Senior Dog Center

Senior Dog Center

Enrichment for Senior Dogs
Samantha Zurlinden, Veterinary Student Class of 2023

What is Enrichment and Why is it Important for Senior Dogs?

Enrichment is offering experiences and opportunities to animals to encourage healthy natural behaviors and enhance physical and emotional welfare. Enrichment is often broken into two broad categories: environmental and social.  Environmental enrichment alters the animal’s space either by making changes to the environment itself or by adding novel items such as toys, feeding puzzles, exercise, and things to smell and explore. Social enrichment involves offering positive social experiences for the animal with people or other animals.

Enrichment is important for all species of animals, including people! Sometimes we enrich our lives and our animal’s life without even noticing, such as going for walks outside or eating a yummy treat. Sometimes enrichment takes planning, such as a vacation or assembling food puzzles for your dog. Understand that what is considered enrichment should be from your dog’s perspective and each dog needs to be able to choose if they want to participate or interact with the enrichment item or not. We can entice dogs to participate by offering their favorite treats or petting in their favorite spots but ultimately it will still be their choice to interact or not.

Dogs can have several age-related diseases that can result in behavior changes and welfare concerns, such as arthritis, dental disease, cancer, diabetes, and other endocrine diseases. Additionally, dogs can develop canine cognitive dysfunction, a syndrome that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.  Pain is more likely to occur in senior dogs with age-related diseases, leading to decreased activity, increased anxiety, restlessness, and occasional aggression. Due to these age-related challenges, we should find ways to enrich their lives and help manage these conditions. While senior dogs may not be able to participate in much physical enrichment, such as long walks, other forms can be mentally stimulating and tiring.

If you have noticed behavioral changes in your senior dog, work with your veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying medical condition that may be causing the behavior. You should also discuss your dog’s weight and nutrition with your veterinarian to keep them at a healthy weight and as comfortable as possible.

By working with your veterinarian to manage age-related health conditions and providing individual and age-appropriate enrichment, you can enhance your pet’s quality of life and improve your bond with your aging dog.

Enrichment Ideas for Senior Dogs

  • Shorter walks outside  There is nothing like the great outdoors! Physical exercise, opportunities for social interaction, and new things to see and smell! Your walks may need to be a lot shorter than they were in younger years, but they are still beneficial. Just make sure to monitor how your pet is handling the walk and not to push your dog too far. Even sitting outside or taking a short walk focused on sniffing (sniff walk) can be enriching.
  • Puzzle Feeders – There are many different puzzle feeders available for dogs. You can shop online, in pet stores, or make them yourself! You can use some or all of your pet’s regular diet in the puzzle feeders, and you can also use special treats. For a simple DIY puzzle feeder, put some kibble in a plastic bottle without the lid, or save toilet paper or paper towel tubes and put kibble inside with the ends folded. Just make sure your dog doesn’t try to eat the bottle or cardboard! Another simple idea is to feed your dog from a muffin tin; you can even put tennis balls on top of the muffin tin to make it more challenging. Sometimes, you can freeze food in puzzle feeders to make them last longer.
  • Snuffle Mats – Snuffle mats look like extra shaggy rugs. You can purchase them or you can make them yourself. They can be used as a food puzzle or you can use them with scents. If you are adding scent, make sure that it is safe for dogs. Certain essential oils such as cinnamon, tea tree, peppermint, and wintergreen are not safe. Scents such as coconut, vanilla, ginger, and valerian are safe. Additionally, some dogs respond to catnip, and it can help them relax. Snuffle mats encourage sniffing and encourage normal foraging behaviors.
  • Scavenger Hunts – Hide treats, food items, and toys around the house or yard. Some dogs enjoy playing hide and seek with their favorite toys. Hide items in safe places. Hide items near places the dog frequents, such as by their bed or water bowl, and then expand from there.  
  • Positive Reinforcement Training  An old dog absolutely can learn new tricks! Positive reinforcement training will improve your bond with your pet at any life stage, and senior dogs are no exception. Positive reinforcement is rewarding your dog, usually with a food treat, for doing what you ask. Clicker training is a great way to use positive reinforcement to train your dog. You can teach useful behaviors such as sit, lay down, crate, and stay, or you can teach fun behaviors to your dog such as shake, target, speak, fetch. Positive reinforcement training is a great tool for senior dogs because it is mentally stimulating but does not require physical exertion.
  • Socialize with other Senior Dogs or Calm dogs – If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, arrange for play dates with other calm or senior dogs. Make sure that your dog enjoys this experience by monitoring their body language. Your dog should choose to engage with the other dogs, have loose body language, and be relaxed.

