Caring for older dogs

As with people, dogs will begin to slow down with age, so it’s good to know how to care for your older dog. As our dogs grow older, we all want to ensure that they’re happy and have a great quality of life. Most of the breeds we use at Guide Dogs, including the Labrador, German shepherd, golden retriever and a selection of crossbreeds, start the ageing process at around eight years of age. 

Here are some ways to care for your old dog to keep them happy, comfortable, and healthy in their senior years.

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Feed your older dog a healthy diet 

As dogs get older their dietary requirements can change. In old age, dogs tend to be less active and have lower energy needs, which can potentially lead to weight gain. Excess weight and obesity can lead to heart disease and can also contribute to problems with joints, such as arthritis. 

To help keep your dog at the right weight and ensure your dog’s diet is healthy, always stick to premium high-quality dog food and the recommended daily quantities for your dog’s age. 

We suggest giving your dog their daily amount over several smaller meals instead of two meals a day. This will reduce their internal workload and ensure they don’t have to digest a large meal in one go. This also reduces their urge to scavenge and break up their day.

Ensure your older dog is hydrated 

It’s important to always provide your dog with fresh water. Dogs fed on dry food tend to drink more than those fed moist food and many dogs drink more in hot weather. If you see any change in the amount of water your dog drinks, then measure it accurately over a 24-hour period; then take your dog to the vet to discuss if any investigations are needed. 

Continue daily exercise to keep your older dog active 

Keep your dog healthy with regular exercise which helps to maintain muscle tone and healthy joints. Exercise will also help to prevent them from becoming overweight and maintain mental stimulation. Here are a few tips to consider when exercising your dog:

  • Older dogs may show signs of stiffness following vigorous exercise, such as free running. Monitor this and introduce a gentler mix of exercise if required.
  • Walks for your dog should be little and often. Dogs that have the same amount of exercise daily tend to maintain mobility and show fewer symptoms than dogs who have varying amounts daily. So, we’d advise you to keep your dog’s exercise moderate and consistent.
  • Your dog may develop some level of hearing loss as they get older. This can mean that they may not be as good with recall as they used to be. Continue to reinforce the recall behaviour but make sure to consider safe places to free run with your dog. 
  • Your older dog may need extra help with going up steps, stairs, and jumping into cars. If your dog is showing signs of stiffness or discomfort at any time, your dog may need to be examined by a vet who can provide advice on exercise needs. 

  • Older dogs are more likely to be vulnerable to extreme weather - both hot and cold. Bear this in mind when considering exercise or outdoor play for the comfort of your dog. 

  • Finally, we'd recommend avoiding ball throwing and chasing games. Instead, snuffle mats and mind puzzles are fantastic activities to keep your dog active with minimal stress on their joints.

Keep your ageing dog comfortable

Provide your dog with a warm, draught-free and quiet place to rest. Older dogs tend to sleep more and need a quiet area away from the noise, children, and other pets to rest. 

Older dogs can start to lose bowel and bladder control, for example, due to kidney disease or cognitive dysfunction. Bedding should be easily washable if they develop incontinence. By providing soft bedding, such as a memory foam dog bed, this will prevent sores from forming on your dog’s elbows and hocks.

If your dog doesn’t get up to greet guests as much, please leave them undisturbed in their bed to rest. 

Groom your senior dog regularly 

Elderly dogs may not groom themselves as well or as much as they used to, so daily grooming is important to keep your dog’s skin and coat in good condition. Regular grooming will aid blood circulation and give you the opportunity to check for any lumps or irregularities. If you do find any lumps, monitor them for any changes in shape or size. Veterinary health checks or treatment may be required.

Take care of your senior dog’s oral health 

Dental care and regular oral health checks are important as your dog gets older to keep their mouth and teeth comfortable and healthy. Possible signs of dental disease or health issues are:

  • Excessive salivation
  • Foul-smelling breath
  • Difficulty eating
  • Pawing at the mouth

If you do see any of these signs, book an appointment with your vet to examine your dog's mouth. Your vet will recommend any required treatment and the best ways to look after your dog's teeth. 

Regularly brushing your dog’s teeth helps promote good dental health. You can also provide your dog with dental chews or specialised toys that are designed to clean your dog’s teeth and help dogs prevent plaque build-up. Some brands of dental chews may be very high in calories and others may be too hard and lead to tooth breakage, so be careful which brand of dental chews you choose.

On a day-to-day basis feeding your dog only dried food can also help. There are some prescription foods designed specifically to clean your dog's teeth, which your vet can advise you on.

Veterinary care and health checks for older dogs

It’s likely that your more senior dog will need to see the vet more frequently to monitor your dog’s health. We recommend that dogs over the age of nine need regular check-ups with your vet who can give advice on senior dog care. Guide Dogs receive three monthly checks after nine years old. Don’t hesitate to speak to your vet if you have any concerns about your pet’s health in between regular appointments, for example if they experience any sudden weight loss. 

When does a guide dog retire? 

You should carefully consider what is best for your guide dog ahead of their retirement. While many guide dogs retire between ten and eleven years old, this is very much dependent on the dog’s needs and individual health and wellbeing. We’ll always make sure the decision is in the best interest of your dog.

The main issue to consider is that ageing dogs need extra care and attention and can develop new health problems. You will need to think about what will be manageable for you, especially if you have a new working and younger dog in your home.

Remember, keeping a retired dog is not necessarily the best decision for everyone or every dog. There is no right or wrong way. If the right decision for you and your dog is to allow them to go into a new home, rest assured we’ll support you through the process and make sure your dog is rehomed to a suitable, comfortable, and loving place.

What to do if you're concerned about your older guide dog 

Our Dog Health and Wellbeing Teams will advise you on dog care and suitability to continue work at all stages of a guide dog’s life. We increase the frequency of these checks as your dog’s age increases. 

If you have any questions or concerns about your older guide dog, please contact your Dog Health and Wellbeing Specialist on 0800 781 1444 - they’re here to help. Please contact the emergency line on 0345 143 0217 if anything happens out of office hours.