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How to Care for a Senior Dog

 Reviewed 27 January 2019 share-a-picture Or go to discussion?join-the-discussion

old dog signGot an elderly dog, senior dog, older dog, old dog?

Be prepared for as many joys as sacrifices - if not MORE joys!

There is a saying:

"The day you get your dog, prepare for its end."


Obviously, because dogs typically don't live as long as we do: Under optimal circumstances, a GSD can still become 16 years old. However the majority of generally healthy German Shepherds seem to die around age 12.

And the majority overall decease way before that - due to at least one of the ailments described in the MYGERMANSHEPHERD Health Manual taking its toll.

So, make sure that you seize every day, every moment, you can. This is why I personally sign every MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL with: "ENJOY your dog". Now you know.

Your GSD does not ever have to experience this:

...but if (s)he does, it's good to know that (s)he can still enjoy many years of play, fun, and happiness with you! Thanks to Handicapped Pets Walkin' Wheels and countless other live-improvement products!

Senior German Shepherd

Today, when a German Shepherd reaches around 9 years of age - in human years; 52 in dog years - you know that you have a senior GSD. At this point or sooner, a lot will change. For you too.

See here what you can do.

But whatever you read below, never forget: We ALL get old at some point!

If you are still young when your dog is getting old, it may often be difficult to consider how life is for an elderly dog (and likewise for an elderly person). Both physically and emotionally/ psychologically.

The consideration and respect we expect when we are old we must now pay to our German Shepherd - before we really know how life is when we are old...

It's a good habit to think briefly when waking up in the morning:

"What matters now to my dog? What can I do to make my dog smile, to enjoy the day?"

The same of course applies to all your family members and people you care about

Having an older German Shepherd around can be an entirely new experience for most of us, as at this age - apart from less physical strength and stamina - our GSD can be wiser, more understanding and even more fun to have around!

Old Dogs are the Best Dogs

You will now definitely want each moment with your GSD to be memorable, so make sure that you give more love, more care and more time to your aging GSD. Similar to when you had a German Shepherd puppy.

When is your German Shepherd old?

Not necessarily when (s)he gets 9 years old! You know the saying: "You are only as old as you feel!"

However, there are various signs of an older GSD:

  • Changes in physical strength and stamina
  • Changes in looks and overall appearance
  • Changes in reaction and behavior
  • Changes in sought rest periods and attention-seeking
  • Changes in attentiveness and concentration
  • Changes in metabolism, heartrate and respiration
  • Changes in diet and digestion
  • and yes, unfortunately, changes in overall health too

Hopefully, these changes will proceed in this order:

  • Your dog is noticeably slowing down - not just sometimes (this is normal regardless of age), but now always
  • Greying around the muzzle
  • Changing color of the eyes and coat
  • Reduced appetite - not just sometimes (this is normal regardless of age), but now always
  • Signs of confusion (especially at new places, but more often at home too)
  • Increased potty times (particularly at night) and incontinence
  • Symptoms of ailments and diseases now becoming obvious (generally Arthritis, Skin Infections, Bladder Infection, and Tumors; and for the German Shepherd in particular also Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia, and Degenerative Myelopathy)

However, the above order unfortunately is not typical. For a German Shepherd, for example Hip Dysplasia and/or Elbow Dysplasia can become very obvious much sooner, possibly before age 5, where none of the other signs of aging are noticeable - simply because the dog is not old by any standard! Even, say Arthritis or Degenerative Myelopathy can become very obvious long before anyone would consider the dog to be 'old' or 'older'.

In fact, the harsh truth is that the last point in the list above often is the first sign of having an older GSD: Particularly Arthritis, Tumors, Hip Dysplasia, and Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) often lead to the other signs of aging, and their implications to premature death.

Nonetheless, once you notice some of the other signs of aging listed above, you will know that your German Shepherd is growing old. This is the time when you should again take special care of your GSD, like when (s)he was a puppy.

Now you will need to better observe your GSD, so that you can spot unusual changes in any of the above-mentioned factors as soon as they appear. You will also need to make more frequent visits to the vet to have a professional check-up on your dog's health, in order to immediately address ailments before they become severe. More details further below.

