Maybe you’ve noticed your eight-year-old golden retriever moving a little slower than usual or your 12-year-old Australian shepherd eating less and less. As dog owners, we want to help our pets live a long and healthy life. But it can be challenging to distinguish between the signs and symptoms of normal aging and chronic disease in our canine companions.

“Geriatric pets can develop some of the same health problems as older adults, such as cancer, heart disease and arthritis,” says Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, a veterinarian at Paws into Grace in San Diego, California, and author of the upcoming book, “All Dogs Go to Kevin.” “It’s important to be vigilant about physical changes in your dog and to schedule regular veterinary visits, since many health conditions are treatable when detected early.”

A dog is considered to be a senior when he has lived two-thirds the average lifespan for his breed. While most dogs enter their senior years between the ages of seven and 10, Vogelsang says giant dog breeds (such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards) can begin showing signs of aging as early as six, while smaller dogs (such as Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers) aren’t considered seniors until the age of 10.

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To keep your dog happy and healthy during his senior years, Vogelsang recommends these tips.

Skip the senior dog food. Rather than buy food marketed for older dogs, which can be challenging in a multi-dog household, Vogelsang says it’s more important to make sure your canine gets a well-balanced diet. “If your senior dog has no medical problems and is active, you can probably continue feeding them their regular adult dog food,” Vogelsang says.

Shop for a brand that features a label from the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO), a non-profit organization that sets standards for pet food in the United States. The first ingredient should be a high-quality protein source to help boost your dog’s immune system. Look for real meat, poultry and fish, and avoid brands that contain meat by-products. Also, look for a brand that contains natural preservatives or none at all.

What if your pooch has packed on some pounds? “You may feed the same food but in a smaller quantity,” says Vogelsang. For dogs who’ve been diagnosed with a health problem, she recommends asking your vet for specific dog food recommendations.

Watch for red flags. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals recommends healthy senior dogs see their vet every six months. But Vogelsang says some symptoms warrant an immediate vet visit. These include:

  • vomiting
  • a lump that is present for a month
  • incontinence
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss or gain
  • changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • shortness of breath
  • excessive panting unrelated to hot weather
  • limping
  • fever
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • weakness
  • behavior changes or uncharacteristic aggression

If your senior dog shows any of these symptoms, your vet should screen for underlying diseases. Many canine health conditions are treatable when detected early.

older dog at vet (Photo: 

Focus on prevention. Keep up with routine health care including dental care, vaccinations and parasite (flea and tick) prevention.

“Caring for your dog’s teeth can prevent tooth loss and gum inflammation,” says Vogelsang. “Dental disease can also lead to more serious conditions including damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys.”

Estimates from the American Veterinary Dental College suggest that by the time they’re three years old, 80 percent of dogs have oral disease. To prevent it,  brush your dog’s teeth. Specially formulated foods, toys, treats, and professional vet cleanings also help control plaque and tartar on your dog’s teeth.

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Make life easier. As your dog ages, he’ll become less agile. “Arthritis is a common problem in older dogs,” Vogelsang says. “If you see your dog limping, it’s important to have them evaluated by your vet since changes in mobility can also be a symptom of other health problems.”

If arthritis is confirmed, Vogelsang says your vet may recommend a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement that supports your dog’s joints and may allow him to move more comfortably as he ages.

If his joints hurt, many products can help him continue to be active, safe and comfortable. “Products such as dog ramps, steps and stairs can make it easier for your older dog to get in a car or to climb up on a sofa,” Vogelsang says. “There are also a wide selection of soft, padded, orthopedic beds that can help ease the pain of stiff joints and allow them to enjoy their golden years in comfort.”

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Linda Childers is a mom, pet-owner and California-based health writer.