were younger.

Caring for your dog during their golden years is a rewarding and memorable time for pet owners. Your pet's aging process and care should be collaborative between you and your trusted family veterinarian. Senior dogs require extra TLC to remain comfortable and maintain a high quality of life through their golden years.

For more information and tips on your dog's health, check out the Native Pet blog.

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