However, most importantly, you should not start treating your German Shepherd like a sick or senile dog just because of its age (and neither a person, of course).

Don't deny all those walks, the play, the fun, and the cuddles that you are both used to have together.

Be easy, and let the things set into flow as and when they suit your dog.

"Laughter is the best medicine!"

For your GSD, play and fun is the best medicine. A lot of happy tail-wagging means a lot of laughter.

Regardless of age, try to notice how much exercise your German Shepherd wants - and then be generous. wink

Nonetheless, there are indeed a number of things that you might want to change when your dog is aging, and the following shall help you in deciding the best!

Taking care of an older GSD

1) Nutrition

As your GSD gets older (s)he will typically show less appetite and indeed will eat less. The preferred diet will normally also change. Yet, the risk of Obesity will increase once you reduce the amount and intensity of exercise.

Remember, Obesity does not necessarily mean that a dog looks fat, but that the dog's metabolism consumes far less energy than the food intake provides - leading to an imbalance of metabolism and organs, and ultimately to breathing problems, Pancreatitis, Diabetes, Heart disease, Kidney failure, and/or any other organ failure!

An interesting fact is that even if you continue to provide the same extent of exercise, your senior GSD will use less energy, ie process or utilize less food. This is because the metabolism of an older dog changes (and of an older person too). Cell division and cell renewal reduce significantly, and the older body also has more experience how to deal with the metabolic implications of exercise.

You could say, the older GSD's lower level of 'excitement' or 'enthusiasm' or 'adventuresomeness' results in less energy consumption - although it's probably fairer to say: 'the older GSD's higher level of routine or experience'.

You will know from yourself that you can say run a mile with varying degrees of 'effort', 'excitement', or 'dedication'. The same is true for a dog. An older dog will not so much 'waste' its energy on excitement, enthusiasm, or adventuresomeness as say the puppy does.

Now, as the energy consumption of the food intake decreases, the risk of Obesity will increase if the food intake is not adjusted accordingly.

Nutrition-wise this just means that you need to be more careful what you feed your German Shepherd, and how often and how much. Best is to reduce intake of carbohydrates and fats (eg less meat, leaner meat, more veg, more fruits).

Aim to provide good-quality, natural food to your senior dog. Serve smaller amounts, but of course don't let your dog feel hungry. Also remember to keep loads of fresh water available to your aging GSD.

Don't be worried if your dog say, no longer eats the third meal a day if (s)he was used to getting three meals a day, or the second meal a day if (s)he was used to getting two meals a day. Or if (s)he still eats all meals but takes three times as long. Eating slow is better anyway, and reduced appetite at age is normal, as described above.

A daily variety of veg and fruits can ensure that you keep your dog's immune system in top condition. This is now more important because the body will not so easily get rid of pathogens, since metabolism and cell renewal are reduced at age.

If you have really tried hard but your senior dog will still not eat a generous amount of veg and fruits each day, then and only then you need to complement the dog's diet: All the essential minerals and enzymes needed that the dog would normally obtain through a balanced diet of meats, vegetables, and fruits may then need to be served through meals of assorted meats together with a quality food supplement: Nupro All Natural Supplement on our Dog Care remedies page is best for this.

And if in the past you have insisted to feed your dog raw food(?), then now with your older dog is your last chance to learn for the dog's benefit:

Encourage your German Shepherd with calm praise and pats to eat the healthy food items, but never force any item upon your dog. If your GSD becomes overly selective about any kind of food, or does not want to eat at all, then consult the vet immediately as this could be a warning sign of some underlying deficiency or over-sensitivity. Some of these only arise at age.

2) Exercise

As already indicated above, do not eliminate exercise from your GSD's life. No matter how old your GSD is, a nice walk, and some stretching and playing is always recommended for healthy living and living longer.

If your dog is used to swimming, continue the swimming as well. But now choose shallow waters with gently sloping embankment. This will help your dog to get in and out more easily, and reduces the fear.

Regular and varied exercise will not just help to avoid that your GSD may become obese at age, it also is important because more weight on the bones and joints can lead to bone fractures, Arthritis, and other health issues.

