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Joan Merriam: Your older dog’s health

Joan Merriam

Last time, I talked about activities for your older dog, but let’s step back and look at their health concerns.

First, keep in mind that just because your dog is a “senior citizen,” it doesn’t mean he’s near death. It simply means he’s past puppyhood, adolescence and adulthood. Generally speaking, smaller dogs have a longer lifespan that large ones: a small dog doesn’t reach this senior stage until about 11, whereas a giant breed becomes a senior around seven. Either way, both dogs may have several years of life left.

But there’s no denying that older dogs face health issues specific to their age.


Many older dogs develop osteoarthritis, the degeneration of cartilage in the shoulders, hips, and leg joints. Perhaps the most common sign of arthritis is increased difficulty in either getting up or jumping onto things. While there’s no cure, there are some prescription medications that can bring your dog a great deal of comfort, such as carprofen, deracoxib, meloxicam, and Adequan. Some dogs can also find pain relief through non-prescription supplements like chondroitin and glucosamine, or therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and hydrotherapy.


Heart disease, especially congestive heart failure, is commonplace in senior dogs. This condition arises when the heart can’t pump blood efficiently and fluid backs up in the heart, lungs and chest cavity. As an owner, you need to be especially vigilant to possible signs of congestive heart failure such as difficulty breathing, coughing, exercise intolerance, and unexplained vomiting. Immediate veterinary care is necessary.


Cancers are extremely common in aging dogs, and many aren’t discovered until it’s too late. Some breeds, especially purebreds, are especially prone to develop cancers: for instance, golden retrievers tend to develop cancer — especially deadly forms like hemangiosarcoma — at an alarming rate. Dr. Cheryl London, a veterinary oncologist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, says, “There was a lot of interbreeding to create the golden retriever, [which] creates issues in genes that predispose them to a variety of different things, and one of them is cancer.”

The classic warning signs of cancer in dogs are very similar to those in people, including a wound that won’t heal, enlarged lymph nodes, unexplained lameness or swelling, abnormal bleeding, lack of appetite, or a lump under the skin. (These aren’t the various lumps and bumps that show up on almost every older dog, which most often are completely harmless lipomas, or fatty tumors.) That being said, if you find a lump that concerns you or grows larger, it’s worth a trip to the veterinarian.


Like humans, most dogs develop some level of vision loss as they age. These gradual changes usually go unnoticed until the condition is advanced, and generally, little can be done to correct them. The exception is the surgical removal of cataracts, although the rest of the eye will continue to age normally. The good news is that even when dogs become partially or completely blind, they adapt much more easily and quickly than humans, and get around perfectly well using their other senses.

Like blindness, age-related deafness in dogs is gradual, giving you and your pup time to adjust. Many owners of deaf dogs use special deaf dog training techniques such as hand signals.


Dementia in dogs is called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), and affects up to a third of dogs over eight years old, and even more as age progresses. Like Alzheimer’s disease in humans, CCD has no cure. Dogs with CCD slowly develop certain behavioral symptoms such as aimless wandering or pacing, becoming “trapped” in corners, excessive barking, and general disorientation and confusion. As with humans, the dementia will eventually cause death, but you and your veterinarian can monitor your dog’s quality of life, which will help you decide when your dog is letting you know it’s time to let him go.


You might not think of overweight as being a particular problem for older dogs, but as dogs age and their level of activity decreases, obesity can have a profound effect on their health. In fact, overweight dogs are much more susceptible to diseases like diabetes and certain types of cancer. In addition, the extra weight can worsen or even create problems such as arthritis, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Older dogs can also develop complications such as kidney or liver disease, digestive issues, and incontinence.

Caring for your senior dog’s health — including twice-a-year veterinary wellness visits — can help nip some of these problems in the bud, while improving your pup’s happiness, comfort, quality of life, and the chances that you’ll have that sugar-faced companion around for years to come.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Casey (hence, “Casey’s Corner”). You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.


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