If you’ve welcomed a bouncy Labrador puppy into your life, adopted a middle-aged shelter dog, or made room in your home and heart for a dog of any age, you’ve probably already thought about senior dog care, at least for a moment or two.
If there’s a downside to living with and loving Labradors, or any dog for that matter, it’s that their lives are so short compared to our own. Sharing your life with a dog means loving them and caring for them through every stage of growth and development, from the moment they bounce into your heart, until old age and their eventual death.
The good news is that dogs, like people, have a longer life expectancy now than ever before. Modern research and technology, advanced veterinary care, and more nutritious food options have enabled our dogs to stay healthy and active well into old age.
While these advancements are welcome and encouraging, the biggest factor in the quality of your dog’s geriatric health is still you. How you care for your senior dog will have a huge impact on their golden years. This article will cover everything you need to know about caring for your senior Labrador.
How Long Will My Labrador Live?
Not so very long ago, as recently as the 1970s, the life expectancy for most dogs was between 6 and 8 years. Today, the average life expectancy for most dogs has risen to between 10 and 18 years. Smaller breeds tend to live longer, and large breeds, like Labradors, have a shorter life span.
Based on genetics alone, the lifespan of your average Labrador is between 10 and 14 years, but there are various factors that will have an effect on your Labradors’ health as they age.
Have you heard the myth that one year of a dog’s life equals seven human years? It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. If you’re curious, we’ll be adding an article on this topic very soon, so check back in a couple of weeks!
How will I know when my Labrador is Getting Old?
Probably the first sign of old age in Labradors is an overall slowing down.
As your dog ages, they will find it harder to get up after napping, will walk slower, and take longer to climb the stairs. And they will spend lots of time sleeping, often between 12 and 18 hours each day.
While exercise is still important for aging Labradors, you may find that your dog just can’t manage those long jogs, walks, or runs. Your dog will probably enjoy shorter, more frequent walks, and will have to urinate more often due to less bladder control. Less exercise and a slower metabolism may also cause your senior Labrador to start gaining weight.
These are all typical signs of aging, and are generally not reasons for concern. You should, however, keep in mind that as your Labrador ages, illnesses and other age-related health issues are more common. Some of these illnesses can be treated, while others are just a byproduct of old age and can only be accepted with love and understanding.
What Kind of Health Problems Affect Older Labradors?
- Obesity – The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) classifies obesity as a weight that is 30% more than the ideal for that pet. According to the organization’s recent study, more than 54% of dogs were overweight or obese in 2015, and obesity in senior dogs is even more common. Obesity will only exacerbate age-related health problems, causing joint, bone, and ligament damage, as well as respiratory decline.
- Cancer – Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs, and older dogs become more susceptible to cancers as they age. The most common type of cancer in dogs is Lymphoma or Lymphosarcoma, accounting for 20% of all canine cancers.
- Kidney Disease – Kidney disease will affect 1 in 10 dogs over the course of their lives, and it becomes more common as dogs age. Signs of kidney disease include drinking and urinating more frequently, weight loss, and reduced appetite.
- Senility – Aging can certainly dull the senses a bit, but if your dog is showing signs of confusion or disorientation, it could be a thought processing disease similar to Alzheimer’s known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or CCD. While there is no cure for CCD, there are drugs available that will help alleviate symptoms.
- Eye Problems – Two common eye problems in older dogs are nuclear sclerosis and cataracts. Nuclear sclerosis is a bluing of the eye lens, caused by fibers growing into the lens. Nuclear sclerosis is a normal part of aging and has a minor effect on your dog’s vision. Cataracts generally start to appear in dogs who are 6 to 8 years old, damaging their vision and eventually causing total blindness. Luckily, most cataracts can be removed with surgery.
- Heart Disease – Older dogs are highly susceptible to heart disease, especially dogs who are overweight and don’t exercise. Unlike humans, dogs won’t suffer from a sudden “heart attack.” Instead, their hearts will slow down and pump erratically. Symptoms of heart disease include constant coughing, difficulty breathing, and excessive panting.
