An elderly black lab stands outside in a garden.

Caring for older dogs

Just like people, dogs can slow down with age. As your dog gets older, you'll need to carefully manage their health to give them a good quality of life.

When your dog gets older, you may notice their behaviour changes. They may prefer to spend more time with you, or even become grumpier. They may also want to take less exercise and start to put on weight.

While slowing down with age is normal, changes in behaviour can be a sign of pain or illness. Senior dogs should be monitored carefully to keep them comfortable and happy well into their twilight years.


Always contact your vet if your dog is losing weight or their behaviour has changed.

When do dogs start to get old?

Middle age for most dogs is now usually considered to be over seven years of age. But this can vary between breeds. Small dogs often live longer, and may not show signs of old age until they're around nine to ten years old. Meanwhile larger breeds can start to slow down as early as six years old.

Your dog's health, diet and medical history can also impact their lifespan. Many vets are now starting to provide senior care programmes, which can help to provide earlier treatment and may improve your dog's quality of life. Because of improvements in healthcare and nutrition, dogs can live longer and healthier lives than before.

What happens during ageing?

As your dog gets older, you may notice them using less energy which can cause weight gain. However some dogs may lose weight due to poor digestion or illness.

You may also notice:

  • their coat loses its shine and white hairs begin to appear
  • their hearing and sight worsens
  • their sleeping pattern changes (they are sleeping more during the day or becoming restless at night)
  • their muscles have become weaker, or their joints get stiff
  • their immune system does not work as well and they're less able to fight off infections

All dogs will experience the effects of old age eventually. But there are treatments available to help manage these effects. Age is not a reason to accept ill health, and even senior dogs can lead happy, active lives.

Caring for your older dog


Senior diets for dogs have a different balance of nutrients to keep them at a healthy weight. Specially formulated diets are also available to help manage medical conditions linked to old age. Speak to your vet for advice on your dog's specific needs, and ensure all dietary changes are made gradually.

The best way to tell if your pet is overweight is to look at them and feel with your hands. You should be able to see an hourglass waist when you look from above, and you should be able to feel the ribs with light pressure.

If your dog is losing weight speak to your vet – they may advise feeding a specialist diet. Feeding little and often or warming food may also help to increase their appetite.


Throughout your dog's life, it's a good idea to weigh them every one to two months. If their weight is steadily increasing you should start to reduce their food intake and any treats. Weight loss or changes in thirst or appetite may be an early sign of illness, so speak to your vet if you notice this.


Regular, gentle exercise can help your senior dog to stay healthy as it can prevent obesity and provide good mental stimulation. Obesity can place extra pressure on joints and worsen inflammation, making it very painful for dogs with arthritis.

Rigorous exercise may cause difficulties for older dogs, so it's important to monitor them carefully while they exercise. If you notice your dog has an awkward gait or tires easily you may need to try a gentler form of exercise instead. Short walks little and often on a regular basis can help your dog to maintain healthy mobility.

You can also try calm activities like snuffle mats or scent work to keep your dog stimulated.


As your dog gets older, you may need to modify their environment to make it safer and more accessible. This will help to prevent injury or stiffening joints.

  • Place food and water dishes in places that are easy for them to reach. Raised dishes can be more comfortable for dogs with mobility issues.
  • Use ramps where your dog may need to climb on and off of furniture or get into the car
  • Provide lots of soft cushioned bedding
  • Cover slippery surfaces with mats or carpets to prevent your dog from slipping
  • Use baby gates to prevent your dog from accessing the stairs or rooms that are harder to navigate


Senior dogs may struggle to groom themselves properly due to stiffness or arthritis. You can help them stay clean with regular grooming sessions, focusing on places that are harder for them to reach (such as their back end). As their skin can become thin as they get older, ensure you use a soft bristled brush to avoid scratching the skin.

Regular grooming sessions are also a good opportunity to check their skin for lumps and and skin conditions. Check between their toes, in and behind their ears, and under their armpit.

Common problems in older dogs

There are some common health issues that older dogs may experience, but with careful management your dog can still live a healthy, happy life.


It's a good idea to take your senior dog for regular health checks – this will help to identify and treat health issues sooner rather than later.


Wear and tear on the joints can cause arthritis, which commonly affects older dogs. Some dogs may also be at higher risk of developing arthritis due to genetics.

It's important to carefully manage arthritis with weight control, gentle exercise and changes to the environment to prevent the pain from worsening.

If you suspect your dog has arthritis, contact your vet. Do not try to treat pain at home using human painkillers.

More on arthritis


While incontinence can affect dogs of any age, it's most common in older female dogs. This can happen when their ability to regulate the opening of the bladder reduces. When the bladder opening does not securely close, urine can leak.

Dogs can also become forgetful and confused in old age. It's important to help your vet identify if the urination is voluntary (for example if they cannot get to the toilet overnight) or involuntary (incontinence).

If your dog has become incontinent, you may notice:

  • wet patches where your dog has been lying down
  • wet patches on your dogs fur, particularly on the legs
  • a constant smell of urine on your dog or their bedding
  • skin irritation where they have been exposed to urine for a long period of time
  • an increase in grooming around the back end

Contact your vet if your dog is showing signs of incontinence. There are a number of tests they can carry out, which may include a urine sample, blood test or ultrasound. Depending on the cause of incontinence, there may be medication or other options to help your dog.

