Aggression in Older Dogs

Aggression in older dogs

Aggression in older dogs

In this article I am going to be exploring “sudden” aggression in older dogs.

Dogs can be aggressive for a whole host of reasons, but I’m interested in understanding why senior dogs who have been gentle and sweet, can suddenly show aggression.

What form can aggression take?

Snapping, snarling, nipping or biting.

When have you witnessed aggression in your dog?

Take note of situations when you’ve seen your dog show aggression. It will help you identify a pattern, and when discussed with your vet may help with the diagnosis. 

Circumstances that may cause sudden aggression

There are many reasons why gentle and sweet dogs suddenly become aggressive and they are... Click To Tweet

Pain or discomfort

Pain is a major reason for dog aggression. Arthritis, hip dysplasia, dental disease and recovery from surgery are just a few causes of pain. If you aren’t aware of how your dog is feeling, then try and pick him up or push him off Pain from dental disease can cause aggression in older dogsthe couch for example, it’s only natural for him to come at you. He may even display aggression before you go near him, as a way to prevent it.

Some signs your dog may be in pain

Dogs are pretty good at hiding pain but it doesn’t mean they’re perfect at it.

  • Whining or whimpering
  • Clinginess
  • Lack of interest in things he used to enjoy
  • Reluctant to go for walks/unable to walk
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty sleeping or resting
  • Licking one spot on his body
  • Difficulty getting up and lying down

Whether you’ve noticed any of these or just a general “something isn’t right” get him checked out by your vet ASAP. Too many changes are attributed to the natural aging process, and many dogs suffer as a result.

Once your vet is able to diagnose the source of the pain, a treatment plan can be put together. Depending on your vet, your dog may be prescribed pain medication, natural supplements, acupuncture and hydrotherapy to name a few options.

Anxiety

Dogs may experience an increase in anxiety as they age, and that anxiety can sometimes translate into aggression towards their humans, other pets in the family, strangers…anyone really.

Dental disease

Have you been a bit lax when it comes to brushing your dog’s teeth? Has it become increasingly difficult as he’s gotten older? That’s a bit of a vicious circle because the more irritable he gets, the harder it is to brush, the harder it is to brush the more likely he’ll start to suffer from dental disease. The pain your dog will experience as a result can easily lead to aggression.

If your dog is pawing at his mouth, drooling or lost interest in food or treats, take him to the vet right away. If he does have dental issues they can be sorted, the pain will disappear and so will aggression (if it was the sole cause).

Lack of energy or mobility

If you have younger dogs in the household that he used to play with, but just can’t seem to keep up with anymore, attempts by the other dog to play can be met with aggression. He will probably allow some play, but if his tolerance level isn’t what it used to be he’ll let them know when he’s had enough. Particularly if a lack of mobility prevents him from removing himself from an annoying situation.

Doggie dementia

Confusion, anxiety and not recognising the familiar are just some of the symptoms associated with dementia, and yes that can lead to an otherwise sweet natured dog displaying bouts of aggression.

Vision and/or hearing loss

Imagine how scary it must be for your dog as he starts to lose his hearing, vision or both. He has no idea what’s going on, and because he is startled more easily, he may lash out before he realises who’s approaching him.

It’s important to make adjustments to accommodate these changes in your dog, and they include;

  • Calling out to him or somehow making your presence known to him before touching him – and that includes telling everyone else to do the same
  • caring for an aging dog in a clutter free homeNot moving furniture around so he doesn’t bump into things, hurt himself and get scared
  • Keep the floors clutter free so he doesn’t trip, hurt himself and become anxious
  • Try and keep the noise and activity level down for a bit

Brain tumour

Not common but not unheard of, a mass on the brain can cause a sudden change in personality. As with many conditions there are warning signs, but often ignored under the mistaken assumption they are signs of old age.

A new pet

Your oldie may be very content with the life he has, and has little patience or interest in interlopers. You may have decided to bring a new pet into the family without considering your old dog’s needs first, now the new family member is bugging him and he’s not liking it. Don’t be surprised if he starts showing some aggression, and please don’t dump him as a result. He never asked for the change and he shouldn’t have to pay the consequences.

How you can help calm your dog’s aggressive tendencies

Take your dog to the vet

Any time you notice a change in behaviour, however minor you may think it is, rather than adopt a “wait and see” attitude, treat it with some degree of urgency. Out of the ordinary should never be automatically attributed to aging, but rather a sign something is wrong. Once your vet has determined the cause, a treatment plan can be drawn up which should help matters.

Be aware of what induces aggression

Be aware of the situations that induce aggression and see what you can do to prevent or minimise them.  

Create a safe space

Make sure your dog has a safe space to retreat to, an area that is his where no one will bother him. Whether you want to add a covered crate he can crawl into (leave the door open), or set up a bed in a quiet corner, it’s important to keep him away from stress.

Explain what’s going on to the rest of the family

Let everyone know what’s going on, and together come up with strategies to help your dog.  

Play calming music

A CD called “Through a Dog’s Ear” was a sanity saver before my dog was diagnosed with dementia. It would calm her down in no time and reduced the stress all of us were feeling.  Proven to relax shelter dogs, and helpful for Through a Dog's Ear CDdogs who suffer from fear and anxiety, it’s worth a try.  

Aggression in older dogs – conclusion

If your senior dog seems to be going through some behavioural changes in general, and aggression in particular, it’s important to understand the reasons. What you see as aggression may simply be the result of a medical issue, which once sorted may end it. If no medical reason can be found, or nothing much can be done, work with your vet to figure out ways to keep him calm and others around him safe.

I hope this post has been helpful, and should you see any signs of aggression in older dogs, please make a vet appointment right away.

