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Aging Last Updated:

How to Care for Your Dog at Every Age

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Woman in park holding her dog, looking at the dog's face, and smiling.

There are several ways veterinarians estimate dog age and puppy age. Knowing a dog’s age can help inform what kind of lifestyle and preventive care plan is right for them. 

As dogs age, their social, behavioral, and health needs change. Read on to learn more about dog age and health, and find tips for giving your dog age-appropriate care.

A guide to dog age and life stages

In general, dogs go through five major life stages: puppy, young adult, mature adult, senior, and geriatric. Medical care, socialization needs, diet and exercise, and more can change throughout these life stages. Knowing what your dog needs at every stage can help you give them the best possible care, and perhaps even prevent or mitigate disease later in life.

Dog age chart

Puppy Young Adult Mature Adult Senior Geriatric
Small (up to 20 lbs) < 6 months 6 months to 5 years 5–11 years 11–14 years 14+ years
Medium (21-50 lbs) < 9 months 9 months to 4 years 4–9 years 9–12 years 12+ years
Large (51-100 lbs) < 15 months 15 months to 3 years 3–8 years 8–11 years 11+ years
Giant (over 100 lbs) < 24 months 24 months to 3 years 3–6 years 6–8 years 8+ years

We’ll discuss the specific health considerations for each of these five life stages and explain how to plan for health changes as dogs age.

Veterinary visits and preventive care

All dogs should have a veterinary examination at least once a year to optimize health and wellness. A veterinarian may recommend more frequent visits, taking into account a dog’s age, breed, size, body condition, environment, and ongoing medical concerns.

Genetic testing may offer the most benefit in puppyhood, but it can be beneficial at any life stage. DNA testing can help catch health risks at a young age and allow dogs and their owners to prepare or even prevent disease later in life. Sometimes, finding these risks early can even be life saving for dogs.

Get started with an Embark Breed + Health Kit or Purebred Kit.

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For puppies

Vets typically recommend puppy wellness visits every two to four weeks until the puppy has completed the initial vaccine series. Young puppies require a series of vaccinations to protect them against common viral and bacterial diseases. Regular parasite testing, prevention, and treatment are also important for puppy health.

Puppyhood is also the best time for your dog to be assessed for congenital concerns, abnormal bite or dentition, and abnormal development. This is also the time to make lifestyle choices (with advice from a veterinarian) that will impact a dog throughout their life, such as proper diet, dental care, training, grooming, and socialization.

Puppies like to explore, so be on the lookout for any hazards at home during this young age.

For young adult dogs

At this stage in your dog’s life, your vet may recommend baseline blood work and a urinalysis. Depending on their environment, a heartworm test and/or tick-borne disease screen may be performed at least annually along with fecal ova and parasite testing.

Some congenital health concerns can be easier to evaluate as your dog gets older, so your vet may check for certain heart defects, ocular abnormalities, retained testicles, and orthopedic issues.

This may also be the best time to discuss the optimal time to spay or neuter your dog, based on your dog’s size, breed(s), and lifestyle.

For mature adult dogs

Mature adult dogs should have a veterinary examination at least once a year. Veterinarians will often check for heart murmurs, enlarged lymph nodes or abnormal masses, and address weight concerns. 

In otherwise healthy mature adults, veterinarians may recommend blood work, a urinalysis, heartworm testing, and/or fecal ova and parasite testing. A veterinarian might recommend more frequent exams or testing depending on specific medical concerns.

Because early signs of osteoarthritis may be hard to observe at home, veterinarians may also pay particular attention to  muscle mass and pain assessment during this life stage.

For senior dogs

At this stage, your veterinarian may recommend your dog be examined more often with expanded testing. Testing might include blood tests, checking thyroid levels, X-rays and/or ultrasound, and blood pressure monitoring.

Veterinarians may also perform more specialized physical examinations including a rectal examination and/or expanded orthopedic, neurologic, or ophthalmic exams.

If your dog is having issues with mobility, vision, hearing, and/or elimination, talk to your vet about what lifestyle changes you can make.

For geriatric dogs

With a dog this age, it is important to have regular examinations with your vet. A veterinarian may recommend an examination and/or testing as often as every month and may advise more rigorous at-home monitoring of weight, activity, and ins and outs (appetite, water intake, elimination, and vomiting). 

If your dog is having issues with mobility, vision, hearing, and elimination, talk to your vet about what diagnostics or treatments may be appropriate. They may also recommend lifestyle changes to increase comfort.