For a dog as large and heavy as the German Shepherd, it is therefore all the more important to retain muscle strength, general mobility, and flexibility of the ligaments as long as possible.

Furthermore, regular and varied exercise will keep your GSD mentally active and balanced. The German Shepherd being a very active dog breed doesn't suddenly stop just because your GSD cannot physically be that active anymore! Your GSD will always need substantial mental stimulation too, in order to be a calm, balanced, healthy, and happy friend to you.

3) Dental Care and Grooming

Insufficient dental hygiene can lead to serious diseases, because in this case all the bacteria are constantly ingested, and infections can spread from mouth to pancreas and other organs. This would rapidly deteriorate your GSD's health: When a dog (or person) gets older, the immune system weakens (see above) and so the risk of ingesting bacteria, of skin infections, and of oral and ear infections increases.

Therefore, make sure that you take good care of your GSD's teeth, ears, and coat. Continue to brush the teeth once a day or every other day, and while you do this check for any signs of tartar or plaque, or the swelling or bleeding of the gums. Also perform a bi-weekly careful cleaning of the ears, and look for any signs of discharge or swelling. Bi-weekly brushing of your dog's coat is a good opportunity to check the entire skin for allergy symptoms (redness, inflammation, swelling, odor, possibly scales or crusts, bald spots), infection, and hardenings just under the skin.

In some cases senior dogs lose their teeth (but the majority does not). In any such case visit the vet as if left uncared for gingival pockets or broken teeth can lead to infections or injuries.

Along with the dental care it is necessary that your GSD is clean and feels clean. With brushed hair, and clean paws and ears your GSD will be less likely to get an infection or pest infestation of any kind. Plus, there will be many people praising and wanting to pat your German Shepherd - which will certainly have a positive impact on your GSD too, as much as on you.

An older German Shepherd is more sensitive to being patted, but this doesn't mean that they don't appreciate such affection. They do. They just need now more time for themselves, more peace, more rest periods, and certainly less commands (see further below).

4) Emotional and Psychological Care

At old age your German Shepherd needs your attention, love and care more than ever (except when (s)he was a pups). It is a time in their life when they undergo not only physical but significant psychological changes as well. They feel old at some point and, like with humans, I bet this has psychological implications for dogs too!

When I watch an old dog closely, I can at times even see worries in their eyes - worries about their age and becoming fragile, or worries about no longer feeling able to protect their 'pack', but worries. Such worries now clearly dominate any worries about the next meal. So, the opposite of what concerned them when younger.

I am sure, people who say "dogs cannot think about the future" I may call ignorant. Of course they can! Particularly for the German Shepherd, with its extent of attention, anticipation, and talent to plan and organize, there is no doubt about that at all.

Your GSD now needs to feel comfortable, cared for, and the centre of your attention and affection.

Yes, at age, 'pack' roles change in some way. Although you should remain the 'pack' leader, there is now much less a problem with acceptance of the pack leadership.

By now your dog knows its role and feels no need and no desire to test acceptance or to challenge leadership. It rather feels fragile and appreciates more than ever being cared for.

Understanding the needs of your aging GSD and treating your dog in the right manner can add many, many healthy years to your dog's life!

Happy years. For both of you.

So, sit with your German Shepherd, play with your dog, regularly massage your dog, and keep your GSD involved in the activities happening in and around the house. Keeping your German Shepherd busy is now important, because (s)he will not so much be active without stimulation.

Just ensure that your dog gets also sufficient time for itself, ie rest periods without any commands. Dozing while being stroked and massaged is what will really sweeten your dog's life now.

If you have been keeping your GSD outside in a dog house (or kennel?!?), consider taking your dog inside for the final years. I am sure, with the right training, there is never a reason to keep a German Shepherd outside, but now with an elderly GSD you can be sure too that your German Shepherd is safe and best to be kept inside the house.

What can be nicer than that you sit comfortably in your favourite armchair, with your old German Shepherd at your feet, and you are reading a heart-warming book about old dogs?

