At what age is your pet considered to be senior? There is no simple answer for every cat and dog, but the general principle practiced by many veterinarians (including myself) is that pets having achieved seven years of age have entered the senior phase of their lives.
The conventional perspective that one pet year equals seven human years puts a seven year old pet at 49 years of age. This is the time in life when humans often develop ailments associated with years of wear and tear on body tissues.
Yet, some pets exhibit physical signs of aging faster than others due to faulty genetics, poor nutrition, environmental factors, trauma, or illnesses. Others transition with ease from adulthood into their golden years without showing obvious signs of decline as a result of having good genes, a health-yielding diet, a reduced-stressful environment, lack of physical trauma, and few bouts of health problems. Ultimately, a pet’s ability to recover from illness, heal injuries, and fight infectious organisms reduces with the passing years and is an inevitable consequence of getting older.
Why different breeds (and their mixes) and sizes of dogs don’t age the same
Although some dog breeds are known to develop age-related health problems, the trends of illness can more consistently be correlated to a dog’s physical size. Adult and geriatric life stages are the times that common condition called ostoearthritis (OA) impacts a dog’s quality of life in a manner often visible to owners. Arthritis is joint inflammation, but OA is the progression of arthritis that happens when degenerative changes in joint surfaces occur that cause pain, reduced mobility, and other subtle or obvious signs apparent to the dog’s owner or veterinarian.
Large and giant-sized dogs are more susceptible to OA than their small and medium counterparts, but any size of dog can be affected by joint pain. Larger canines typically experience OA-related discomfort earlier in life than smaller dogs as a result of the increased stress on joints and other body tissues during day-to-day movements and exercise.
OA occurs commonly in some dog breeds due to their size or conformation. Large and giant breed dogs like Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Great Danes, Saint Bernard and others commonly have arthritis early in life due to hip and elbow dysplasia and are prone to traumatic ligament damage (cruciate tears, etc.). Breeds having short legs and a long back, like the Bassett Hound, Dachshund, and Corgi, frequently develop arthritis pain in the small joints (facets) that connect their backbones (vertebrae) and other debilitating back problems like intervertebral disc disease (IVDD). Small breeds like the Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian, and Yorkshire terrier have genetics predisposing them to luxating patella, where the kneecap slides out of place, compromises knee joint stability, and ultimately leads to arthritis.
Small dogs are more commonly affected by periodontal disease, where the teeth and their associated structures (gums, ligaments and supportive bone, etc.) are damaged due to bacterial infection and inflammation (gingivitis). Periodontal disease affects dogs of all ages, but adult and senior dogs are more commonly affected.
We veterinarians consider multiple factors as the reasons small dogs having pure or mixed breeding to develop periodontal disease so readily. Owners often have more difficulty providing regular home dental care for petite pooches, as being able to open the mouth of a small dog can be challenging due to lack of compliance. Concern for injuring a small dog during tooth brushing also reduces owners’ ongoing interest in provide home dental care.
Larger dogs are more prone to exhibiting regular or more vigorous chewing habits. Chewing on a bone, carrot, piece of wood, or commercially-available dental treat can have some positive benefits to clean teeth and reduce gum inflammation. Regardless of size, a dog’s enthusiastic chewing habits shouldn’t replace daily brushing with a toothbrush moistened with water or a pet-appropriate dental product.
How can the aging process be slowed for my pet?
As small and large dogs are prone to age-related illnesses that is potentially irreversible, owners must team with their veterinarian to create a senior-wellness strategy that aims to prevent or resolve ailments before they become severe.
Dogs of all sizes will benefit from staying slim, partaking in non-traumatic exercise, and starting an oral joint support supplement (glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, etc.) and other naturally anti-inflammatory products (omega-3 fatty acids, blue-green algae extract, turmeric, etc.) early in life to help deter the onset of OA and reduce the reliance on pain-relieving medications potentially having mild to severe side effects.
All dogs, but especially those of having “micro mouths” that are challenging to clean require dedicated effort to promote periodontal health through daily home dental care and regularly scheduled cleanings with a veterinarian.
For my patients, I recommend annual wellness exams, but juvenile, geriatric, and sick pets should be examined every six months or as frequently as the overseeing veterinarian recommends. Diagnostic testing (blood, urine, and fecal tests, x-rays, ultrasound, etc.) can help monitor organ system functions for variations that can start to change due to age or illness.
Regardless of a your dog’s breed, size, or age, it’s crucial that owners strive to create the best possible state of health every day. After all, your canine’s quality of life directly depends on your health-providing efforts.