A senior dog lying down next to its owner in the grass.

Rescue Me: POV: Tips for Adopting a Senior Dog

“Rescue Me” is a recurring column by Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips. She’ll provide personal anecdotes and perspective about her life as a pet lover with a passion for cat and dog rescue. Today, she talks about rescuing senior dogs.

At many animal shelters, senior dogs are always the last adopted and, as a byproduct, often the first to be put down. For this reason, adopting a senior dog can be very rewarding. In fact, I’ve done a whole podcast on why you should adopt senior dogs where I give my personal experience with senior adoption.

But before you make that long-term commitment, here are a few things you should consider when adopting a senior dog.

Be prepared for long-term health issues when adopting a senior dog

You shouldn’t be scared, but some senior dogs will have certain health problems. Arthritis, forgetfulness and digestive issues are just a few things your pooch may face. When you consider adopting a senior dog, you need to decide what kind of home you will be able to provide and how prepared you are for this endeavor. Are you prepared for:

  • Medical care — If you want your canine to have the best care, it may be slightly expensive, especially if the dog requires more extreme care. If available, some owners will turn to chemotherapy, hip replacements or other expensive treatments. Insurance plans for dogs are available, although they may have some restrictions. Sometimes, the right medical care can add years to a pet’s life. Quality of life can also be improved, which is great if you can afford it.
  • Hospice care — Just providing hospice care to a dog in need can be rewarding for both you and the dog. My husband and I adopted a senior dog who lived with us for two years. We didn’t do any extreme medical procedures. We didn’t give her any medications except if she needed antibiotics. She was always very happy and loving. When her time came, we were right there beside her.

Be prepared for incontinence when adopting a senior dog

This is a very real possibility as a dog gets older. Maybe they can’t hold it for long periods of time anymore or severe arthritis has set in and they can’t move around as easily — and there are many other reasons that incontinence may be an issue with seniors.

There are also many ways you can deal with this issue. Sometimes medicine from the vet can help, but if your canine still has problems, you can use some other products, too.

  • Pee pads — It’s most common to use pee pads for training puppies while they are house training, but senior dogs can use them, too. If your senior dog has trouble going up and down your porch steps, you can put pee pads on the porch. The pad has an attractant and will provide for easy cleanup.
  • Female incontinence — The products for female incontinence are like diapers for babies. They’re great for the four-legged family member that has poor bladder control when excited, startled, etc. They are made just for dogs, with a little hole for the tail, and have different styles of fasteners.
  • Male incontinence — Canine male incontinence products are belly bands. They wrap around your pooch’s midsection. The padded area covers your dog’s penis. It’s a great product for male fur babies for all the same reasons I listed for female products.

Be prepared to make changes in your home when adopting a senior dog

Often, new pet owners already know where they want their pooch to sleep, where they want him or her to eat, and practical things like that. It’s great to plan for that stuff, but when you are bringing home a senior dog you may have to work within the realm of their abilities.

  • Stairs — You may want Fido to sleep in the basement, or you may want to put the pee pads in the upstairs bathroom. If your new pup has arthritis or bad joints, this isn’t a good idea.
  • Ramps — For a short set of stairs, such as a step-up kitchen, or even for the bed, consider putting in a ramp. They make ramps to go over stairs or to lean at the foot of your bed. This is also a great idea for porches and decks. Just a few changes can make your new senior dog feel more like a part of the family.
  • Meal time — Senior dogs’ food needs often fluctuate as they age. Your new fur baby may have different nutrient needs than your other pooches. It could be they need a wet food or some supplements added to their regular diet. They may also need to eat at specific times of the day. Whatever they need, it may be easier to feed your senior dog separately from the other pets. Consult your veterinarian for specific nutrition needs for an aging dog.

Be prepared for behavior changes when adopting a senior dog

Older canines usually act different from younger dogs. As we have already talked about, they may have arthritis, stiff joints or other health problems which will impact their behavior. Usually, this can make them a little wary or irritable around other dogs and people.

When animals feel like they are not at their best, they become a little more protective, a little more clingy and maybe a little more aggressive.

  • Feeding times — Make sure all family members know not to pet or bother your new senior family member when they are eating. If you have other pets, you may want to feed your senior dog where they can’t approach them.
  • Sight issues — Senior pets can have cataracts or other issues that cause them to not see as well as they used to. This can make them more cautious and easily startled. Instead of just walking up and picking up your pooch, start talking and approach slower. When your dog knows you’re coming, you won’t startle them, which may prevent bladder leaks or even scared aggression.
  • Lower energy levels — If you are looking for a dog that will play with your kids or one that loves to go for walks every day, a senior pet may not be for you. The energy levels of older canines can drop drastically. This can be due to joint pain and stiffness, or just being plain old tired. While older pups can still have burst of energy where they will enjoy a good game of fetch, don’t push them past what they want to do. This can make for a grouchy dog. It can also increase the risk for illness or injury.
  • Aggressive behavior — As dogs age, they can be more fearful and act more protective of themselves. One of our senior dogs did not like to be approached if he was against the wall. He did not like it when the other dogs ran at him while playing outside. If these things happened, he would bark or snap. Older canines are usually extra cautious. Take that into consideration when your new family member comes home.

While things may be different when you bring a senior dog home compared to when you bring a puppy home, don’t let that deter you. Many issues with incontinence and behavior may sort themselves out after your rescue gets used to their new digs. Also, most dogs won’t have any of these issues!

Once you get to know your new senior fur baby, dealing with their special needs will become easy. Older dogs may need different things, but they still have the same amount of love and gratitude to give as younger pups.




The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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