Dental disease

Dental disease is a condition affecting the teeth and gums. Throughout a dog's life, their teeth will experience wear and tear that can lead to dental issues. Daily brushing can help to keep your dog's dental hygiene in good condition, but problems can still develop in old age.

Signs of dental disease include:

  • inflamed (red) gums
  • bad breath
  • visible plaque or tartar
  • missing or damaged teeth
  • difficulty eating
  • weight loss

If you spot signs of dental disease, contact your vet. They may recommend pain relief, antibiotics or dental surgery.

More on dental care

Cognitive dysfunction

Cognitive dysfunction (also known as as dementia) is related to the brain aging over time, resulting in a decreased ability to carry out normal tasks. Dementia can make your dog forgetful and confused – you may notice that they do not remember their training, or they have become more fearful and anxious.

Other signs of cognitive dysfunction include:

  • toileting indoors (if they are toilet trained)
  • depression
  • pacing
  • changes in behaviour (such as anxiety or vocalising)
  • not sleeping at night

The causes of cognitive dysfunction are not known and it cannot be cured or treated, but there are ways to support your dog if they are diagnosed:

  • Do not get angry or punish your dog for accidents. Spend time gently retraining things they have forgotten and provide lots of opportunities to use the toilet even if they do not ask you to go outside. You can also place puppy pads indoors.
  • Stick to a routine as much as possible, and keep their environment familiar to avoid confusion
  • Place water, food dishes and your dog's bed where they can easily be found
  • Provide regular but gentle exercise and activities to keep your dog's brain active. Be aware that if they run after something on a walk and get confused, they may be unsure how to get back to you again. Keeping your dog on a lead when you're out and about can prevent them from getting lost. Check your dog's ID tag and microchip information are up to date so they can easily be returned to you if they get lost.

There may be medications to help your dog with cognitive dysfunction. Speak to your vet to find out what's suitable for them.

Loss of hearing

Dogs can gradually lose their hearing through damage to the hair cells in the inner ear. Deafness due to old age is often permanent and cannot be treated. It's not usually painful, but can be confusing for dogs if it's not carefully managed.

It can be tricky to tell if your dog has lost their hearing, but you may notice that usual triggers – such as the doorbell ringing or their recall – do not alert them anymore. They will often rely on vibrations instead.

Whether your dog is partially or completely deaf, there are ways you can help them to feel safe:

  • Make yourself known by letting your dog see you or tapping the floor with your foot
  • Do not disturb them when they're asleep, or use vibrations (such as footsteps or closing a door) to gently get their attention
  • When you're out and about, keep your dog on a lead to prevent them from wandering too far. In a park with lots of sights and smells, it can be easy for deaf dogs to become confused or lost.
  • Make others aware of your dog's needs and ensure children are respectful of their space

Loss of vision

Senior dogs can lose their sight gradually or suddenly, depending on the cause.

If your dog is losing their vision, you may notice a change in the appearance of their eyes. You may also notice behavioural changes, such as difficulty finding their way around or finding their toys. They may also bump into furniture or walls, or seem more cautious when walking around.

It's important to support your dog if they are partially or fully blind:

  • Make your home more accessible by removing trip hazards and ensure your dog has plenty of space to navigate. If necessary, you can prevent your dog from accessing smaller spaces by using a baby gate. Keep your furniture the same as much as possible to help your dog remember their way around.
  • Use sound and vibrations to make yourself known to your dog. Talking to your dog before you handle them can let them know you're there and avoid startling them.
  • Keep your dog on a lead on walks to help them steer clear of trip hazards, and prevent them from getting lost
  • Use scent work or treat toys to keep them mentally stimulated. For dogs who love to chase a ball, you can provide a ball with a bell inside to help them keep track of their toy.

Kidney disease

The kidneys carry out important functions, such as removing toxins from the blood. Kidney disease (or renal disease) refers to any condition that prevents the kidneys from working properly. Acute kidney disease occurs suddenly, while chronic kidney disease progresses slowly over time.

There are a few different causes, but senior dogs are more likely to develop kidney disease. Your vet may suggest ways to manage the condition, including dietary changes or medication.

More on kidney disease


Older dogs can be prone to developing fatty lumps (lipomas). These are painless, benign (non-cancerous) lumps of fat that can vary in size and placement. There are lot of causes of lumps in dogs and, fortunately, not all of them are cancer.

Dogs who are overweight may develop multiple fatty lumps, which may reduce in size as they lose weight. Some breeds, such as Labradors and dachshunds, are also more prone to lumps.

If you find a lump on your dog, contact your vet. They may recommend a biopsy to help rule out cancer.

More on fatty lumps


As dogs get older, the risk of developing cancer increases. Cancer in dogs most commonly occurs in the skin, digestive system or the breast.

Since cancer can develop in any part of the body, the symptoms can vary. You may notice a lump or wound, lethargy, loss of appetite or digestive problems.

Many of these symptoms are common in other health issues, so you should contact your vet if you spot them. It's not possible for vets to diagnose cancer based on symptoms, so further tests might need to be carried out.

More on cancer in dogs

Time to say goodbye

Many conditions linked to old age can be relieved with medication. But there may come a time where your dog can no longer be kept comfortable.

It's important to regularly discuss your dog's quality of life with your vet. If treatment is no longer effective or you think they are suffering, you may need to consider putting your dog to sleep.

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• 16 May 2024

Next review

• 14 May 2027

Approved by
Anna Ewers Clark

Veterinary Surgeon MRCVS