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Senior Shih Tzu Care


While no one wants to think too much about their Shih Tzu growing old, this is really something that cannot be ignored. As a Shih Tzu transitions from adult to senior, it's important for owners to know what to expect, to make some changes in care and to keep an eye out for common health issues and ailments that affect seniors.

The Age That a Shih Tzu Becomes a Senior

You would think that something as important as this would be official, however there is no one age that a dog becomes a senior. Rather, it is a combination of looking at breed's expected life span and a particular dog's health. 

With the Shih Tzu, life span ranges from 10 to 16 years; most Shih Tzu live to their early teens, with 13 years being the average. The age that most Shih Tzu are declared to be a senior by the veterinarian is between 9 and 10 years old.

Even if your vet refrains from making this statement, once a Shih Tzu is over the 10 mark, he or she is a senior regardless. It is, however, important for a vet to make this distinction, since wellness checks will change in regard to both frequency and testing (more ahead). 

Wellness Checks for Seniors

Shih Tzu adults, in good health, should be seen by the vet once per year. A senior Shih Tzu should be seen twice per year, at 6 month intervals. This is put off by far too many owners, however it is a vital step in ensuring a longer life for your older dog. With seniors, there many more health conditions that develop and these can happen quickly and the immune system is not as strong as it used to be. 

Testing should be done twice per year to check the heart, orthopedic issues such as knees, hips and back, liver and kidney function, prostate enlargement (for un-neutered males), mammary glands (for females), hearing and vision, along with routine exams and testing such as a complete blood count (checking for glandular function and anemia is important), urinalysis and stool testing. 

For those that worry that something will be found, remember that the best way to ensure a good prognosis and effective treatment is to catch issues as soon as possible. 
senior Shih Tzu, 9 years 6 months old
Nikkinoo, at 9 years, 6 months old
Photo courtesy of Stevie Kendall 

Changes to Expect with Senior Shih Tzu

Many owners wonder what will change when their Shih Tzu gets older or exactly when their dog's personality or activity level will change.

And the tricky thing about this, is that it is often a very gradual transition. 

In many cases, things have changed but an owner will not be aware of it until it is so drastic that it is blatantly obvious. 

For this reason, when a Shih Tzu reaches the 8 to 9 year mark, it is recommended to know what signs may start appearing and ways that you can help make your senior Shih Tzu more comfortable. 

1) Hearing loss. This is often one of the first signs of an aging dog and is often overlooked as it is confused with other things. 
Most senior dogs have some level of hearing loss and this can occur in just one ear or both. It's common for owners to first assume that their senior is ignoring a command or is not paying attention to their name being called. 
If a senior Shih Tzu does indeed have some hearing loss, often he will not obey commands, will not respond to hand clapping or to his name and may appear startled when he suddenly sees someone who has walked into the room. 

What you can do - You'll want your Shih Tzu to have a hearing exam to find out the extent of the changes. For issues related to old age, there is little that can be done in terms of treatment. However, some simple changes at home such as flipping on light switches to announce entry into a room and using a whistle instead to gain a dog's attention can be helpful. 

2) Vision loss. Decreased vision is often part of growing older, however it is important to have this diagnosed. This can be due to glaucoma, cataracts or other issues. Depending on the cause, treatment may be able to save a dog's sight and in some cases only quick intervention will do so. Signs of decreased vision with senior dogs includes: bumping into household objects, possibly appearing disorientated and having trouble finding belongings such as toys and food & water bowls

What you can do - Aside from having this confirmed, diagnosed and treated by the vet, there are changes you can make at home to help a partially blind dog feel more at ease. Do not rearrange furniture, puppy-proof the house on a daily basis, gate off any dangerous areas such as staircases, stick with familiar walking routes and when approaching your Shih Tzu do this from the side and at his level. 

3) Decreased tolerance for exercise - Due to decreased lung capacity, heart function and mobility, senior Shih Tzu will have a gradual slowing down in regard to duration and pace in regard to walks. If you typically take your adult for 2 mile walks, this will often decrease to 1 and 1/2 and then 1 over the course of a several years. 
What to do - As your Shih Tzu reaches his senior years, at the 9 and 10 year mark, start to really take notice of how he is handling his walks. If he has breathing problems such as being out-of-breath or shows any other sort of intolerance, cut back by 1/4 miles or 10 minutes. 