Dog age and exercise needs

Dogs benefit from physical activity in many ways, including improved mental stimulation and pain management. Recommendations based on dog age and size will help dogs reduce the incidence of injury, manage their weight, maintain muscle mass, and explore the world around them.

Tips for exercising with your dog at any age:

  • Be sure to provide food, water, and appropriate break times for your dog in between exercising.
  • Dogs can’t cool themselves as easily as humans, so keep an eye out for any warning signs that your dog might be overheating. Take breaks when needed.
  • Make sure your dog’s preventative care is up to date, as activities may expose them to infections and parasites.

Knowing your dog’s breed ancestry may help you decide which types of exercise will meet their needs. Find out with an Embark dog DNA test.

Puppy exercise needs

Puppies have a lot of energy, so make sure they have a safe outlet for it. Use activity time to introduce your puppy to the world and train them how to behave. 

Walks, fetch, controlled swimming, and obedience classes are good activities in puppyhood. It’s also a good idea to start teaching your puppy how to entertain themselves during alone time. Introduce new activities slowly, and for short durations at first.

Higher-impact activities (like sustained running on-leash or full-size agility obstacles) are not appropriate for young dogs before growth plate closure. Talk to a veterinarian about when your puppy can safely start doing these activities. 

Young adult dog exercise needs

Young adulthood may be a great time to add swimming, running, agility classes, and hiking to your dog’s activities, if you haven’t already. 

Introduce new activities slowly and with supervision. Young adult dogs may still not always know what’s dangerous and what is not. Keep a close eye on your dog to avoid injury or accidents.

Mature adult dog exercise needs

When exercising your mature adult dog, remember that dogs are not able to cool themselves as easily as humans. Be sure to provide food and water at an appropriate time in relation to activities (this can be discussed with a veterinarian), and provide appropriate break time as well.

Make sure preventative care is up to date as activities may expose dogs to infections and parasites.

Exercise for senior dogs

Hide and seek, swimming, puzzle toys, fetch, and walking, and controlled playdates are good activity choices for older dogs.

Physical activity is important for maintaining mental health, managing weight, and maintaining muscle mass. However, later in life, senior dogs may have waning vision and hearing, decreased coordination and muscle mass, and medical problems that may make once-safe activities more dangerous. 

Exercise for geriatric dogs

Exercises for senior dogs are still good choices for geriatric dogs, but remember that dogs at this life stage may have medical problems that could make these activities more dangerous. If your dog is panting excessively, hanging their head, and/or isn’t keeping up, these are likely signs that they are overexerting themselves.

Talk to a veterinarian about ways to add in physical rehabilitation modalities, acupuncture, or other complementary therapies, if needed.

Dental care as dogs age

Training your dog to get used to at-home dental care at a young age can establish good habits and keep their teeth healthy for the rest of their life.

Compromised dental health (pain, infection, and/or inflammation) can affect a dog’s quality of life as well as their overall health and longevity. Dental disease may also change a dog’s willingness to interact with their owner. Lifetime oral health should include an individualized periodontal disease prevention and treatment plan.

Learn more about how to maintain your dog’s dental health with regular teeth cleaning.

Puppy dental care

Puppyhood is the perfect time to begin practicing proper dental care for your dog.

You can start at-home oral hygiene training in young puppies, but it is especially important for dogs that have erupted, permanent teeth. This usually occurs by six months of age for most dogs. To avoid fractured teeth, provide appropriate dental chews and toys that your puppy can learn to love.

Look for treats accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. A veterinarian can advise which of these treats is appropriate based on a dog’s size and muzzle shape.

Dental care for young adult dogs

Talk to your vet about your at-home oral hygiene routine and the recommended frequency of dental cleanings. They may recommend tooth brushing, sprays, gels, water additives, food, and/or treats that have been accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council to decrease plaque and calculus accumulation.

Smaller dogs likely have a level of dental care and prevention that is more involved than that of a larger dog. Muzzle shape also plays an important role.

For small and medium-sized dogs, the American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA) guidelines recommend a complete dental prophylaxis (cleaning, polishing, and examination under general anesthesia) by one year of age.  For large or giant dogs, this is recommended by two years of age. Talk to your veterinarian about the recommended frequency of dental prophylaxis treatments.

Dental hygiene for mature adult dogs

Continue the good dental hygiene practices that you and your dog established in young adulthood. It’s important to make sure your dog has proper dental care, especially as they get older. While difficult to prove a direct correlation, inflammation and bacterial endotoxins from periodontal pathogens are thought to impact the health of blood vessels and other organs throughout the body.