- Arthritis – While all senior dogs slow down a bit, a dog suffering from arthritis or joint pain will seem to have difficulty moving well. They may limp, tremble, or cry out when they try to move, especially when they get up from a nap. Medications and supplements are available to ease the symptoms of arthritis and ease your dog’s discomfort.
Signs that Your Senior Labrador May Be Sick
As we discussed earlier, senior dogs do start to slow down. They will sleep more and exercise less. So how will you know the difference between a medical problem and regular old age?
Regular vet visits (every 6 months) will help set your mind at ease. You should also schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Sudden Lethargy – Even old dogs need to get out for a daily romp, even if it’s just around the block. If your dog suddenly shows no interest in exercising, it could be a sign of a serious disease.
- Persistent Vomiting or Diarrhea – Vomiting and diarrhea are an occasional part of caring for a dog. Like people, dogs will deal with stomach issues from time to time. If your aging dog develops persistent vomiting or diarrhea, it is cause for concern.
- Frequent, Unproductive Attempts at Urination – This can be a sign of a bladder infection, bladder stones, a urinary tract infection, or cystitis. All of these conditions show up regularly in older dogs, but they are all treatable.
- Urinary Incontinence – Common in older dogs, but also a telltale sign of kidney disease, especially if the symptom is combined with increased thirst, lethargy, or fever. A visit to the vet will help rule out serious problems. Once you’ve ruled out kidney disease and other problems, you might want to invest in some washable diapers to help keep your dog’s bedding (and the rest of your home) clean.
- Weight Loss – Most dogs gain a bit of weight as they age. If your dog starts to lose weight, it could be a sign of diabetes or heart problems.
- Tumors or Wounds That Won’t Heal – Obvious lumps and bumps should always be checked out by a veterinarian to rule out cancer. Because cancer affects your dog’s immune system, you should also pay attention to wounds that fail to heal or seem to fester.
- Bad Breath – Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between senior dog breath and sick dog breath, but breath that has an unusually chemical smell is a warning sign for a number of diseases, and bad breath that seems excessively smelly is a sure sign of periodontal disease.
Keeping your Labrador Healthy and Happy for as Long as Possible
Your senior Labrador, who has given you love, loyalty, and devotion for so many years, will now need special care from you as they age. The better prepared you are for the senior years of your dog’s life, the easier it will be for both of you.
Here are some tips for keeping your dog healthy and happy during the senior years:
- Increase your dog’s veterinary care. Yearly check-ups are sufficient for adult dogs, but as your Labrador enters into the senior years, you should switch to check-ups every six months. Many serious diseases are best treated early, and frequent visits to the vet, will allow your veterinarian to look for symptoms and monitor your dog’s health. It’s equally important to establish a relationship with a veterinarian that you trust and feel comfortable with.
- Pay special attention to diet and nutrition. Feed your dog the best dog food you can afford, and consider a commercial dog food that has been specifically developed for senior dogs.
- Control Your Labrador’s Weight. Labradors are prone to obesity, especially as they age. Based on your dog’s exercise level, you may need to adjust the amount of food you feed them to keep them trim. Your veterinarian can help you adjust your dog’s caloric intake for maximum nutrition without weight gain.
- Keep pests and parasites away from your Labrador. Flea and tick control becomes increasingly important as your dog ages. Check your dog for fleas daily and keep their bedding meticulously clean. Your vet can help you decide on a flea-control method based on your dog’s unique situation.
- Help your Labrador stay active. Your senior dog may not be able to hike mountains or run marathons, but they can still enjoy a fairly active life as seniors. Shorter more frequent exercise sessions will probably be appreciated, followed by long naps. Because your Labrador will do just about anything to please you, there is a danger of them overexerting themselves to make you happy. Pay attention to their energy levels and cut the outing short before your dog is totally exhausted.
