When does your dog become a senior citizen? The answer may surprise you.

Some dogs are considered geriatric at five years of age while others won’t credibly qualify until they’re ten or more. At issue here is the discrepancy between different breeds and sizes of dogs. Giant breeds like Great Danes and the larger mastiffs age prematurely relative to the tinier breeds (like poodles and Yorkies).

Though the average lifespan of a dog is somewhere between ten and thirteen, most vets start treating most dogs as seniors when they’re about seven (though most big guys get the same consideration beginning at age five). This is when our dogs’ rapidly ticking biological clocks begin to send subtle signals visible sometimes only to a trained professional.

Nonetheless, it’s never too early to start thinking about your dogs’ golden years. After all, you want her to be as prepared as possible for the ultimate in longevity so she can live out her days to her fullest, most comfortable canine potential, right?

Unfortunately, I find that most owners miss out on these early cues, mostly because they expect a dog’s personality to “settle down” after puppyhood. But such so-called “settling” isn’t usually personality driven. Instead, it’s the result of physical aging. And studies convincingly demonstrate that the sooner these pets’ individual aging issues are identified and addressed, the greater their longevity.

So how do you know you’ve got a senior dog on your hands? Here’s this vet’s personal checklist to help you avoid the rationalization that keeps us from recognizing the early signs of normal aging:

1-She’s losing her game

Maybe she used to spend thirty minutes chasing that same red ball. Now it’s ten throws and she’s loving the soft ground beneath her feet more than she does her once-beloved ball. 

2-Where’s the spring in his step?

You know what I mean. It takes him a minute longer to cross the room than it used to—or maybe he stops midway and plunks his butt down on the nearest soft spot. The hitch in his step may not yet be obvious to you but slowing down isn’t just a geriatric personality change; it’s creakiness that’ll soon make itself more obvious.

3-The only thing that matches her appetite is her waistline

Sure, she still eats like a pup but it sticks to her ribs maybe just a little bit more than it used to—maybe a lot more than it used to. And it’s never too early to start worrying about her weight.

4-Those eyes…and ears…

She may still have the sweetest doe-eyes on planet Earth but they’re looking a little bluish, now, aren’t they? But don’t worry—they’re not always cataracts. Sometimes it’s just “nuclear sclerosis,” an old age change that won’t seriously affect her vision but might as well be crow’s feet for the way in which it signals her advancing age.

And her hearing? You’ll know if she’s losing it. Though it’s always tough to figure out whether it’s just selective hearing loss or the real thing, I always recommend opening her favorite bag or can of food three rooms away to test her true abilities.

5-Gray is the new black…or brown…or red…

Some dogs just get gray hairs earlier than others. But it’s no use ignoring them. Face it; he’s getting older, regardless of his chronological age. Think of it this way: If his hair is turning white, how would a similar process affect his liver?

6-Muscle matters

Is her shape changing just a tad? Observant owners will notice that the once-robust hams of her hind limbs are slimmer than they used to be. And there may even be some spikiness of her lower spine as the nearby muscles atrophy. These are often the first signs of senior-dom, especially in large and giant breed dogs. So pay attention!


Some breeds are predisposed to lumps, bumps, warts and other masses of the skin as they age. Benign masses are the most prevalent so don’t necessarily fret if the landscape of his surface starts to resemble the topography of a mountain range. Let the vet sort it out so you can sleep at night.

8-Tell-tale toenails

Broken, cracked, over-long and/or unevenly worn toenails are common for older dogs. This, too, can provide an early indication of advancing age. After all, it should be obvious that if she’s moving less she’ll be less likely to hone her claws on the rough surfaces she walks on. Unevenly worn toenails can also help pinpoint neurological or orthopedic maladies as well as nutritional deficiencies. Who knew that her toenails could tell you so much?

9-Wow, that’s killer breath!

But it’s not really about the breath, is it? It’s always the teeth and gums behind it that affects our dogs’ wellness and, ultimately, their longevity. 80% of dogs will begin to show signs of gum disease at three years of age. Proof, yet again, that you can never start working on these issues too soon. Frequent brushing and annual cleanings are recommended for most dogs.

10-The hard-to-manage heave-ho

A dog of any age can have difficulty rising if his hips or knees are put together poorly. But nothings says “geriatric” like a formerly quick-to-his-feet canine now struggling—even ever so slightly—to make it up from a prone position.

OK, so maybe not always, but more than usual, he’ll also start to look askance at those steps he once flew down like a champ. The very first signs of this kind of exertion or reluctance should lead you directly to your vet. And remember, it’s never too soon to start modifying his environment with ramps and smaller, easier to manage steps.

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  • Published:
  • Updated: 4/25/2018: 11:07:06 AM ET
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