Dental health for senior and geriatric dogs

As dogs age, their jaw bone becomes thinner and tooth enamel may become damaged. Your senior dog may need more dental care than they did when they were younger.

Veterinarians may ask about or look for signs associated with oral disease, including pain when touching a dog’s face, swelling beneath the eye, bad breath, drooling, difficulty swallowing, gingivitis or bleeding from the gums, discolored, fractured, mobile, or missing teeth, or painful opening of the jaw.

Continue (or start) at-home dental care with your dog to help maintain oral health in between veterinary dental therapy procedures. 

Behavioral changes as dogs age

It’s common to notice behavioral changes in aging dogs. Just as you take care of your dog’s physical health, it’s also important to make sure their brain is getting enough exercise, too. Continued and adjusted mental stimulation throughout a dog’s life may reduce the incidence or severity of cognitive dysfunction as they get older.

Socialize puppies early

Early socialization and training is highly advised in puppyhood. For your safety and theirs, dogs should be exposed to potty training, crate training, riding in the car, greeting people appropriately, having their feet/ears/muzzle touched, and be comfortable with being left alone at home for short periods. 

Puppies explore the world with their mouths, so pay extra attention to avoiding exposure to toxins, hazards, and potential foreign bodies.

Some dogs may need extra care with loud noises, such as thunderstorms and fireworks, or introduction to children and other animals.

Talk to a veterinarian regarding resources on proper puppy training methods that focus on positive reinforcement, low-stress handling, and reducing your dog’s anxiety and fear responses.

Young adult dog training

The same tips for socialization and training apply to puppies and young adult dogs. You can teach an old dog new tricks. However, older dogs may have already been sensitized to certain stimuli or learned that behaviors now viewed as undesirable were once OK.

Talk to a veterinarian about training methods that are appropriate for your dog. Learn more with our top dog training tips and techniques.

Mature adult dog behavior

As dogs age, changes to their cognitive function may occur before you notice more overt signs, such as inappropriate elimination and waking up at night. 

Take note of what is normal for your dog so that you can recognize even small changes in behavior, and be sure to speak with a veterinarian early. Also pay attention to disorientation, interaction changes, activity changes, anxiety, and changes to learning and memory. 

Physical activity, mind puzzles (such as toys that dispense food), a proper diet, and supplements in adulthood may reduce the incidence of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) in senior and geriatric dogs.

Senior dog behavior

As dogs age, they may develop impairments in one or more of the following categories: disorientation, interaction changes (with humans or other animals), sleep-wake disturbances, inappropriate elimination, activity changes, anxiety, a decreased sense of smell, and reduced learning and memory. 

Some older dogs, even if aging normally, might encounter rapid age-related deterioration in response to commands and an increase in phobias.

Pain and underlying medical concerns may also present with signs interpreted as behavioral or as part of the “normal” aging process. A veterinarian may recommend testing, such as blood work, blood pressure, or radiographs (x-rays) to make a medical diagnosis of an underlying problem.

Although it seems counterintuitive, being more active can mitigate pain. Choose age- and breed-appropriate activities. Physical and mental activity (for example, using puzzle toys) can help keep senior dogs happy and healthy. 

Changes to lifestyle may be required as older dogs may need more opportunities for elimination (and maybe even an indoor opportunity). If dogs are waking up at night, more daytime exercise and fewer disturbances in the evening may help. Establishing a regular routine can reduce anxiety.

Older dogs may be less tolerant of children and other pets. If that’s the case, provide your dog with a protected area. 

Older dogs may also be less tolerant of environmental changes. Behavioral modification is similar to that of younger dogs. Padded surfaces for sitting and traction for movement may help. If pain is a factor, you might need to replace certain commands (like “down”). Senior dogs may not hear or see cues as easily as they did before, which might require tactile training. 

Talk to a veterinarian about pharmacologic intervention and complementary therapies (compression garments, pheromones, and acupuncture, for example).

Mental status or behavioral changes in geriatric dogs

Aging dogs may develop canine dementia, also known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). Dogs with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome may show changes in social interactions with owners and other animals, changes in sleep-wake patterns, aimless wandering, anxiety, decreased response to verbal commands, and/or inappropriate elimination habits. 

Geriatric dogs should receive regular veterinary examinations to address mental changes (in addition to nutritional needs, obesity management, pain control, and physical changes). 

Pain and underlying medical concerns may also present with signs interpreted as behavioral or as part of the “normal” aging process. A veterinarian may recommend testing, such as blood work, blood pressure, or radiographs (x-rays) to make a medical diagnosis of an underlying problem.

