How to take care of a senior dog

May 25, 2023 - 6 min read
senior dog laying on a carpet

Old dogs are the best. If you’re lucky enough to have a canine senior citizen in your life, you know what a joy they can be. However, older dogs do require an extra level of care to stay as happy and healthy as possible. In this comprehensive guide to taking care of a senior dog, we’ll take a look at how a dog’s diet, exercise, grooming, and healthcare needs change as they age.

When Is a Dog Considered a "Senior"?

How do you know if your dog is ready for senior care? Dogs are generally considered “seniors” when they reach the last 25% of their expected lifespan. Since larger dogs age more quickly than smaller dogs, it can be helpful to use this chart to determine if your dog is a senior.

Dog’s Adult Weight Age When Considered a Senior
less than 10 pounds 9-11 years
10-25 pounds 9-10 years
25-60 pounds 8-10 years
60-90 pounds 7-9 years
greater than 90 pounds 6-7 years

Other factors, such as a dog’s breed or overall health status, may also affect when a dog is considered a senior. Your veterinarian can help you determine when it’s time to implement senior dog care.

Diet and Nutrition for Older Dogs

Feeding an older dog a good diet is one of the most important things you can do to maintain their health, but different dogs have different needs. The ideal diet for a 12-year-old Pug that is an overweight couch potato would probably not be a good choice for a 12-year-old Border Collie that still competes in agility trials!

With that said, some nutritional recommendations do apply to most senior dogs. Here are a few.

Opt for Lower-Calorie Dog Foods if Weight is a Problem

As dogs get older, their metabolism often slows due to a decrease in muscle mass and activity levels. Dog foods that have a lower caloric density (fewer calories per cup) can help prevent weight gain. An equivalent amount of fat contains almost three times as many calories as proteins or carbohydrates. Feeding a diet that is slightly reduced in fat can help prevent weight gain. However, keep in mind that very active older pets may need to eat normal or even higher levels of fat to meet their caloric needs.

Look for Higher Protein Content

Elderly dogs need protein to maintain their muscles, to produce antibodies that are essential to immune function, and for many other important body functions. Since older dogs may not eat as much as they used to, feeding a diet that contains a little more protein and is made with high-quality protein sources is often beneficial.

Cater to Your Dog's Appetite

If a senior dog’s appetite isn’t what it used to be, try offering foods that are especially tasty (wet versus dry food, for example), have a strong smell, and are warmed to body temperature.

Consider Adding in Nutritional Supplements

Adding certain nutritional supplements to the diet can benefit older dogs. For example, omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation, improve symptoms associated with arthritis, and promote brain health. Veterinarians may recommend other supplements based on the specifics of a dog’s case.

Give Fiber a Boost

Pets tend to have more problems with constipation as they age. Adding a little extra fiber to the diet may help.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) currently doesn’t have any specific requirements for senior dog foods, but pet food manufacturers produce many “senior” dog foods that have many of the qualities mentioned above. Talk to your veterinarian to determine what diet and nutritional supplements would be best for your dog.

Exercise and Activity for Older Dogs

It’s natural to slow down a little with age, but exercise is still extremely important for senior dogs. Exercising every day is the easiest way to keep the body strong and the mind sharp, but you may find that you need to modify your dog’s activities to prevent injuries and exhaustion.

Going for a leash walk is the best option for many elderly dogs. Walks are low-impact but still an excellent option for keeping muscles strong and maintaining cardiovascular health. Don’t be in a rush. Let your dog set the pace and stop for as many sniffs and potty breaks as they need. And try changing up your route from time to time. All the new sights and smells and meeting new people will keep your dog’s mind engaged.

Active older dogs can still take part in favorite activities like going on hikes or playing fetch. Just keep a close eye on how they are doing. Dogs aren’t great judges of when they need to call it quits when they are doing something they love! Take a break at the first sign that your dog is becoming tired or sore.

Grooming and Hygiene for Older Dogs

Your older dog may require a little extra help in the grooming department. Spending more time napping and less time being active can lead to longer nails and matted or tangled fur. You’ll want to continue with the grooming schedule you had when your dog was younger, but adding in an extra weekly check can help you pick up on problems at an early stage. Sit down with your dog and run your hands all over them, checking for tangled hair, overgrown nails, lumps or bumps, and anything else that is unusual and needs to be addressed. 

An elderly dog’s bathing schedule can sometimes be extended if they are spending less time outdoors. Many healthy dogs only need to be bathed a few times a year or when they become a little smelly or get into something. On the other hand, older dogs may have skin conditions or incontinence issues that require more frequent bathing. Talk to your veterinarian or groomer if you have questions about how frequently your dog needs to be groomed or bathed.

Be extra gentle when you are grooming or bathing your older dog. It’s easy to cause your dog pain if you put pressure on an arthritic joint or hit a bony area with a brush or a pair of clippers.

Healthcare and Vet Visits for Older Dogs

As dogs get older, their healthcare needs increase. Senior dogs should be seen at least twice a year for a check-up and any needed preventive care or health screening tests. Pets age more quickly than people, so vet visits every six months let the doctor pick up health problems at an earlier stage when treatment can be most effective. Senior wellness visits generally include:

  • A physical examination

  • A discussion about any changes that you are noticing at home

  • Special attention is paid to vision, hearing, dental care, nutrition, weight monitoring, pain, mobility, and quality of life

  • Updating vaccines and parasite control, if needed

  • Running labwork at least yearly, including a complete blood count, blood chemistry panel, urinalysis, fecal exam, and any other tests needed based on the dog’s breed, age, and health history

  • Discussions surrounding end-of-life care, when appropriate

Most general practice veterinarians can provide routine care for senior dogs, but they may recommend seeing a specialist for the treatment of certain health problems. And remember, if you are ever uncomfortable with your current veterinarian, you can always get a second opinion. TheAmerican Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and theAmerican Board of Veterinary Practitioners both have locator tools that allow you to find veterinarians who are held to higher-than-normal standards.

Mental and Emotional Health for Older Dogs

A senior dog’s mental and emotional health is just as important as their physical health. Make sure they remain engaged in your family’s day-to-day life. Keep going for walks, even if they are slower and shorter than they used to be. If your dog has difficulty walking on slippery floors, place inexpensive, rubber-backed carpet runners between your dog’s favorite resting areas so they can still get around. Place multiple, comfy dog beds in strategic spots so your dog can join the family or seek out a little peace and quiet based on their needs at the time.

Talk to your veterinarian if you start noticing signs of illness or persistent changes in your older dog’s behavior. Many common dog diseases like arthritis or canine cognitive dysfunction (a type ofdementia in dogs) can lead to symptoms that pet parents may inadvertently write off as normal signs of aging in dogs. With the right type of care, a senior dog’s golden years can be some of their best years.

Costs & Insurance for Older Dogs

Dogs become more prone to health conditions as they get older, so taking care of a senior dog can get expensive. That's one reason why purchasing a dog insurance plan, like those offered by ManyPets, can be so valuable. Just make sure you do so when you first get your dog, so health issues won’t be considered pre-existing conditions.


Pre-existing conditions and insurance - how does it work?

ManyPets has exclusions for pre-existing conditions, but past conditions don’t always prevent future coverage. Get the details.


This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.