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Changes You Can Expect as Your Dog Ages

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Loss of Hearing

Your dog may experience hearing loss as he ages. Most people don't notice the first indications of hearing loss in a dog because the signs tend to be subtle. Dogs use many cues to interact with us besides their hearing—they watch us, they know our patterns (probably better than we do), and they continue to interact effectively. By the time you do notice, your dog may already have experienced considerable, irreversible hearing loss.

Don't despair if your dog can't hear as well as he used to. Many people successfully teach their dogs to respond to hand signals and light signals in place of voice signals. For instance, you could use a flashlight to call your dog in from the yard. Even in daylight he'll be able to see a flashing light unless he's also lost his vision to age. If you start teaching these new communication skills before your dog loses his hearing, all the better.

Eye and Vision Changes

Changes in the eye are also common in aging dogs. If your dog's breed, or one of his breeds if he's a mix, is prone to inherited eye disease, consider taking your dog to a veterinary ophthalmologist for a thorough eye exam once every year or two. Other changes are simply a normal function of aging or in some cases the result of injury or other diseases.

Nuclear sclerosis, a condition in which the lens looks cloudy, is common in older dogs. It has little or no effect on the dog's vision. People sometimes mistake nuclear sclerosis for cataracts, which do cause vision loss. If you are in doubt, check with your veterinarian. In fact, an ophthalmic examination should be part of your dog's regular geriatric checkup. If you notice changes in the way your dog's eyes look, or if he seems to have vision problems between his regular exams, take him for a checkup. Changes in the eye sometimes indicate other health problems.


Altering your pet will increase his chances of living longer and healthier. Neutering eliminates risk of testicular cancer and reduces the risk of prostate disease in males; spaying eliminates a female's risk of ovarian cancer and greatly reduces her risk of breast cancer.

Sex-Related Changes

Prostate disease occurs in approximately 80 percent of unneutered male dogs 8 years of age and older. Although prostate cancer is not common in dogs, an enlarged prostate can cause your dog problems with urination and defecation. A check of his prostate gland should be part of your older male dog's annual physical exam.

Cancerous mammary (breast) tumors are the most common tumors found in unspayed bitches. In fact, breast cancer occurs as frequently in dogs as it does in people. It is also common for nonmalignant fibrous tissue to develop in the mammary glands, causing them to harden. If your doggy girl is not spayed or was spayed after having one or more heat cycles, an examination of her mammary glands should be part of her annual check-up. You can also check for lumps during belly rubs—which you know she'll enjoy.


Possible signs of CCD include the following:

  • Becoming confused or disoriented in familiar
  • surroundings
  • Inability to recognize familiar people and animals
  • Forgetting housetraining
  • Inability to pay attention
  • Pacing, insomnia, or altered sleep patterns
  • Staring at nothing
  • Lower activity level

Cognitive Dysfunction

More than half of dogs over 10 years of age will experience some signs of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), which is characterized by a number of behavioral changes ranging from confusion to changes in long-established behavior patterns. If you think your dog may have CCD, talk to your veterinarian. There are drugs now that can alleviate some of the symptoms, but it's important to rule out other problems first.

Not all age-related behavior changes indicate CCD. Let's look at some of the more common changes your dog may experience.


Some older dogs show signs of aggression. In many cases, aggression is a reflexive response to pain. If your dog has lost his hearing or vision, he may be startled at times and snap. If he's not as spry as he used to be, he may fight back when he can't get away from something that's bothering or hurting him, such as a puppy or even a child. If your dog has a nervous system problem or is on certain medications, he may not know what he's doing.

The first step in solving the problem is to find its source. If your dog's behavior changes, take him in for an exam. If he's on medication, ask your vet if there could be behavioral side effects. If no medical cause can be found, consider talking to a qualified animal behaviorist who is familiar with canine geriatric problems. Ask your veterinarian for a referral.

Loss of Housetraining

Some older dogs have accidents in the house, even though they've been reliably housetrained for years. Some medical problems may directly affect the dog's ability to control elimination. Other problems make elimination painful and make the dog reluctant to go until he really can't hold it any longer, and he soils the house.

You can help your vet diagnose a medical problem. Write down as much information as possible about when accidents occur, including whether you're home, how often your dog needs to eliminate, his posture while eliminating, any sounds he makes that might indicate pain, unusual characteristics of the urine or stool, how much urine or stool your dog passed, and changes in your dog's food or water intake.

Sometimes the solutions to inappropriate elimination are easy. A ramp in place of stairs may make it easier for a dog who has trouble walking to get in and out. Medications help with some medical problems. If your dog needs to go more frequently now than when he was younger, see if you can arrange to get him out more often. If you can't figure out what to do, again, talk to your vet. Your buddy isn't the first old dog with this problem, and your vet may have some excellent suggestions based on the specifics of your dog's problem.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Dog © 2003 by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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