Being aware of the signs of aging in a dog and knowing how to care for a dog entering the senior years is always important, even for those with dogs as pets. But for people partnered with a guide, hearing, or service dog, there are additional reasons to be vigilant in later years.
An assistance dog who’s beginning to experience the perfectly natural physical and mental slowdown of the senior years cannot and should not be expected to keep performing her work. Eventually, she won’t be reliable, which can endanger the person with a disability who depends on her to be alert, focused, enthusiastic, and energetic. Also, it’s not right to place demands on a dog that she can no longer handle easily, comfortably, and happily.
Here are two big questions to ask yourself:
- Is your assistance dog still reliably performing all the tasks you need her for?
- Is she still doing so completely happily and comfortably?
When the answer to either is no, it’s likely time to start the retirement process. Retiring your assistance dog is an emotionally tough transition, but it has to be met head on to treat her fairly and to ensure you get the help you need .
When Is a Dog Senior?
There’s a common way of referring to “dog years” as multiplying a dog’s age by an equivalent age in human years. This often works as an approximation, as aging in dogs is more nuanced.
The size and breed of a dog have significant bearing on her rate of aging and life expectancy. Generally speaking, the larger the dog, the shorter the lifespan. Giant breeds like great Danes are considered seniors at around 5 to 6 years old, while chihuahuas aren’t thought of as entering their senior years until about 10.
The first year of any dog’s life is typically thought of as equivalent to the first 15 years of a person’s life. For the first five years, aging is fairly consistent across the size and breed spectrum – at 5 years old the dog is equivalent to 36 human years old. But by 7 years, a small breed dog can be thought of as about 44 in human years, a medium breed dog as approximately 47 years, l large breed dog as around 50 years, and a giant breed as somewhere in the area of 56 years old. The discrepancies only widen faster from there.
Note, though, that not only does aging occur at varying rates, total life expectancy varies as well. For example, a giant breed only has an average life expectancy of about 7 years, even though that’s only the equivalent of 56 in human years.
Of course, these are all generalizations. Plenty of individual factors affect how a dog ages, how healthy she stays in her geriatric years, and how long she lives, such as breed, diet, exercise, environment, etc.. Genetics and many aspects of care have considerable effects. For more about care in this regard, read our tips for extending your assistance dog’s life expectancy.
Indications Your Assistance Dog Is Aging
Below are some key signs and symptoms that may tip you off that your service, hearing, or guide dog is entering her senior years. Of course, consult your vet whenever you notice changes in your assistance dog. Any of these can also point to other health concerns—especially if your dog isn’t of an age where she’d be expected to show signs of aging.
- Reduced interest in work, play, and/or socializing
- A general physical slowdown, seeming less energetic about work and play, or seeming hesitant about going up and down stairs or other exertion
- Physical weakness
- Getting tired or out of breath more easily
- Showing signs of arthritis or joint problems like limping, standing strangely, avoiding physical activity, struggling to get up or lie down, or inflammation or tenderness at the joints
- Dry skin, thinning fur, gray hairs (especially on the muzzle or around the eyes), dulling hair color, or other skin and coat problems
- Increased susceptibility to injuries, infections, and illness; slower healing and recovery
- Increased sensitivity to temperature
- Elbow calluses
- Brittle nails and/or thickening foot pads
- Foul breath, bleeding gums, discolored or broken teeth, or other signs of dental disease
- Increased urination, difficulty urinating, or incontinence; constipation or pain while defecating
- Tripping, bumping into or stepping on things, difficulty locating items, or other indications of diminishing vision
- Not responding right away to being called or familiar sounds, or other signs of hearing loss
- Trouble remembering where things are or how to perform tasks (or just not remembering to perform them)
- Confusion, disorientation, pacing, staring, anxiety, irritability, or other signs of cognitive decline
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss; loss of appetite
- Bumps, lumps, and other warning signs of cancer, which typically affects senior dogs
Find more information about life expectancy by breed and converting dog years to human years at “How Long Do Dogs Live?” from PetMD and “How to Calculate Dog Years to Human Years” from the American Kennel Club.
Also, see our article on caring for an older, retired assistance dog.