A really lovely book, with wonderful 'old dog' stories and beautiful photos, that can easily help you to provide to your old GSD the emotional and psychological care your old dog needs, is Old Dogs are the Best Dogs.

More of the 'educational' type, and with loads of useful information about old dogs and how to care for them, is Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable - from the Veterinary Faculty at Tufts University.

Don't worry, it's not academical at all, it's very easy to read, very informative, and well written. Naturally though, being from vets, some chapters seem quite vet-biased, and being able to balance this with information from other sources is very helpful indeed.

5) Comfortable Living

You see, from adulthood to becoming a senior German Shepherd many of the needs of your GSD will change. But since an older GSD won't, say escape anymore to seek adventures, and won't as easily get excited and into danger, there really is no need to 'make your dog heel'.

Let your dog sniff the ground as long as (s)he wants (and you have time). Let your dog walk on its own. Depending on mobility and behavior at age, take the leash off altogether.

Soon your GSD may not be able to jump into the car anymore, nor should (s)he be called to run up and down the stairs. At old age your GSD's mobility really does become limited, and any strain on bones, joints, and ligaments is not good at all.

To provide a comfortable living space to your GSD you need to arrange for a few things, even if your dog remains healthy at age:

  • Now really is your dog's last chance to get a GSD Bumper Bed if (s)he doesn't yet have one in every room (s)he is allowed or expected to be with you. Once you saw your GSD lying on one of these, you will probably agree it looks as if they feel in heaven's clouds. I have yet to meet a German Shepherd who doesn't love these dog beds.
  • A good Dog Ramp can ease your GSD's life to a great deal! It will aid your dog to walk to elevated places, instead of having to take leaps and hurting its bones, joints or ligaments - or at least fearing this. Indeed, the dog ramp needs to be placed steadfast and have an anti-slip surface, so that your dog dares to use it at age without the fear of falling or injuring himself or herself. Early practice improves confidence further, and retaining confidence is very important for your dog's well-being and life-expectancy!
  • At some point your dog will start to experience incontinence, typically the male GSD sooner than the female GSD. From this point onwards you will need to get these super-absorbent incontinence pads. Just put one on top of every resting place of your GSD, including the crate. This will make the life for both of you much easier.

To provide a comfortable living space to your GSD if your dog is not healthy at age, you will of course need to arrange for many additional things that will depend on the specific ailment(s) your GSD is having. This we will cover in a separate MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL.

Regular Massage, as mentioned under Emotional and Psychological Care above, also significantly contributes to Comfortable Living for your senior GSD. Our own German Shepherds get a massage at least bi-weekly, because we noticed what dramatic impact this has on a) our bonding with our GSDs, b) how calm and balanced it makes them (it also extends their life, contrary to stress!), and c) what a positive influence it has on their digestion, potty times, heartrate and respiration, physical flexibility, and overall health and fitness.

German Shepherd Dog Massage is too big a topic to be squeezed under this already very long Periodical, so we will feature Dog Massage in a separate MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL too.

If you want to start massaging your GSD now, then you may first want to take a look at the Canine Massage Reference Manual (which is detailed to the extent of 'academic'/heavy on theory) and the Complete Dog Massage Manual (which features loads of photos that help to see how to perform dog massage safely, both for you and your GSD).

However, note that with a topic like GSD massage there really is only a certain amount of skill that can be acquired from books. Better, and safer, is to actually see live how a professional performs dog massage.

There is a very concise, clear, and lively dog massage video lesson which can help fill the gaps that massage books naturally leave behind. You can take a look and even watch two introductory lessons for free.

6) Medical Care

Finally, Medical Care - the most obvious issue that comes about when you have an aging dog.

Naturally, the older your German Shepherd is getting, the more likely it is (unfortunately!) that some kind of ailment will manifest at some point. Hopefully 'just' one that is orthopaedic in nature, because then there is a lot of help available for your GSD (from Bottoms-up Leash to Dog Wheel Cart, and everything between!).

However, the aim should of course be to delay all health issues as long as possible. Here you have many options, all of which can be classified as preventative dog care, ie they should start long before you have an elderly GSD.

