In line with my last two “things you really don’t want to think about” posts, covering the necessity of making your last wishes for your pet  known in case you get put out of commission temporarily or permanently, I figured I’d go for the depression trifecta and write about dog aging.

Just kidding — about the depression part anyway. I’m actually about to offer some good news. Not only are our dogs living longer because of better veterinary medicine, but we also know how to improve their quality of life as they age.

Mood Modulation

It’s not age that makes geriatric dogs — and people — irritable but, rather, untreated pain and undiagnosed ailments. Your pup might have arthritis, for example, or hearing problems that you’re not aware of. And dogs that live to an advanced age may develop a version of Alzheimer’s called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD, or sometimes CDS for cognitive dysfunction syndrome), which causes them to be disoriented.

So if your dog isn’t her usual cheerful self, get her to the vet to see what’s wrong. There may not be a cure but you can make her life easier if you know what you’re dealing with. If your dog has hearing loss, for example, you can move into her line of vision when you need to get her attention; if she has CCD, you can refrain from rearranging the furniture and thus further confusing her. And veterinary pain management has also advanced in recent years — including the recognition that alternative treatments like acupuncture may be better for older dogs on a long-term basis than harsh medicines.

Lifestyle modification

Dogs age at vastly different rates. Whereas large breeds start being offered seats on public transportation at age 6 or so, smaller ones don’t begin reminiscing about the good old days until they’re around 10 or 11. And some dogs don’t conform to ageist stereotypes: they continue to eat and exercise with much the same gusto as they did when they were pups. With that caveat, here are some general guidelines:


When your dog’s metabolism begins to slow, he’ll need to cut calories or eat less to stay trim. Extra weight puts a strain on the joints–especially painful if arthritis is involved–and often interferes with proper organ function.

Older pooches need a good balance of protein and fat in their diet, but don’t require as much of either as they did when they were burning up the dog run. The key to fooling your dog into thinking she’s full is fiber–also a useful antidote for that common geriatric ailment, constipation. Many older dogs can continue to eat their regular food, just less of it, perhaps with pumpkin added for low fat/high fiber bulk.

Some canine seniors have the opposite problem: they lose interest in food. It’s not always easy to figure out why. Your dog may be avoiding his kibble because the pieces are too large for her to chew comfortably any more, or because, with her sense of smell diminished, she’s begun finding the cuisine incredibly bland. You’ll need to experiment. Try a smaller size kibble, for example, or soak the one you’ve been using in low-salt meat broth.

Or switch from kibble to an entirely different type of food, such as freeze-dried or home-cooked (making sure to maintain nutritional balance); this last may be especially beneficial if your dog is having gastrointestinal problems and needs easy-to-digest fare such as chicken and rice.


Let your dog set the pace when it comes to cutting back (or not) on workouts, although not to the point of allowing him to over- or under-do it. Dogs can sometimes push themselves too hard, especially in extreme weather, or take retirement a bit too seriously. Neither approach benefits their physical or mental health.

A change, rather than reduction, in exercise might be a good idea. You could try easier-on-the-joint activities such as swimming, for example (only an option if your dog doesn’t dislike full-body immersion as much as Frankie does). And if you need to cut back on a standard play routine, consider allowing your dog to think she’s as agile as ever by not throwing the ball as far as you used to.

Mental exercise is also essential to maintaining a puppyish demeanor. A much-cited Beagle study — well, much cited in neurobiology circles, and not to be confused with the studies Charles Darwin conducted while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle — demonstrated that aging dogs who received mental stimulation, along with antioxidant-enriched diets, appeared friskier and smarter than the nonstimulated, nonsupplemented control group after two years. So keep up the training, play dates, educational toys, New York Times crossword puzzles…whatever challenges your dog.

12 thoughts on “Keeping Old Dogs the Best Dogs”

  1. I’m not ready to think about my dog getting old yet, but this is a great post about what to expect. I had a family dog when I was younger that was essentially blind and deaf, but still had all kinds of energy and playfulness.

    It’s all about adapting to their needs!

    1. Absolutely — and about not projecting our ideas about old age on them. Conditions like blindness and deafness, for example, usually set in gradually so that they don’t upset dogs nearly as much as they upset owners, who attribute human emotions about those conditions to them.

  2. Excellent perspective combined with specific, useful information to adjust to an aging dog’s needs–very well done. Oh, and I have a pix of Tashi somewhere with his Harvard Biz Review…started him early to keep him sharp:)

  3. Hey Rod, thanks for the calculator! I’m thrilled to know that Archie is not 112 years old, but rather a youthful 90+.

    1. I too appreciate the calculator, Rod. I put Frankie’s approximate age (12) in and far from the nursing home candidate I thought he was, it turns out he’s not even eligible for Social Security at age 64.

  4. Sadly my little Sparky has the Doggie Alzheimer’s and it can be very sad at times to witness when she’s having an especially hard day but overall she does amazingly considering she’s almost 17….we just count to ten at times and smile and get on with stuff…..all part of loving them.
    Luckily my Rio at 15 wears her age a lot better and thus far suffers no old age issues……
    Something that helped with Sparky when the onset began was Aktivait. However, be warned-it helps a lot but then reaches a point where it has little effect any longer.

    1. Sorry to hear that about Sparky, Lynda, but it sounds like she still has a great quality of life most of the time. Hope Rio continues to do well.

  5. I can definitely relate to this post. My “Sweety” will be 15 years old this July. Glad to know she’s only 90 in human years vs. the “7 rule” which would put her at 105. I’ve only really started to notice much of a difference in her behaviour over the last year or so.

    This past April I relocated from a brief stay in Calgary back to Victoria, BC. My life was in flux at the time and I decided it would be best to leave Sweety behind with my “ex” during the relocation process. Sweety and I ended up being apart for about 8 weeks, we’d never been apart for longer than a week in the past, the separation was hard on both of us.

    During the time we were apart, my “ex” switched Sweety back to a kibble diet from a raw diet, and when we were finally reunited, Sweety was limping and seemed to be cognitively not as alert.

    I switched her back to a raw meaty bones diet and she no longer limps and she is much more alert. She usually beats Zeus (my pit bull) out to the kitchen in the morning when it’s time to eat, and she whines when it’s time for walks.

    She’s not the same as she was say two years ago, she sleeps alot more, she seems less social than she used to be, but that could be partly because of the addition of Zeus to our pack. I don’t think her vision is what it used to be and I think she’s losing her hearing, but for a 15 year old girl I think she’s doing amazing.

    Sorry for the length of this postcomment. :/

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