When it comes to enrichment, you can find something for all senior dogs no matter what their health or mobility status. 

Senior Dog Health Issues
Stephanie Cruz-Rincon, Veterinary Student Class of 2023

Aging is a natural process, not a disease. Just like people, dogs go through both mental and physical changes as they age. The muzzles of most older dogs turn gray and you can see a general decline in the quality of their coat; their skin becomes less elastic, causing hair loss and white hairs. Their eyes may also appear cloudy or bluish and pearl-like over time.

Older dogs tend to lose muscle and gain fat. As they age, their energy requirements decrease; they may not need the same number of daily calories they did as when they were young. Part of this is biological, part of this is due to increased sleeping and decreased activity. Many older dogs will not have the same endurance for play and exercise as they did in their youth. It’s a good idea to discuss their diet and energy levels with your veterinarian to avoid over-feeding and obesity.

Take your senior dog (see below for age ranges considered “senior”) to the veterinarian at least twice a year. Aging also increases your pet’s susceptibility to a number of different health issues. Regularly checking in with your veterinarian helps catch any potential issues sooner and provides an opportunity to address any changes you may have noticed in your pet. If you see a sudden change in your pet or notice a gradual worsening of their state, see your veterinarian.

Signs you don’t want to ignore:

  • increased panting or difficulty breathing
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • change in appetite or thirst
  • change in frequency of urination
  • “accidents” in the house
  • pain
  • aggression

Defining Seniors

Where most veterinarians draw the line between an adult dog and a senior dog is different from where pet owners do. When a dog becomes a senior depends on their individual health and condition. The chart below provides a general guideline on when a dog is considered a senior based on their size. The ages veterinarians consider a dog to become a senior are much earlier than many owners think. It’s important to keep this difference in mind as your dog may be more likely to develop certain diseases earlier than you expect.

Dog sizeAge considered senior
Small breed (2-20 lbs.)7
Medium breed (21-50 lbs.)7
Large breed (51-90 lbs.)5
Giant breed (over 90 lbs.)5

Sensory Changes

Many older dogs experience decreases in their senses. Their ability to see, hear, taste, and smell may be affected. Partial or complete loss of hearing and vision can decrease your dog’s ability to sense their environment. As a result, your dog may not sense your approach and startle more easily. To avoid scaring your dog, try to announce your presence with a loud greeting and approaching from within your dog’s line of vision. Minimize rearranging or adding furniture to the areas your dog has access to as it will keep their environment familiar and make it easier for them to get around if their eyesight is failing. Your dog may also be less responsive to voice commands if they have some hearing loss; it may be beneficial to teach them hand signals before this occurs as this allows you to continue communicating with your dog regardless of their ability to hear you.

As dogs age, the number of taste buds they have decreases. That decrease, coupled with a decreased ability to smell, may affect your dog’s desire to eat. Food becomes less tasty. Consult with your veterinarian if you note a decrease in appetite.

While sensory losses are a natural part of the aging process for many dogs, this may not be the case for every dog. There are several medical conditions and illnesses that cause visual, auditory and other sensory impairments in dogs. It’s important to have your veterinarian examine your dog to determine whether their changes are part of the aging process or whether there is an underlying disease or condition.

