Senior Dog Wellness

The Senior Stage (7-12 years)

With advancements in veterinary medicine, dogs live longer and healthier than ever. This is terrific news and means you can enjoy your dog for longer than ever before. However, these advancements increase the demand for quality senior dog care, requiring veterinarians to address needs of older dogs not tackled in the past. Fortunately, care plans to treat older dogs are developing rapidly, and our experienced veterinarians in Raleigh are well-versed in addressing the special demands of our senior furry friends. Your Harmony vet is here to help you navigate your dog’s health as they enter their golden years.

What to Expect

Although dogs age differently and at different rates throughout their lifetimes, small-to-medium breed dogs are considered senior dogs at 7-10 years old. Large and giant breed dogs may need senior care as early as age 6.

As the best vets in Raleigh, we know that senior dog care is a combination of using preventive medicine and addressing issues as they arise. Though every dog’s health will change at different rates, we use a series of guidelines to help you and your senior dog navigate potential challenges as they age and to prevent or slow the progression of serious health problems as much as we can. 

Senior Preventive Care

Even if your dog seems healthy, adopting a senior-dog preventive medicine schedule by age seven will give your dog the building blocks for increased longevity. Just like aging humans, senior dogs experience increases in the following:

  • Cancer
  • Muscle and joint ailments (stiffness, weakness, decreased activity)
  • Senility and brain disease
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney and urinary tract disease
  • Heart disease
  • Thyroid disease
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid disease
  • Cushings disease
  • Dental disease

While many senior dogs live long, happy lives without experiencing any symptoms of these ailments, knowing that there are increased risks will help you and your veterinarian keep a close, watchful eye on any changes in your dog’s health. As with human health, finding problems in the earliest stages when intervention is most effective is crucial and desirable. Call Harmony Animal Hospital with any changes in your dog’s behavior, but special attention should be given to the following:

  • Sores that won’t heal
  • New growths that you find or changing of old growths
  • Lameness, stiffness, slowing down
  • Changes in normal routines and habits (especially for cats)
  • Urinary incontinence, changes in potty habits, or unusual “accidents” in the house
  • Increased thirst
  • Noticeable unexplainable weight loss or weight gain
  • Changes in breathing (rate, rhythm, sounds)
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea, particularly with blood
  • Apparent dizziness or fainting
  • Confusion/disorientation/sudden inability to respond to simple commands

Though any of these symptoms alone, or in combination, are not an automatic sign of a serious illness, they all require immediate veterinary attention. We want your dog on the road to recovery as soon as possible and want to minimize the discomfort and additional consequences untreated illness can cause.

The Need for More Frequent Veterinary Check-ups

Our dogs age, on average, seven times faster than we do. Therefore, senior dogs will need to be seen at least twice a year for comprehensive physical exams. This is equivalent to us going to our doctor every three to five years! Senior comprehensive exams should include annual or biannual baseline bloodwork and urine screens in order to catch some of the more common medical changes as quickly as possible. Others may need additional diagnostics such as blood pressure measurement, ECG, and X-rays based on individual history and overall health status.

Some of the health issues listed above are treatable, while others (like senility) can be managed but not cured. As your dog grows older and has to deal with more health challenges, your visits to our vets at Harmony Animal Hospital will likely increase. We will do everything possible to help keep your senior dog as healthy, mobile, and comfortable as possible.

Catching Signs of Cancer Early

Because the risk of cancer increases with age, it is important that you know what to look out for. Some forms of cancer, like those affecting internal organs, might cause changes in the way your dog eats or behaves, but some cancers offer no visual clue.

Lumps, however, should always be considered a warning sign and require a visit to the vet. Some lumps can turn out to be just benign growths, while others may be an indication that cancer is present in the body. Appropriate check-ups and testing are the only way to confirm the cause of the lump.

Parasite Control

Senior dogs’ immune systems tend to be more compromised compared to those of younger dogs. Because of this, intestinal parasite preventive medications, as well as flea, tick, and heartworm preventive, are especially essential as dogs age.