 

Aggression in Older Dogs
Hindy Pearson
Helping people care for their senior dogs
I am a certified dog trainer and pet care consultant, specialising in working with rescue dogs and first time pet parents. I foster and adopt senior and special needs dogs, and advocate for shelter adoption of all animals, particularly older dogs and cats. I am currently working on a spay/neuter program in Spain.

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28 thoughts on “Aggression in Older Dogs

  1. Great info! I have a senior dog myself – an almost 17-year=old jack russell. She’s the sweetest, and thankfully isn’t aggressive. Though she has lost her hearing, so I have to gently touch her when I come up behind her or pick her up to let her know I’m there, otherwise she gets startled. Thanks for the great tips. Pinning!

    1. Thanks and thanks for pinning. How sweet and how wonderful she’s still with you and doing well. I do that with Red. She’s blind and although she hears me she doesn’t know when I’m about to pick her up so I let her know otherwise she gets started as well. You gotta love these little sweeties!!

  2. Layla is aging and I know that, I have noticed lately she is afraid of the sound of the microwave, living in a studio does not make it easy, so to solve the problem I made her a bed in the shower so if the microwave is on and she wants to hide that is where she goes. That is the only difference I am noticing and my vet told me not to worry so am not. Once the microwave is off she comes back to lie on her bed.

    I keep a hawkish eye on her LOL

    1. Sweet Layla!! Interesting what it is about the microwave, but that’s a clever solution. I feel like if Red could talk she’d tell me to stop staring at her all the time!

  3. Our Lyla is getting older and while we have not noticed any SUDDEN changes in her aggression it is good to have this info. There are so many things to watch out for! Lyla has never been fond of small children so when one is around, or near her – is when she acts out the most. Sometimes she is a little aggressive toward our cats, not overly so, just a warning growl to keep them in line. I think this is all pretty much part of her personality though. She also has always licked one spot on her paw but the vet said it is just a hot spot.
    I am going to be keeping a closer eye on her though as she ages. She will be 8 in April.
    Great information, thank you!

    1. Thanks Joely, so glad you’re finding it useful. It certainly sounds like it’s just Lyla’s personality, but it’s always good to keep a close eye on them. I swear I think if Red could talk she’d tell me to stop staring at her all the time!!

  4. Great post! Ive tried calming music with cats too and it really can work, helping them relax and de-stress.

    1. Thanks!! Calming music has been a lifesaver for Red, and me! I wish I had known about it years ago when I rescued a feral cat who was always on edge until I discovered Feliway and she literally calmed down almost immediately.

  5. It’s so important to be in tune with your dogs, especially as they age and their bodies go through so many changes, not always comfortable ones. They have so many less ways to tell us what’s going on than us humans do. Great article.

    1. Thank you Debbie, so happy you enjoyed it. You’re right, it’s extremely important to be in tune with our dogs, as it’s the best way to spot changes quickly. Catching something early leads to the best chances for treatment.

    1. I agree Jana, and that’s why it’s so important to take behaviour changes seriously, and visit your vet as soon as possible. By the time a dog is at the aggression stage, he’s feeling quite bad and needs quick medical attention.

  6. Mr. N tweaked his back somehow and didn’t want to walk a while back. With rest, he was fine but he had me worried there.

  7. This is great advice Hindy. I’ve seen dogs snap & growl when being touched in a painful area of their body. People often don’t realize that pain is the reason the dogs is lashing out. Thanks for the reco’ on the calming CD, calming music can be so helpful.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    1. Thanks Cathy. You’d think it was obvious the dog was in pain, but you’re right people don’t often realise that. That CD really is amazing, I now have my vet play it when Red goes for acupuncture.

  8. Our dog, Pip, did have some aggression in his final year. Mostly around having his nails trimmed and then once when he was up on a chair and couldn’t figure out how to get down – tried to help him and he growled. I think his was a combination of anxiety, dementia, and some painful joints. I remember being quite startled because he had always been so gentle, but I realized he was just having a difficult time and didn’t really mean any harm.

    1. Poor Pip. They get confused and don’t know what’s going on. It’s a surprise when they behave in such unexpected ways, especially when it’s totally out of character. It’s good you realised he was having a hard time and it wasn’t his fault. That’s what we have to help many people realise.

  9. Such a helpful article. Always good to take your dog to the vet and make sure there is no underlying cause they can identify with aggression in dogs at any age. Pain and fear can both be dangerous and I need to brush Kilo’s teeth more.

    1. I’m glad you think so. You’re right – a dog who is acting out of character should always be taken to the vet to check for an underlying cause. I hear you about the teeth brushing. A nightmare here!!

  10. This is important info for people with senior dogs. It’s interesting that there are so many reasons for aggression.

    1. There are so many reasons for so many behaviour issues, that’s why it’s critical to get your dog (or cat) to the vet as soon as possible. We all know the sooner something is caught, the greater the chances it can be treated or at least managed.

  11. It is so important to remember that all behavior is communication. Our pets can tell us so much about what is happening to them if we are willing to listen. Aging has a very interesting set of challenges for pets, but the ideas you’ve presented could be valid for pets of any age. Dental disease is not something people would think about right away. Thank you for the reminders and tips!

    1. You’re so right Robin, they’re communicating what’s going on, yet many people have no idea they’re even talking, never mind how to listen. What I find frustrating when I talk to people is how much they dismiss as age, without understanding their pet can be facing some real health challenges that can, in all likelihood be managed. They don’ think much about their dog being in pain, because they have no idea it’s not a given. I do try and educate but people don’t like to hear it. Won’t stop me though!!

  12. Great post. Bean has started to get more cranky with time, and I think some of it is the start of losing her hearing/vision.

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