Behavioral Changes

It’s common for an older dog to slow down a bit and take more naps. It’s a mistake, however, to assume all changes in your dog are a natural part of the aging process. Behavior changes such as difficulty getting up or stiffness, anxiety, aggression, and other abnormalities may mean something is wrong. There are many health issues that cause pain and discomfort in your dog which lead to their reluctance to move or increased irritability. It’s important to bring up behavior changes with your veterinarian as some conditions are treatable and doing so helps maintain a good quality of life for your dog.

Health Issues

In general, the most common health issues older dogs develop are dementia, arthritis, and cancer. Other problems include heart, kidney, liver, and dental disease.

Dementia in dogs is called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). It is similar to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in people. About 14-35% of dogs over 8-years-old are affected, a percentage that increases significantly as dogs continue to age. Dogs with CCD have a slow progression of behavioral signs, such as aimless wandering/pacing, staring into space, and more. If you notice any of these behaviors or the ones listed below bring it up with your veterinarian. They may be related to CCD or another disease.

Signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome:

  • decreased interaction with owner, other people, and animals
  • inappropriate or excessive vocalization
  • changes in sleep/wake cycle
  • restlessness
  • disorientation
  • confusion
  • anxiety
  • house-soiling
  • altered appetite 
  • irritability 
  • aggression
  • apathy

There is currently no cure for CCD, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve your dog’s condition and slow progression.

Arthritis in older dogs results in pain and discomfort, which can lead to difficulty jumping up and down surfaces and decreased activity. If your dog is in significant pain, it may show signs of depression or irritability. There are many therapies to help alleviate discomfort including exercise, medication, nutritional support, and complementary therapies.

Almost half of the dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer. Symptoms of cancer vary depending on the type of tumor and its location but may include abdominal swelling, bleeding from body openings, difficulty breathing, non-healing wounds, and sudden changes in weight. Your pet’s prognosis, like their symptoms, depends on their individual situation but it is generally better to catch the disease early on.

As dog’s age, changes to their internal organs take place. These changes can increase the risk of developing heart, kidney, and liver disease. Symptoms of heart disease include coughing, abdominal swelling, and exercise intolerance while symptoms of kidney disease include changes to urination and thirst. Liver problems can show up as general signs of sickness, such as vomiting and depression. The same symptoms could be caused by many different diseases so your veterinarian may need to perform several diagnostic tests.

It’s important to keep up with oral hygiene as tartar buildup can lead to infection. Aside from problems directly affecting the mouth, bacteria can pass into the bloodstream and directly affect the health of the heart and kidneys. Discuss an oral health care plan with your veterinarian to keep your pet’s teeth in good shape.

The diet a dog is fed should be tailored to their individual condition and health. Not every dog will need to switch from an adult diet to a senior diet as they get older. Many dogs do well if fed the same good quality adult commercial diet they are used to. Some seniors, however, may benefit from changes to their nutrition. One important factor to consider is how much protein and what quality of protein they are getting. Older dogs tend to lose muscle mass and feeding adequate protein can help prevent this. Another important factor to consider is the number of calories your dog actually needs on a daily basis. Senior dogs tend to have a slower metabolism and thus may not need as much food as before. Consult with your veterinarian to discuss how much to feed your dog and whether you need to feed your dog less or change them to a lower calorie diet.

There are many diets tailored to specific diseases dogs may develop. These include reduced-sodium diets for dogs with congestive heart failure, urinary diets for dogs with kidney issues, and many others. Supplements such as antioxidants can help reduce inflammation and boost brain function.

Prevention and Maintenance

There are many things you can do to support your dog’s health as they age. Regular play and exercise are great for maintaining a healthy weight and active mind. Try teaching your dog new tricks and commands. Learning new things can help keep them mentally sharp and improve signs of dementia. With a combination of appropriate nutrition, social interaction, and vigilance on your end for signs of illness, coupled with your veterinarian’s medical skill, your dog can continue to have a great life into its senior years. Remember that some age-related changes are not avoidable such as vision and hearing loss. It’s a good idea to check with your veterinarian to make sure there is not an underlying disease, but otherwise, these changes are manageable and do not have to decrease your dog’s quality of life. Your dog may just need some extra patience and care.