Do continue to take him out (twice per day is best) and make adjustments as needed. Any wheezing, limping or other signs just as this should be reported to the veterinarian. 

If his decreased activity is leading to weight gain (a problem not uncommon with larger-sized Shih Tzu), consider taking a some steps to help your Shih Tzu lose weight in a healthy way.

4) Increased sleep - Both young puppies and senior dogs will sleep much more than adults. Senior Shih Tzu will often start napping more in the day as opposed to sleeping later, since they still want to join in once the family wakes up. 

What to do - It's really important that an older Shih Tzu has a high quality orthopedic bed that is made from top-of-the-line memory foam. 

This will help him recover from his day and provide the proper resting support that is needed for dogs with arthritis and other orthopedic issues commonly seen with seniors, which will allow him to get better sleep. 

You'll also want to ensure that his resting area provides a semi-private and removed from distracting noises and any foot traffic. Do, however, keep your older Shih Tzu within sight; most older dogs feel terribly isolated if they are not close to their human family members. 

5) Loss of bladder and/or bowel control - Any sudden change with this should be reported to the vet as it can point to any number of issues including bladder infection, kidney disease and more. 

This said, seniors may have a gradual loss of control. This has nothing to do with housebreaking and attempting to re-train a senior dog is often done in vain. Rather, it is simply a matter of the dog having sudden urges coupled with decreased muscle control to hold it in.
What you can do: Most seniors do best if they are taken outside much more often than their younger counterparts. If possible, even every hour or so is not too much. Nothing should be expected; rather it is just a change to urinate or eliminate if needed. 

Do keep in mind that older dogs tend to be constipated more often as well, so more time should be allowed for the dog to have a bowel movement. 

If a female Shih Tzu has little to no control, placing a doggie diaper on her can really help. And for males, a belly wrap can work well. You will, of course, need to be diligent in washing your dog afterward, but this can help keep it better contained and prevent situations where the lingering scent of urine on floors and carpeting can lead to even more accidents inside. 
two Shih Tzu
Cody, at 9 years old
Photo courtesy of Lowell G.
6) Brittle nails. As a dog ages, nails can get brittle, causing them to crack or break easily. If due to aging, this is often a result of the body not absorbing and/or handling certain nutrients as it once did. Other issues should be ruled out first, including yeast or fungal infection in the nail beds and the rare but possible issue of a nail bed tumor.

What to do - All dogs and especially senior Shih Tzu should be given a once-a-day complete canine vitamin and mineral supplement. 

In addition, it can help to up a dog's intake of Omega 3. You can do this via food (fish such as mackerel, salmon, trout) or via supplements of an Omega 3 or 3,6,9. A Shih Tzu can also get brittle nails if his vitamin B12 is lacking. This is found in foods such as liver, fish and eggs. 

And this can also be given either as a sole supplement or as part of a multi-vitamin.
You'll want to take extra care in trimming the nails as needed so that they never grow too long; you may find that a grinder is much easier to use than clippers.
Finally, if a dog has exceedingly brittle nails, slipping sock or shoes onto his feet can protect them while you are taking steps to help the nails grow stronger.  

7) Changes in appetite. The most commonly seen issues with older Shih Tzu are becoming more picky about food and just being as hungry as before. 

In regard to growing more finicky, senior dogs tend to know exactly what they like and are not shy about refusing anything that is not on their favorite's list or even borderline. 

In regard to eating less, as a dog transitions from adult to senior, the metabolism slows. A 10 year old Shih Tzu may need 10 to 15 less calories per pound of body weight, per day than say a 5 year old. When you couple that with older dogs being less active, this can lead to a lower calorie requirement. It is not uncommon for a dog to self-regulate and simply eat less based on these changes. 

This said, both issues can point to either illness (decreased appetite is a symptom in the majority of health issues) or can be a sign of tooth decay or other dental issue that is causing pain.

What to do - As part of your dog's biannual vet visits, teeth should be examined and cleaned, x-rays taken and any problems taken care of.  In between visits, teeth should be brushed at home with a quality toothbrush and effective paste to help keep plaque at bay. If you suspect that your Shih Tzu is suffering from tooth pain, do not delay in seeking treatment; infection can quickly spread up into the sinus cavities or even throughout the entire body, resulting in sepsis, which can be fatal. 