- Pay attention to your dog’s mental health. Your dog must continue to challenge themselves mentally to keep their minds sharp. As you go through the day with your senior dog, don’t be afraid to try new things – new tricks, new games, new toys, new forms of exercise. All of these things will help challenge your dog and expand their mental horizons.
Grooming Your Older Labrador
Your Labrador’s fur and skin are the first line of defense against parasites, disease, and infection, but as your dog ages, their skin and coat may appear dull, and the fur coarse and brittle. This is entirely normal, but it does affect the way your dog’s coat protects the rest of the body. Because of this, a regular grooming routine is especially important during old age.
Because older dogs have less energy to get out and explore, they will crave a bit more attention and physical contact. Grooming is a great way to connect with your dog, and it is also a good time to check your dog for tumors, growths or changes in skin condition. Just 15 minutes a day will help keep your dog’s coat healthy, and it will help strengthen the bond between you and your aging Labrador. Here are some basic tips for grooming your senior Labrador.
- Skin and Coat – Short, frequent grooming sessions are best for your aging Labrador. When brushing their coat, you should use a soft-bristled brush that won’t damage your dog’s thinning skin. A flea comb is another necessity for checking your dog’s coat for fleas and ticks.
- Nails – Younger dogs have an easier time wearing down their nails as they walk and run. Nail-clipping is important for all dogs, but even more so for older dogs, who can experience muscle strain and balance issues if their nails get too long. Trimming a small amount off of your dog’s nails weekly should keep them at a manageable length.
- Ears – Labradors, especially frequent swimmers, are prone to ear infections. Dry your senior Labrador’s ears after swimming, and check for discharge, foul smells, or constant head-shaking.
Preparing for Limited Mobility
As your dog starts to slow down, walking, running, climbing stairs, and getting into the car can become a problem. Here are a few tips and resources to make things easier for you and your dog as you deal with limited mobility.
- Give your dog some traction. Prevent slips and falls by keeping the fur on your dog’s pads trimmed close. You should also consider skid-proof carpeting under your dog’s food and water bowls, on slippery stairs, and wherever they lie down frequently so it’s easier to get up.
- Use a harness to help your old dog walk. Dogs who suffer from arthritis or other joint problems may have trouble getting up and walking. For these situations, we recommend a handled harness that you can hold to help distribute your dog’s weight and help them walk.
- Use a ramp to help them in and out of your car. This is especially important if you have high truck or SUV. This tri-fold ramp is a compact solution that you can keep right in your car for traveling with your dog.
Preparing Your Home for Your Older Labrador
As your dog ages, they will spend more and more time at home. You can help keep them comfortable by making a few adjustments to their home environment.
- Invest in a special bed for senior dogs. We love orthopedic dog beds, particularly those that come with waterproof, washable covers, perfect for dogs who are incontinent.
- Raise your dog’s bowls off the ground. This will ease tension on your dog’s spinal cord and neck muscles as they eat and drink. You can put your dog’s bowls up on blocks, or buy elevated bowls designed for large-breed dogs like Labradors.
- Keep your dog warm. Your aging dog will not be able to regulate temperatures as easily as when they were young, so it’s important to keep your dog’s sleeping areas away from drafts. You may also want to buy a few dog sweaters for use in areas with cold, wet, or snowy winters.
One of the hardest parts about living and loving a dog is knowing when it’s time to say goodbye. We all want our dogs to live long, happy, and healthy lives, but a dog’s lifespan is still so much shorter than our own.
Your Labrador may die a peaceful, natural death when the time is right, or you may have to intervene.
The bond we share with our faithful dogs runs deep, and the sorrow we feel when they leave us behind can be heartbreaking. But, what we are left with is the joy that they have brought us, the memories that we have made together, and the knowledge that we were able to walk side by side through life, if only for a short time.
Your dog will always be a part of you, and that is reason enough to be thankful.