Effective management of CDS may involve a modified diet, nutritional supplements, environmental changes, adjustments in training, medication, and complementary therapies. Behavioral enrichments to consider (with your veterinarian) include: additional training, an enriched environment, and physical exercise. 

Diet and nutrition across dog life stages

A dog’s diet should change as they age. Diet assessment includes not only consideration of the primary food, but also any treats and supplements the dog receives.

Diet is about more than what your dog eats; it’s also how much to feed to maintain a proper body condition and muscle mass, where and when to feed to minimize stress and other health issues, and how to use nutrition to mitigate additional medical concerns. 

General diet recommendations

Feeding your dog an appropriate food in an appropriate amount is critical for optimal growth and musculoskeletal health. Food should be adjusted to maintain an ideal body condition score (BCS). 

A canine lifetime diet restriction study conducted by Purina showed that dogs maintained in lean body condition throughout their lives can extend their median life span by 15%. In addition, feeding to an optimal BCS can reduce the incidence of joint and back problems, skin infections, and breathing problems your dog experiences throughout its lifetime.

These resources from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association can help you select the right kind of dog food to maintain a healthy body condition score:

Nutrition for puppies

Puppies have unique nutritional needs for their growing bodies. Puppyhood is the best time to establish healthy habits and a feeding schedule (where, when, what, and how much to feed). For more targeted nutrition, consider their breed and projected adult weight.

Some breeds may be prone to juvenile hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), so your veterinarian can advise on how much and how often a puppy should be fed. This may change at every puppy exam based upon a dog’s weight gain and growth.

A veterinarian may also ask about and look for signs of a congenital or inherited concern, including voluminous, fatty stool, poor weight gain despite a good appetite, and/or regurgitation.

Puppies don’t necessarily need supplements in addition to a proper diet. Discuss any supplements with a veterinarian. Treats may also add a substantial amount of calories per day. If you give your dog any human food, make sure it is not toxic to dogs.

Nutrition for young adult dogs

Young adulthood is the time to continue (or establish) healthy habits and a consistent feeding schedule. This is also the time to transition from a growth (puppy) food to a maintenance (adult) diet.

Obesity is one of the largest contributors to morbidity and mortality as a dog ages. Fat itself is not an inactive substance in the body. It plays a role in hormonal regulation, inflammation, and other disease processes.

Some breeds may benefit from a lower-fat diet while others may need a special diet to decrease the risk of bladder stones. A veterinarian will assess a dog’s body condition and muscle mass and advise if your dog’s diet needs to be adjusted. Dogs that are spayed and neutered typically require fewer calories than dogs that remain intact—discuss this with your veterinarian.

Nutrition for mature adult dogs

Mature adulthood is the time to continue healthy habits and a consistent feeding schedule. 

As a dog ages, muscle mass is particularly important to maintain, as it may mitigate symptoms of osteoarthritis. Decreased muscle mass may also be a sign of systemic illness.

Mature adulthood may be the time a veterinarian recommends regular administration of supplements which may include omega fatty acids, prebiotics, probiotics, green-lipped mussel, eye support, and/or bladder support, among others.

Nutrition for senior and geriatric dogs

As a dog ages, you may need to adjust the type, amount, and frequency of feeding to address comorbidities (heart failure, renal failure, osteoarthritis, or bladder stones, for example). Additionally, you might also need to adjust where you feed your dog and in what type of bowl, as a dog’s mobility, hearing, and vision may decrease with age.

In general, senior dogs may require a higher-quality protein, a more digestible food, and food supplements with omega fatty acids and antioxidants. Senior dogs are also prone to dehydration, so access to fresh, clean water at all times is important.

Senior status may be the time a veterinarian recommends regular administration of supplements which may include omega fatty acids, prebiotics, probiotics, green-lipped mussel, medium-chain triglycerides, eye support, and/or bladder support, among others.

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Dog care at every age

Giving your dog the best age-appropriate care starts with knowing your dog’s age. Not sure how old your dog is? The Embark Dog Age Test uses the science of DNA methylation to estimate your dog’s true calendar age with remarkable accuracy.

Mimi Padmabandu Contributor

Mimi Padmabandu is a scientific writer and Senior Content Strategist at Embark Veterinary. Her career includes a decade of experience writing about science and genomics for leading biotechnology companies, including Illumina, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and more. She holds a bachelor's degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology from UCLA and a master’s degree in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London.

Read more about Mimi Padmabandu

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