Older dogs do best with warm, soft food. You'll want to speak to your vet about switching from an adult to senior variety dog food. But also, adding some low sodium chicken broth and heating the food in the microwave can be just the thing to encourage a senior to eat his meal. 
14 year old Shih Tzu dog, senior
Jewel Harvey, at 14 years old
Photo courtesy of Magalie and Mark Harvey 
8) Skin and Coat Changes

As a dog ages, he loses his ability to retain moisture in the skin and since skin & coat go hand-in-hand, this affects both. A Shih Tzu may have very dry skin that is peeling, itching or both. The coat may start to thin and/or become dry and brittle.

What you can do:  You'll want to have other issues ruled out first. This includes allergies (dogs can grow into allergies and older dogs can be more sensitive to triggers than their younger counterparts). If this is a matter of old-age, you'll want to reassess the products that you are using for shampoo and conditioner; quality products are important now more than ever. Most importantly, you'll want to use a good leave-in coat conditioner, if you are not already. The right one can go a long way in preventing static, split ends and protect from dry air, the sun's rays and contact friction. 

As with brittle nails, extra Omega 3 or 3,6, 9 and/or vitamin B12 can help as well. 

For severely thinning coat, we highly recommend getting on a regimen of DerMagic, the shampoo, condition and most of all, the rescue lotion. This is an incredible line of soothing, healing and restorative skin and coat cleansers and lotions that we recommend for any sort of unexplained hair loss (including Alopecia X) and coat loss due to allergies and other conditions.
Our exact recommendations can be seen under 'Hair Growth Aids' on the Shih Tzu Supplies page.
9) Intolerance to Temperature Changes  Being a Brachycephalic breed, a Shih Tzu already has some challenges staying cool in the summer. Yet even more common with older Shih Tzu is having trouble staying warm. This can happen even if you feel just fine. This can be mistaken for nervousness, since shivering, trembling or hiding under blankets are common signs. 

How you can help: You'll want to follow summer care tips for Shih Tzu now more than ever, keeping an eye on how your older dog handles the heat and make changes as needed. In regard to feeling chilly, the answer is often simple and well-tolerated by Shih Tzu: a quality, soft sweater or top. You can find out more about this in the winter care for Shih Tzu section. 
10) Changes in Behavior - First, it should be noted that major changes in a dog's behavior is often the first sign of a health issue. Such things as becoming clingy, retreating to be alone, hiding, acting frightened, not eating, acting moody and other such behaviors are all signs that should be reported to the vet. 

It is normal for a senior Shih Tzu to either want to be physically closer to his humans, retreat to be alone or alter between these two as his moods and the environment around him fluctuates. Older dogs often have less patience for the hyper personalities of young puppies or the enthusiastic and constant play of children. 
This said, dogs can develop the canine equivalent of dementia, referred to as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Signs vary quite a bit; however, this includes:
  • Appearing confused
  • Having trouble negotiating around the house
  • Not responding to his name and or things that are happening around him
  • Acting withdrawn or depressed
  • Pacing aimlessly
  • Trouble following simple commands that were once understood
  • Staring at nothing
  • Becoming easily startled
  • A decreased desire for interaction
  • Changes in eating patterns
Any one or all of these symptoms can also point to other issues, so it will be important to have the veterinarian perform a full evaluation. If a dog does have CDD, there is an approved medication for this. While it does not cure the disease, great improvement can be seen. 

The most popular one is selegiline (brand name Anipryl). It is very similar to Deprenyl, which is used to Parkinson's disease in humans and it is also used to treat Cushing's disease in canines. It is the only FDA approved drug to treat canine senility and 70% of dogs have improvement after one month of treatment. At the time of this writing, the price is $125 for a 1 month supply.
Shih Tzu at Niagara Falls
Cooper (10 months old) and Maximus (9 years old)
Photo courtesy of Barbara & Ken Quesnelle

A Final Thought 

It's a shame that our canine family members have such short lives compared to us humans. However, with proper care, a Shih Tzu can have a relatively good life span, living well into his or her teens. The most important element is that you are proactive in making sure that your dog's golden years are spent as comfortable and as happy as possible. 
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