8 things you need to know about AAHA’s Canine Life Stage Guidelines

One reason dogs are “man’s best friend” is their ability to charm us at any age. From a puppy discovering the joy of chasing a leaf to a golden oldie leaning in for a snuggle on the couch, we share a special relationship with our canine companions.

Dogs have different needs as they age, which is why your veterinary team focuses on developing an individualized wellness plan based on a dog’s life stage as well as other factors, like size and breed. To help veterinary care teams provide the best possible care throughout your dog’s life, AAHA worked with experts to create the Canine Life Stage Guidelines.

What you need to know

  1. There are six canine life stages: puppy, junior, adult, mature, senior, and geriatric.
  2. Life stages don’t start and stop abruptly. Instead, they phase in and out gradually—your dog doesn’t automatically become a senior on his seventh birthday, for instance. Your veterinary team will want to know about your pet’s behavior, lifestyle, diet, and other factors that influence life stage classification.
  3. Your veterinarian will consider your dog’s age as well as breed and size when tailoring a wellness plan. Certain breeds and sizes of dogs have a higher incidence of dental issues, such as small dogs, greyhounds, and brachycephalics like pugs. At least two-thirds of dog breeds have at least one recognized genetic disorder. If you have a mixed-breed dog, ask your veterinarian if a DNA test would be helpful in identifying and preventing potential health concerns.
  4. Your dog will need annual (at a minimum) wellness exams. When your dog is a senior, semiannual exams will help with early detection and treatment of diseases or injuries. Working and service dogs, such as guide or therapy dogs, may need more frequent examinations because their work is so valuable to their handler and society.
  5. The earlier positive training starts, the better. Puppies experience a “fear period” between 8 and 10 weeks old, which is often when they join a new family. Positive reinforcement with treats and toys during new experiences and situations, whether driving in a car, meeting new dogs, or visiting the veterinarian for the first time, creates positive associations. Never use physical punishment or use coercive shock or choke collars, as these can lead to negative lifelong effects on anxiety, fear, reactivity, and aggressiveness.
  6. Consider nutrition and exercise. Approximately 50% of dogs in America are overweight or obese, which leads to health issues like diabetes and joint pain. No matter the life stage, talk to your veterinarian about ways to help your dog maintain a healthy weight. Exercise can also provide mental stimulation if you try fetch training or agility.
  7. Nip problem behavior in the bud. It’s easier to correct unwanted behavior like biting during the puppy or junior stages. It’s also important to recognize and address signs of cognitive decline as soon as they begin in older pets. Talk to your veterinarian about any concerns you might have.
  8. You are the most important member of your dog’s healthcare team. Your veterinary team depends on you to communicate about your dog’s lifestyle and behavior—and any changes you notice. You are the one who brings your dog to the veterinarian for wellness exams and administers medications as need be. You can also provide enrichment at home and make adjustments as your pet’s needs change, such as incorporating nonslip rugs in your house or placing a bed on the first floor near a water bowl. Since dogs age faster than humans, we have the unique privilege of shepherding them through very different stages of life.

What to ask your veterinarian about your dog’s life stage

  • What should I know about my dog’s current life stage?
  • Is my dog overweight? How can I help my dog maintain a healthy weight?
  • Should I get pet insurance or some sort of healthcare plan?
  • Do you recommend a microchip?
  • When should I spay or neuter my pet?
  • How often would you like to see my dog for wellness exams?
  • How can I optimize my dog’s dental health?
  • I’ve noticed a change in my dog’s behavior. Could there be a medical reason for this?
  • What else I can be doing to help my dog live the longest, happiest life possible?