Arthritis is a common ailment in dogs of all ages, even adolescents, though we tend to see it more in aging dogs. For senior dogs with arthritis, it tends to be worse in colder months. If left untreated, it can be very painful for your dog. As dogs get older, most will experience joint stiffness, just like people. Offering your dog health-appropriate exercise will help keep their joints loose and make mobility easier. Many dog parents are quicker to recognize signs of arthritis and joint pain in larger dogs. However, millions of small dogs suffer from these ailments because people don’t recognize the symptoms. Your Harmony veterinarian can help assess and give you the proper tools to monitor your dog’s mobility and help you intervene if needed. Remember that when animals are in pain, they don’t vocalize, so here are some of the things to look for:

  • Abnormal gait and/or stiffness
  • Difficulty or hesitation with jumping on furniture or during play
  • Creaking or popping noises in joints
  • Spinal issues (hunching)
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle atrophy

If you see any of the above signs that concern you, give us a call to schedule a visit. There are many options. Our goal is to get your dog pain-free with a treatment plan that fits best with your lifestyle. We’ll examine your dog and create a pain management and wellness plan. Treatments may include:

  • pain medication
  • acupuncture
  • laser therapy
  • Adequan injections
  • nutritional supplements
  • physical therapy
  • weight loss (if necessary)

Softer beds for Senior dogs with arthritis

For dogs with arthritis, you can provide an orthopedic bed with more cushioning with or without heat. These beds will help reduce pain and make resting a lot more comfortable by lessening pressure on the joints and providing warmth and good blood flow. Note: If using a human heating pad, keep it on the lowest setting because it can cause burns. 

Holistic Veterinary Medicine for Senior Dogs

Although holistic veterinary medicine has been around for many years, it has become increasingly popular over the past two decades, with more and more vets embracing the practice. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One of the reasons for its popularity is that many dog owners have experience with Alternative Medicine themselves and are looking for less invasive ways to treat their dogs. Although medications can heal, they also come with a number of secondary effects. While some health issues require the use of traditional medication, this is not always true for every health condition. In fact, many milder problems can be treated through less invasive therapies such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, and homeopathy. Even nutritional therapy can work wonders for certain health issues that don’t seem to respond to other forms of treatment.

If your senior dog is already undergoing traditional treatment for a health problem, holistic medicine can be used as an add-on, either to help relieve secondary effects or symptoms or to strengthen the immune system so that healing occurs faster. Click here to learn more about Harmony’s holistic veterinary medical offerings and philosophy as it pertains to your senior dog.

Vision and Cataract Surgery

Developing cataracts is common at this stage of your dog’s life and can be corrected with cataract surgery. Harmony vets will be checking your dog’s sight at their check-ups, but if you notice changes with your dog responding to visual cues or walking more tentatively, be sure to bring them in for an evaluation. You may find that some low lighting at night can be a helpful aid for some dogs.

Dental Care

Excellent dental care during your dog’s Senior Stage continues to be essential to their health. Be sure to continue to bring your senior dog in for their teeth cleanings on the schedule determined by your vet. Decisions about how often your dog needs cleanings will be based on your particular dog. Should you suddenly notice a broken tooth, bad breath, or any other oral concerns, set up an appointment right away. Harmony Animal Hospital’s extensive dental services are here to address all dental issues. Dental care is perhaps the most important service we can provide your dog throughout their life to ensure the health of your dog for years to come. Your dog’s mouth is the gateway to their health. Your investment in preventative care will not only keep your dog healthy, but it will also be a whole lot less expensive than treatments needed for neglected mouths. 

At your dog’s annual visit, our vets will review everything from brushing your dog’s senior teeth, broken teeth, appropriate senior chewing toys, nutrition, your dog’s cleaning schedule, and more. 

Check out our dental videos for more on the importance of excellent dental care. Home care, as well as regular professional oral health and treatment under anesthesia, should always be part of your dog’s ongoing health care. This not only keeps their teeth and gums in good health, but it can also alert your vet of diseased teeth, oral tumors, and other serious problems developing in your dog’s mouth.