Preventative Dog Care

  • Natural, varied and balanced diet, ie including fresh veg and fruit (steamed)
  • Sufficient and varied exercise (but never during midday heat or immediately before or after meals!)
  • Plenty of fresh water to drink
  • Several smaller meals, rather than one large meal
  • Use the best Eat-Slow bowl to encourage slower, healthier eating
  • Use our recommended Feeding Routine to deter your GSD from scavenging
  • At least annual vet visits - from age 8, semi-annual
  • Early diagnosis of all ailments, to address them as early as possible
  • Only the vaccinations that are necessary in your region (ask your vet), or legally required
  • During grooming sessions, a weekly check of coat and skin, ears, eyes, teeth and gums
  • Avoid excessive jumping (eg no more than 20 min frisbee/day)
  • Avoid dog fights
  • Use the best German Shepherd dog crate, and keep your dog inside the house, not in an outside kennel
  • Give your GSD plenty of rest periods, in its designated resting places
  • Be 'Pack' leader, not Commander - let your GSD be a Shepherd and manage the 'Pack' (family)

Food and exercise really does have the biggest impact on life expectancy of your German Shepherd! We have several PERIODICALS that will discuss the right dog food for your German Shepherd. Also several that will discuss Exercising your GSD.

And our online German Shepherd dog health assessment tool allows to get a quick and free third party opinion of your dog's health situation right now. Furthermore, our tool does consider dog age and a senior GSD. smile

To help with the cost of medical care for a senior GSD, there is no way around a good medical dog insurance policy or dog health insurance. So, hopefully you have taken one out for your GSD when (s)he was young.

Better take your older German Shepherd to the vet twice a year, and use one of the two appointments to get an annual Senior Wellness Exam (SWE) and a Senior Blood Panel (SBP) done.

This will include a Blood Chemistry Profile (BCP) to check for organ function, as well as a Complete Blood Count (CBC) to count white and red blood cells and check for imbalance. The Senior Blood Panel helps to diagnose any disease early, and hence improves chances for successful treatment as well as reduces the necessity and/or extent of treatment, and thus the cost for you.

Always be aware: You are fortunate and blessed to have your senior German Shepherd with you! Old dogs are wonderful dogs! Aim to enjoy this precious time and make it memorable. Take time out to care for your GSD now, in the way that your best friend deserves!



  • Never forget: We ALL get old at some point - and we ALL want to be treated well at this time!
  • Old dogs are absolutely wonderful dogs. You are fortunate if you can have your senior GSD with you - Make sure you enjoy every moment
  • Expect the physical and emotional/psychological changes for a senior German Shepherd to be as significant as for a human being
  • Give more love, more care and more time to your aging GSD - Similar to when you had a German Shepherd puppy
  • From around 9 years of age (52 in dog years) consider your GSD to be a senior dog
  • Now forget this rigid number, and instead look out for the signs of an older GSD (see list above)
  • The sad truth is that, for a German Shepherd, these signs of aging typically are preceded by certain ailments that you know from the MYGERMANSHEPHERD Health Manual
  • The most probable ailments for an older GSD are Hip Dysplasia and Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) - thankfully, both of these are orthopaedic in nature and hence can be treated well with live-improvement products like say Handicapped Pets Walkin' Wheels!
  • You will need to better observe your elderly GSD, so that you can spot unusual changes immediately
  • Early treatment will significantly improve the quality of life for both of you, extend your dog's life expectancy, and reduce the cost of treatment
  • Most importantly: Continue to involve your aging GSD in the family life - Keep your GSD active
  • The six most important areas of taking care of an older GSD are: Nutrition, Exercise, Dental Care and Grooming, Emotional and Psychological Care, Comfortable Living, and Medical Care
  • Make sure that you are aware of all the points relevant to these areas when your GSD is old
  • A good Dog Ramp and incontinence pads can make life much easier for both of you, and the GSD Bumper Bed and regular massage can make your dog's life much nicer (see Canine Massage Reference Manual, and Complete Dog Massage Manual, and dog massage video lesson)
  • All what I wrote under preventative dog care can add many healthy and happy years to your dog’s and your life!

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