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A Guide to Caring for Senior Dogs - Healing Tails Chicago Pet Rehab

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Learn useful tips and treatment options to help your senior dog navigate the aging process from the experts at Healing Tails Chicago Pet Rehabilitation and Acupuncture

Senior Dogs Require A Little Extra TLC

When your beloved furry family member begins to show signs of aging, this can be an emotional and overwhelming realization for many doting pet parents. It is easy to feel helpless but there are actually plenty of changes you can make to ensure your pet lives their golden years to their fullest potential. As our pet gets older their nutritional and exercise needs will change. Similar to humans as we age; dogs can experience a decline of their hearing, vision, cognition, muscle mass, bone density, mobility and metabolism- among other conditions. These physiological changes that come with aging can make senior dogs more susceptible to illness or injury. The progression of aging in dogs is surprisingly similar to that of humans, not only physically but also cognitively. It is important to remember that cognitive changes and behavior issues commonly arise in senior dogs and may be part of the aging process unrelated to underlying disease.

Behavioral changes may arise if your older dog begins to lose their sight or hearing. The weakening of their senses and new communicative barriers involving verbal or visual cues can lead to frustration and anxiety in older dogs. Cognitive changes can include disturbances in learning/training, spatial awareness, sleep patterns and memory. This can lead to symptoms such as pacing at night, no longer greeting you at the door (because they are sleeping and can’t hear you) or forgetfulness.

As your dog ages, their activity levels and exercise requirements change from when their bodies were more resilient and robust. Playing with a young puppy may no longer be a feasible option for your senior dog anymore. If a puppy were to jump on their back, your dog may not be able to shake this off like they used to. It could result in stiffness/soreness, or even injury. Off-leash running and play can quickly turn into a day of discomfort and fatigue for an elderly dog that may not be familiar with how their physical limits have changed as they’ve grown. Our dogs love to live in the moment- meaning that although they love to jump and run around at the park, they aren't paying attention to how this play makes their body feel. Low impact leash walks are the best way to ensure that your senior dog is getting exercise, but it is important to pay attention to their body language to quickly note signs of fatigue or discomfort and not push their body to its limit. Controlling your senior dogs' exercise is a great way to maintain their mobility and quality of life.

Arthritis is Common in Senior Dogs

Arthritis is one of the most common causes of chronic pain in senior pets. In fact 80% of dogs over the age of 8 likely suffer from arthritis and up to 35% of dogs of any age. Arthritis is an inflammatory and degenerative condition that causes pain and can affect the quality of life of pets afflicted. The most common form of arthritis is a result of abnormal stress and forces being placed on the joint - either from repetitive movement, injury or surgery. Typically we think about the cartilage of the joint being affected with arthritis, however arthritis can affect the entire joint including the joint capsule and ligaments within the joint. Fluid within the joint normally acts as a nutritious source for the joint and cartilage and as arthritis progresses, the joint fluid thins out. Ultimately the muscles and ligaments surrounding the joint become inflamed, restricted in their ability to move and weakened over time.

Most dogs in pain will not cry or whine due to their pain unless it’s severe. As the pet owner you must be aware of the signs, some of which may be subtle. Typical signs of arthritis and pain in dogs can include:

-Slowing down on walks

-Reluctant and slow to go up and down stairs

-Inability to jump up on the couch or bed

-Excessive licking of joints or body parts

-Changes in body posture

-Yelping or growling when picked up

-Behavioral changes such as new onset of anxiety or aggression

-Difficulty getting up after laying down for an extended period


A multimodal approach should be used to treat your pet’s arthritis and help keep them comfortable. This means that several different treatments should be incorporated into your pets plan for the best results. Things to consider and discuss with your veterinarian would include:

Oral Pain Management

This may include a variety of prescription pain medications aimed at relieving pain and inflammation. Many pet parents are nervous to implement medications due to the potential side effects, however pain can severely compromise your pet’s quality of life and your veterinarian is trained to appropriately monitor your pet for the side effects that can occur.


There are a variety of supplements that can be used to help support pets with arthritis. This might include supplements designed to help slow the progression of arthritis, relieve pain and inflammation and help to maintain their muscle mass. Your primary care veterinarian and physical rehabilitation veterinary professional should help with guiding you to the safest most effective supplements available.

Appropriate Exercise

High impact activity such as fetch or jumping typically should be avoided. Low impact walking is great for arthritis. Depending on how affiliated your pet is by arthritis, swimming can also be low impact exercise to help support their cardiovascular health. A rehab professional can help guide you in the best exercise practices for your pet.

Home Modifications

Senior pets might require additional traction in the home, steps to get up on the couch or a ramp to get in the car.

