Golden Years: Adopting and Loving a Senior Dog

Senior dogs are often overlooked in shelters and can remain there for months. To give them the attention they deserve, November is labeled National Adopt A Senior Pet Month to highlight that the inimitable human-animal bond is not governed by age.

Welcoming an older dog into the household and giving them love and care for their remaining years is a wonderful act, but it’s not a one-way street. The warmth and companionship senior dogs give in return is immeasurable.

Adopting a senior dog means you are welcoming a sedate and gently mannered “grownup” into the home and don’t have to deal with rambunctious puppy-style shenanigans. You can get right down to the business of enjoying one another’s company.

What to Know

Thanks to great nutrition, grooming, and state-of-the-art medical care, dogs are living longer, often well into their teens. However, just like people, a senior pet may face some normal physical and mental challenges as a result of age.

Consequently, during the adoption process, it’s important to learn as much about a potential new family member in terms of mental and physical health as well as past history with other pets, small children, teenagers, or a bustling household. Some dogs are better suited to a quiet, sedate lifestyle in an adults-only home.

It’s equally important to evaluate your home and lifestyle to ensure that both meet the needs of an older canine family member.

For example, a dog suffering from joint issues may have difficulty getting around a home with stairs. Similarly, a pooch who is used to being around people may become anxious if left home alone for lengthy periods. Have an in-depth discussion with the adoption counselor and be forthright about your home and general household routines.

Creature Comforts

You have many options for helping a senior pet settle in comfortably. Whether or not they have mobility issues, senior pets will benefit from the comfort afforded by a memory foam bed. One with nice bolsters will give back support and provide a headrest. Place it in the family room where most of the activity happens and ensure it is away from drafty windows and doorways. The more beds you place around the home, the better!

Older pets (and all dogs with shorter legs) will benefit from a ramp or stairs placed alongside the couch or bed so they can independently access these cuddle zones and enjoy your companionship. Similarly, raised food and water bowls can help make eating and drinking more comfortable.

Some senior pets experience sight or hearing loss. Keeping large items of furniture in the same arrangement means that once your new family member has learned to navigate the home, they will remain confident in their surroundings. Behaviorists suggest always walking up to a sight-impaired pet with a firm but not frightening foot “tramp” and talking to them so that between the vibrations of your step and your voice, they aren’t initially startled when someone approaches.

Because both sight- and hearing-impaired pets rely heavily on their incredible sense of smell, you can further guide them around the home with special stickers called Tracerz that are infused with essential oils. When placed along major thoroughfares in the home, they become an olfactory guide from room to room.

Senior Moments

Like people, dogs can experience “senior moments.” Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is described as a neurobehavioral disorder resulting from age-related decline in cognitive abilities.

Studies done by Purina Pet Care have found that 28 percent of dogs ages 11 to 12 years and 68 percent of dogs ages 15 to 16 years have one or more signs of cognitive decline. These issues are characterized by behavior changes such as looking lost or confused in familiar environments, getting stuck in corners or behind furniture, staring at a wall or into space, and abnormal night-time behaviors such as howling for no reason or wandering around. They can seriously affect a dog’s quality of life if they go unmanaged.

Some pets may even have difficulty finding the food bowl. On the subject of food, cognitive function is something that pet nutritionists are now addressing in terms of special food formulas. MCTs — medium-chain triglycerides — are a common nutrient sourced from vegetable oils such as coconut oil. Purina nutritionists developed a breakthrough blend of MCTs that significantly improved canine behavior in as little as 30 days. Similarly, other supplements can help dogs cope with external stressors such as separation anxiety, unfamiliar visitors, novel sounds, or changes in routine and location.

Wellness Veterinary Visits

Senior dogs can benefit from two veterinary wellness checkups a year to help catch diseases of old age early. Discuss noticeable changes in behavior and possible dietary changes with your veterinarian at these visits.

Even if you have a large backyard, going for a walk is a great canine social experience. For an elderly dog, a pet stroller is a great idea should they tire when out and about and need a ride home.

And, on the home front, a variety of toys and puzzles will promote both mental and physical wellbeing and allow pet parents to engage with their pet and have some good old-fashioned fun.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning multi-media pet lifestyle expert, author and pet industry spokesperson. Her work features in a variety of magazines and on numerous websites. She is the recipient of the Excellence in Journalism and Contribution to the Pet Industry Award awarded by APPA (The American Pet Products Association) and named by Pet Age magazine as A Woman of Influence in the Pet Industry and has also received their Pet Industry Icon award. She is mom to two cats Ziggy and Tory, granny to a mutt named RileY and auntie to every dog in her neighborhood.