older dog Animal House Vets BristolFive common problems in older dogs

Our dogs are living for longer than ever before (thanks in large part to better diet, vaccines and other modern medicines). However, this means that there are more and more geriatric dogs out there, living with the diseases of old age. This doesn’t mean they can’t have a great quality of life – they certainly can! – but it does mean that we need to be aware of the likely problems they will face, and their special requirements.

So, what are the “Big Five” problems of older dogs seen at Animal House Vets?


One in five adult dogs suffer from osteoarthritis – and the older the dog, the more likely they are to be affected. About half of all cases of lameness in dogs seen in practice are due to arthritis. Osteoarthritis is caused by “wear and tear” on the joints. Over time, the joint cartilage (the “non-stick” layer that allows the bones to glide smoothly over each other) is damaged and eroded, leading to inflammation, swelling and pain.

The symptoms vary, depending on severity, but generally include one or more of:

•    “Tiredness” or reduced willingness to exercise or play.

•    “Stiffness”, usually worse after getting up, and then easing with exercise.

•    Lameness and limping.

It’s really important to remember that just because a dog doesn’t yelp or cry out, it doesn’t mean they’re not in pain! “Stiffness” and “tiredness” are often symptoms of chronic, ongoing, joint pain.

Management of osteoarthritis requires a multi-faceted approach, including weight loss (in overweight patients, reduction of body weight is as effective as painkillers) and environmental changes (ramps to move up and down levels or in and out of cars; warm, soft bedding to sleep on). There is also a wide range of nutritional supplements available.

However, most dogs will at some point require medication – painkillers and anti-inflammatories. Remember, though, never use human drugs on dogs. Always use a proper medication as prescribed by us – people are often amazed at how much brighter and more lively their dog is once they start taking an effective anti-arthritis treatment!

Canine Dementia

Also known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, this is very common in older dogs – nearly a third of dogs aged 11-12, and two-thirds of dogs over 15 display some symptoms. The usual signs are:

•    Disorientation and confusion often expressed as roaming or seeming “lost” even at home.

•    Changes in personality – some dogs become aggressive, others seem to get clingier and need reassurance and fuss.

•    “Forgetting” learned behaviours, such as toilet training or commands.

There is no cure for dementia, but there are a number of medications that can slow down the onset and reduce the symptoms.


Every cell in a dog’s body is regularly replaced – cells are constantly dividing to make fresh replacements. Every time a cell divides, however, there is a (tiny) chance of a mistake occurring, leading to a mutation in its DNA. Some environmental factors (e.g. cigarette smoke) can increase this chance; however, the key thing is that the more cell divisions, the more chance of mutation; the more mutations, the higher the risk of a tumour developing. Tumours (aka “cancer” and “neoplasia”) are abnormal growths of cells; the exact properties of any individual tumour will depend on the cell type it is made of, and the type of mutation it has. They can be benign (not spreading or invading); locally invasive (prone to invade nearby tissues but not to spreading) or malignant (likely to spread and form secondary tumours elsewhere in the body).

The most common tumour diagnosed in dogs is a lipoma – this is a (usually benign) fatty lump. These sit under the skin and don’t generally cause problems. However, others are more dangerous, and may develop from any cell type.

Symptoms are very variable, but often include one or more of:

•    Weight loss.

•    Loss of appetite.

•    Lethargy.

•    Anaemia.

•    Collapse.

•    A lump or mass in or under the skin; or in the abdomen.

The treatment depends on the type of tumour, and when it is diagnosed. Some tumours are untreatable; however, many can be effectively treated or at least managed with a combination of surgery and medication, especially if detected early.

Heart Disease

Dogs of any age may suffer from heart disease – however, heart failure is more prevalent in older dogs. The most common cause of heart disease is leaking valves in the heart (endocardiosis or valvular incompetence); and although more common in certain breeds (e.g. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels), can occur in any dog. Over time this tends to worsen, leading to heart failure.

The common symptoms include:

•    Exercise intolerance.

•    A soft, “apologetic” cough.

•    Wheezing or difficulty catching a breath.

•    Swollen abdomen.

•    Visible pulses in the neck.

•    Pale or blue gums.

Fortunately, heart disease can often be managed for many months or even years; medications to make the heart beat more strongly, to reduce fluid build-up, and to drain water out of the lungs are highly effective in controlling the condition once diagnosed.

Gum and Dental Disease

Although not a condition of old age alone, gum and dental disease are more commonly seen in older dogs. This is usually (although not always!) due to a build-up of tartar and plaque, generally as a result of failure to brush the dog’s teeth effectively, over many years.

Eventually, this leads to gingivitis (infection of the gums) and periodontitis (infection of the tooth sockets). This infection is painful, may cause loss of teeth, and is a risk factor for heart disease and kidney failure.

Symptoms include:

•    Bad breath.

•    Red or swollen gums.

•    Bleeding from the mouth.

•    Pain when eating.

•    Loss of appetite.

If left, many dogs will lose their appetites completely and, if not treated, may even starve to death.

Prevention (with regular tooth brushing and dental care as required at your vets’) is better than cure; in advanced cases, surgical removal of the diseased teeth is necessary. Although it sounds radical, it is the best solution to give the dog a good quality of life; and most dogs eat better and more happily once these teeth are taken out.

Of course, there are other diseases that older dogs suffer from (e.g., kidney failure, liver disease, urinary incontinence in bitches, prostate disease in dogs), but these are probably the most common diseases of old age. If you have an older dog who has any of these symptoms, or you are concerned they aren’t doing as well as they used to; it’s important to get them checked out us. Don’t forget there is also the Active 8 VIP plan which is tailored to older pets. In their retirement, it’s important that our older dogs get the very best of care and Animal House Vets are here to help –

click here to book an appointment online.