Physical Rehabilitation

All dogs suffering from arthritis should have a certified physical rehabilitation professional as part of their care team. They can help identify areas of pain and weakness to achieve the best possible outcome for your pet. Incorporating Physical Rehabilitation into your senior dog’s exercise program will maintain their functional mobility longer, as well as significantly improve their quality of life when compared to their non-therapized counterparts. A Physical Rehabilitation program is a uniquely developed plan created by a specialized veterinarian and/or physical therapist. It is administered with the goal to maintain the strength, coordination/balance, spatial awareness, and endurance of your senior dog. This will overall improve your pet’s comfort and mobility, thus- quality of life as well. Veterinary rehabilitation is a non-invasive and fear-free method of pain management utilizing holistic care- without the sole reliance of pharmaceuticals. Rehabilitation is shown to be most effective when used in tandem with other treatments such as weight management, preventative nutraceuticals, medications, and/or surgeries (when necessary). Senior dogs that undergo regular physical rehabilitation have been shown to experience a delayed onset of aging symptoms and are overall happier.

Top Tips to Provide the Best Care for Your Senior Pet

Double Up On Veterinary Visits

Senior pets should definitely be seen by your regular veterinarian more often than when they were a pup. They typically require more frequent lab work to check for common conditions such as chronic kidney disease. It also can be difficult to notice changes in your pet when you see them on a daily basis. Having a good relationship with your primary care veterinarian with regular check ups can make the difference with catching certain conditions while they are easier to treat and manage.

Make Changes To Your Pet’s Environment

Weakness and arthritis can make it difficult for your pet to navigate their home. Simple changes can go a long way in terms of supporting your pets mobility at home and making them more comfortable. For example, adding area rugs and yoga mats can help add traction to your home. Raising food and water dishes can make them more accessible and comfortable for your pet. Adding baby gates to block stairs can reduce high impact repetitive activity of stair climbing and prevent slips and falls when your pet is not supervised.

Add a Physical Rehabilitation Specialist To Your Pet’s Care Team

Most senior pets suffer from some degree of mobility limitations from weakness and arthritis. Implementing an appropriate strengthening and pain management plan uniquely designed for your pet’s needs can be a crucial part in ensuring they age gracefully through their golden years.

Spend Time With Your Senior Pet

No matter what your pet’s abilities are - they just want to spend time with you! Even as a pet's age and can’t walk as far as they used to, they might enjoy sitting in a local park and taking in the views. If they aren’t strong enough to get on the couch anymore, set up a pallet on the floor so you both can spend time cuddling everynight watching TV. Consider working with a certified canine massage therapist to learn massage techniques to help relieve sore muscles and bond with your pet.

Proper Nutrition for Senior Pets

Due to their decreased metabolic rate, your older dog’s daily energy requirements can be reduced by 30%-40%, causing them to be more susceptible to weight gain. It is important to speak with your primary veterinarian about adjusting your pet’s diet or meal portions to appropriately match their activity and changing body. A healthy body weight is directly correlated to an extended lifespan in dogs, and this is even more important to preventative care as your dog reaches old age. Although nutraceuticals have been found to be more effective as a preventative measure- introducing them at any age can slow down the progression of these arthritic changes. Some supplements that have been studied and shown to aid senior dogs with their cognition, joint health, skin/coat health, kidney/heart health, and reduce inflammation are: Omega3 fatty acids, glucosamine, CBD oil, green lipped mussels and antioxidants. Your senior dog will need more nutritionally dense, but lower caloric foods than their previous diet. Processed food options have been shown to be inflammatory, so avoiding processed kibble in favor of more fresh options can improve your dog’s overall comfort and happiness. Talking with your veterinarian about adjusting your pet’s diet is the optimal route to ensure you are meeting your pets unique nutritional needs. Always be sure to consult your veterinarian before implementing new supplements or dietary modifications for your senior pet.

End of Life Care

The aging of our furry family members can be an emotionally distressing experience for any devoted pet parent. Many experience feelings of sadness when witnessing their senior dog slow down or not be able to do the same things that they used to enjoy. This is one of the hardest aspects of loving our furry friends, and it is normal to feel overwhelmed with these changes. It is important to remind yourself that our senior dogs can bring you just as much joy and love as they did when you first bought them home. You can find solace in knowing your dog's personality in-and-out. You know their favorite snack, where they like to sleep, their love language, their dislikes, their favorite toy… the list can go on forever. Your fur baby is your partner in crime! It is your job to listen to your pet during this season of life. Purchasing mobility aids, special harnesses, and diets for your aging dog can feel like “the end,” and be an emotionally difficult step to reach as a pet owner. In actuality, utilizing mobility aids and making changes to your home and your pet’s exercise is the beginning of a more comfortable and fulfilling life for your senior dog. Dogs that are not provided with mobility aids and other forms of medical management are more likely to experience higher levels of pain/discomfort and higher levels of anxiety. When a dog loses its freedom to walk around their home whenever they want and wherever they want, this is highly detrimental to their quality of life. By placing them in an environment in which they have tools such as pet steps, wheelchairs, toe grips, etc., they can still feel as capable as they did prior to any age-related mobility issues that have begun to affect them.