Sometimes, during a routine examination, we may notice a fractured (broken) tooth or a cavity. Left untreated, fractured or decaying teeth will lead to oral pain and tooth root infections, so they will always require treatment dependent on the severity of the fracture or cavity. Typically a broken or diseased tooth should be treated one of three ways: a bonded sealant +/- crown restoration, a root canal, or an extraction.

Due to the high risk of fracturing your dog’s teeth, we do not recommend allowing your dog to chew on hard plastic Nylon bones, rocks, antlers, bull horns, hard sticks, and knuckle bones. The general rule for a safe chew toy or treat is that you should be able to make an impression on the object with your thumbnail. You should always think about how your own teeth might be damaged by anything you are about to give your dog. We are typically smart enough not to chew on hard objects or bite down with great force on things because we are aware of what could happen. This is not true for our dogs.

Although cavities are rare in animals, they do occur. Cavities should be addressed during your dog’s annual dental cleaning with a full oral exam, as untreated cavities can lead to infection or loss of the tooth later on. Most cavities are filled using a composite resin, which we are capable of treating here at Harmony Animal Hospital.

Nutrition and Weight Management

As dogs get older, they are likely to move less and not burn as many calories as they used to. Older dogs may need specially formulated food to help them digest more easily and optimize their overall health based on their individual medical needs. Your Harmony vet will help you choose food designed especially for older dogs. These foods are usually lower in calories and fat and often have glucosamine and other nutrients that older dogs need. We will advise you on the correct quantity to keep your senior dog from gaining excess weight, which can increase the risk of developing diabetes and can worsen joint pain or mobility problems.

Both rapid weight gain and weight loss are concerning changes for any dog as they can be both a sign and a cause of potential health concerns. You should keep a close watch on your dog’s weight, and if you notice a sudden change, be sure to make an appointment for an evaluation with your vet.

Food intake varies by breed, size, and activity level. With all the food choices out in the marketplace, it is helpful to get expert advice from your vet for this senior stage of your dog’s life to keep them on the healthiest possible path for optimal nutrients, energy, weight management, and longevity. Harmony Animal Hospital vets work with you to ensure that your senior dog is getting all their nutritional needs met while maintaining a healthy weight.

We have a variety of diets available to meet the individual needs of our patients. We can recommend a general diet for your healthy dog or provide a diet that will help improve your dog’s medical condition. We proudly offer both Purina and Royal Canin prescription veterinary diets.

Food Therapies

In addition to traditional nutritional counseling, we also offer Food Therapy. Using food as therapy can be very powerful. We can create a complete and balanced (and delicious!) diet recipe specific for your senior dog’s individual needs that you can cook at home (including calculations for caloric need–this includes any adjustments we may need to make in the future). Recommendations can also be made for foods that you can add to the diet your dog is already eating if you aren‘t quite ready to make a full transition. Treat recipes can also be individualized based on the needs of your dog.


Your senior dog continues to need adequate exercise, but not as much as in their earlier stages, and you will notice them tiring sooner. It is also important to protect your dog from overheating or getting too cold. Older dogs do not handle extreme temperatures as well as they did when they were younger. If providing your dog with adequate exercise is challenging for you for whatever reason (seasonal challenge with heat or cold, your work schedule, or sudden life demands), Harmony can offer a regular treadmill appointment to keep exercise on track. Call to arrange a visit with Dr. Elizabeth, our rehabilitation specialist. She can help you determine the right exercise plan to keep your dog feeling and acting like a pup.

Temperature Sensitivity

Senior dogs are more sensitive to changes in temperature and might need help staying warm (or cool, depending on the season). A nice coat for winter walks and a well-ventilated and perhaps air-conditioned place to sleep in the summer is essential.

Self Grooming

As dogs get older, they may start to groom themselves less. Check with your vet to make sure that there is no underlying medical issue. Invest in a nice brush to help your senior dog remain clean and look his best with your helping hand.

Next Steps as Your Dog Graduates from the Senior Stage

Your senior dog may have many years ahead, and we want them to be enjoyable. With a combination of preventive care and early intervention, we can help your dog’s senior years be as happy and healthy as possible. Harmony Animal Hospital is here to help guide you through your dog’s golden years.