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The importance of veterinary care for your senior dog

As well as providing a loving home, attending to your dog’s healthcare needs is an essential part of being a pet parent. Routine veterinary checks are essential at all times, but especially once your precious pet reaches his or her senior years. Veterinarians are there to help when your pet is sick or injured, but they also play a vital role in providing preventative health care for your companion animal.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that dogs who owners regard as ‘adult’ are often defined as ‘senior’ by veterinarians. As a general guideline, veterinarians consider small and medium sized dogs as senior at age seven, and large and giant-sized dogs at age five.

This may come as a surprise, but using this definition errs on the side of caution which is important because your dog may be more likely to develop certain diseases earlier than you might expect. Veterinarians offer treatment plans for dogs that are tailored to canine life stages based on developmental milestones.

The following are some of the reasons why it is so important to take your senior dog for routine veterinary visits:

Six-monthly health checks help with early detection of diseases

The general consensus from the veterinary profession is that dogs should have veterinary check-ups at least every six months (if there are no specific issues requiring more frequent veterinary visits). This allows prompt detection and treatment of any underlying diseases that owners may be unaware of. It can be easy to miss the early signs of health problems because these may be subtle, and some changes are often attributed to ‘normal ageing’. A common example of this is arthritis, a painful condition that reduces a dog’s quality of life and is generally under-diagnosed and treated.

Booking in for a regular health check will allow your veterinarian to perform a thorough physical examination, along with any other tests required to screen for problems that are more likely to develop at your dog’s stage of life.

With increasing age, dogs become more susceptible to many health problems which can include kidney or liver disease, urinary tract disease, diabetes, tumours (including cancer), arthritis, incontinence, eye disease (such as cataracts), deafness, thyroid disease, Cushing’s disease (overactive adrenal gland) and canine cognitive dysfunction. Early detection provides the best chance of being able to effectively manage these and other problems.

The other advantage of six-monthly health checks is for your own peace of mind! Your veterinarian can advise whether any changes you notice in your older dog are expected age-related changes or indicators of an underlying health condition. For example, whilst older dogs may be less energetic than younger dogs, a potential treatable cause of this could be arthritis that causes fatigue and exercise intolerance.

Dogs with existing health problems should of course be seen in between these check-ups for monitoring and review of their treatment regimes. Be alert for clinical signs and changes in behaviour and appearance which could be warning signs that your beloved pet has a health problem. Seek veterinary advice promptly if you notice warning signs including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Changes in appetite or thirst
  • Weight loss (especially if sudden)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Changes to urination (including altered frequency, ‘accidents’, straining to urinate or blood in urine)
  • Respiratory signs such as coughing, gagging, increased panting or difficulty breathing
  • Reluctance to exercise
  • Difficulty moving or shifting position
  • Stiffness or lameness
  • Sore mouth, bad breath, excessive drooling or difficulty eating
  • Bleeding
  • Swelling (especially abdominal)
  • Lumps on or beneath the skin
  • Skin discolouration
  • Poor hair coat
  • Non-healing wounds
  • Eye changes (such as redness or reduced vision)
  • Signs of pain
  • Aggression or other behavioural changes
  • Weakness
  • Seizures
  • Collapse

Monitoring weight and body condition

Every visit to the veterinarian should begin with a weigh-in, and veterinarians routinely determine a dog’s body condition score during the consult. Routine check-ups allow your veterinarian to identify a change in body weight and address any reasons for your dog being over or under their ideal weight.

The risk of obesity increases in dogs with age and can be associated with serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, as well as a shortened lifespan. If your dog is overweight or obese due to an imbalance in energy intake and usage, your veterinarian can plan a safe weight loss program. They can also identify and treat many diseases that lead to weight gain, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease.

Weight loss also always needs to be evaluated. This may be due to stress or changes in diet or exercise, but sudden weight loss will prompt your veterinarian to assess for and treat any underlying medical causes (such as dental disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, liver disease, kidney failure, orthopaedic or neuromuscular diseases).

Nutritional support

Older dogs typically lose lean muscle mass, so their nutritional needs change from when they were younger. Senior diet products are formulated with specific amino acids and highly digestible protein to improve muscle mass whilst reducing overall calories to prevent obesity. There are also specifically formulated diets to assist with weight loss and inappetence, and diets to support dogs with diseases affecting particular body systems, such as heart, kidney, joints, skin and dental.

Any dietary change should always be discussed with a veterinarian, and this is one of the benefits of six-monthly health checks – it allows your veterinarian to help tailor your dog’s diet to his or her individual situation. They may also suggest nutritional supplements (such as nutraceuticals for joint health).


Regular vaccinations are a key principle of preventive health and must be kept up to date. Your senior dog will need to continue to have boosters of their core vaccines to protect them against canine distemper virus, canine adenovirus and canine parvovirus every one to three years; the timing depends on the duration of the immunity of the vaccine used and the individual dog.

Your veterinarian will also advise you about non-core vaccines such as for kennel cough and leptospirosis based on your dog’s risk of exposure, which can change, such as if you move to a different area. Vaccination decisions must be based on veterinary advice.

Enhancing quality of life

There are lots of ways to support your dog’s wellbeing as they enter their senior years. This includes adapting their home environment for comfort (such as by providing ramps and softer bedding), maintaining mobility through a safe exercise program, offering enrichment to keep them mentally active, accommodating any sensory changes they may experience (e.g., deteriorating vision or hearing) and generally being aware of and sensitive to their emotional needs.

Your veterinarian can advise you on how to adapt your dog’s care to their individual situation, and this includes behavioural support. Some older dogs show behavioural changes such as wandering, confusion, increased vocalisation and alterations to their sleep cycle. If you notice any of these changes, your veterinarian can assess for canine cognitive dysfunction and help to manage this with medication and dietary support.

Preparing for your dog’s health checks

Knowing what to expect from your dog’s regular health checks makes it easy to prepare. Your dog will first be weighed, and the veterinarian will ask you standard questions and find out any specific concerns you have. You are in the best position to notice any changes in your beloved older dog as you know them best and spend most time with them, so you can prepare for your dog’s health check by recording these. Specific information is very helpful in assessing your dog’s health, such as taking note of any of the following:

  • measuring water intake if you think your dog is drinking (and/or urinating) more than normal
  • observing the timing, frequency and progression of any clinical signs such coughing or limping
  • the location and size of any lumps and any changes in them
  • details of any behavioural changes

After reviewing and recording any information you can offer, your veterinarian will perform a more in-depth physical examination including dentition, eyes, joints, lymph nodes and any lumps. They will often advise some laboratory tests to give further information about your dogs’ health, these often include a complete blood count, biochemistry (including kidney and liver indicators and blood sugar), thyroid levels and analysis of urine.

It’s also helpful to write down any questions you may have as it can otherwise be easy to forget these during the consultation.

Keeping your senior dog happy and healthy

Your dog deserves the best, and routine veterinary visits are one of the most important ways to support their wellbeing. Your veterinarian can also advise on how to provide any special care your dog needs and how to adjust to their changing requirements.

Having pet insurance from early in your dog’s life can help make sure they receive veterinary treatment for eligible conditions when needed. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, it’s good to know that a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the great work of the RSPCA.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.