While every vet can help you care for your pet, if you feel overwhelmed with the needs of your senior pet there are additional options to help provide support. You may consider seeking out the help of a hospice veterinarian who can help you make informed decisions about the next steps for you and your pet. You can find additional resources and a provider through the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care Website


When is a dog considered a senior?

The breed of your dog, or more importantly- the size of the breed of your dog, is a determining factor for when you can consider your dog a “senior.” Small/Medium size breeds are considered seniors between the ages of 10 and 16 years old. Large/Giant breeds are considered seniors between 6 and 12 years old. Smaller breed dogs tend to live longer, thus are not considered to be senior until they are older in age compared to large/giant breeds.

How do you prolong a senior dog’s life?

Re-educating yourself on the changing needs of your aging dog is the first step towards extending their lifespan. Older dogs require more frequent wellness checks at their primary care veterinarian- about every 6 months rather than every year. Keep up with these regular vet visits and have an open dialogue with your vet about the changing needs of your dog and their suggestions. Speak with your vet about adjusting your dog’s diet to meet their changing nutritional and to maintain a healthy body weight. Stay diligent regarding any physical or behavioral changes within your senior dog and you will find success in maintaining their health.

What do senior dogs need more of?

The nutritional, medical, and behavioral needs of your senior dogs will increase with age. Similar to how humans’ bodies change in old age, senior dogs also experience an array of changes. Their metabolism slows down- meaning they need less calories that are more nutritionally dense- this is where nutraceuticals recommended by your veterinarian may play a role. Senior dogs have difficulty maintaining their muscle mass and strength- making them more susceptible for injury. This is why they require more physical assistance- they may no longer be able to jump onto furniture like they used to, posture to go to the bathroom, or sit down/get up on their own. Senior dogs are generally weaker and have decreased bone mass than their younger counterparts, meaning that a slip or bad jump can more easily result in injury. Overall, your senior dog will require a lot more attention and care than they may have needed in their adult years.

How do I know if my old dog is suffering?

The only thing scarier than the idea that your senior dog is suffering, is realizing that your dog may be suffering without you knowing it. Everyone has their own personal idea of what suffering may look like in your dog, and this is something that you should contemplate when your dog reaches old age. Pain is a large component of what may cause a dog to suffer, but often forgotten is cognitive decline and anxiety, which are also major contributors to a dog’s quality of life. Pain can be controlled and even eliminated with medical management and medications. No one knows your dog's personality better than you do- when you see your dog’s personality fading, this is a sure sign that they have begun to suffer.

How do I know when my old dog has had enough?

Deciding when it is time to say goodbye to your furry family member is the most difficult aspect of being a dog owner. It can be confusing juggling the feelings of not wanting to say goodbye, while also fearing that you are delaying the inevitable. This is a difficult balance with no one-size-fits-all answer. Knowing your dog is the greatest tool in your arsenal when making this decision. Some days will seem great, and others will not. Keep track of the “good” days and the “bad” days- marking them with a smiley face or frowny face on the calendar. This can provide a more objective view of your dog’s day-to-day quality of life. You love your dog more than anyone, and there is no one more capable of making the right decision but you.

What shortens a dog’s lifespan?

Disregarding the changes in your dog’s physical and emotional needs will not only shorten their lifespan but also significantly decline their quality of life. Some things to avoid in order to guarantee a long and happy life for your dog:

  • Skipping regular wellness visits, vaccinations, etc.

  • Feeding the same diet regardless of age/condition

  • Too little and/or too much exercise

  • Unsupervised exercise with other dogs (dog daycare, dog parks, etc.)

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Lack of enrichment/training

  • A nutritionally deficient diet

How can I tell if my dog is in pain?

Common signs of pain in dogs can consist of:

  • Non-weight bearing/not using a limb

  • Yelping or screaming

  • Aggression and/or reactive behaviors that is otherwise abnormal for your dog

  • Restlessness and not being able to sit down/lay for extended periods of time

  • Incontinence that is otherwise abnormal for your dog

  • Resource guarding food, bed, crate, etc.

  • Lack of interest in food or play

  • A consistent change in gait or posture

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