Behavior Changes in Older Dogs

behavior changes in older dogs

Did you know many behavior changes in older dogs are the result of a medical condition?

I cannot impress upon you enough, the importance of taking behavior changes seriously. Too many people assume they’re a natural part of the aging process and do nothing. Not only can this lead to a condition worsening so much that it is no longer treatable, but it’s likely your dog is living in pain, and that is never acceptable.

Let’s take a look at some common behavior changes and what to do about them

Separation anxiety

One of the most common behavior problems we tend to see in senior dogs is anxiety when separated from their humans. Some dogs may experience it when away from a specific person, while others aren’t picky. There are a bit of destruction caused by separation anxietydegrees of severity ranging from some barking, to peeing and pooping in the house to all out destruction. Trust me when I say, it is heart breaking to witness.

Here is a very important fact – your dog’s anxiety starts long before you leave the house!

We’re so used to the routine we have when leaving, we don’t think about all the cues we’re giving off that our dogs witness. Where or how we put our coat on, in which order we pick up our purse and keys etc… Your dog recognises the signs even before you start, and panic starts to set in. Then factor in how many people go over to the dog, give him a hug and kiss (even pick her up like a baby like one of my neighbours does), and just plain make a fuss. When they come home they do the same thing again.

So, I’m just telling him I’ll miss him!

Hey, I understand that but your dog is understanding that you leaving the house is a huge deal, and definitely worth being anxious about. That’s right, that’s the message you’re reinforcing.

What do I do?

At the end of this section there will be a link to an article that goes into separation anxiety in greater detail, including how to help. Here I will briefly list a few key points.

  • Change the order you do things – For example, if you normally grab your coat and go, put it on and sit on the couch for a minute.
  • Never make a big deal out of coming and going, just leave.
  • Be sure you give your dog lots of exercise before you go out.
  • How about playing some relaxing music…on low. Through a Dog’s Ear is one you should seriously consider.
  • Dogs should not be left alone for hours on end. Hire a pet sitter, ask a friend or neighbour to take the dog for a walk, or sign him up for doggie daycare.

Read this ⇒ Separation Anxiety in Older Dogs

Compulsive behavior

A compulsive behavior is something like: constant licking of a particular spot, chasing a tail, air biting, staring at walls etc… Although some medical conditions like dementia can be responsible, it’s often the result of anxiety which, if left untreated or unaddressed, develops into compulsion.

If you can identify the source of the anxiety (a conflict between your pets perhaps?) you can eliminate/manage it before it becomes a compulsion.

It’s hard to say what the treatment will be as it depends on the cause, but they can include something as minor as a change in routine to medication/natural therapies and/or the help of a behaviorist.

If you notice any change in your dog's behaviour, no matter how small, take him to the vet. Click To Tweet

Canine cognitive dysfunction (doggie dementia)

You may notice your dog wandering aimlessly, getting stuck behind doors or under tables, forgetting his housetraining and not recognising the familiar. These could be signs your dog is suffering from dementia. There is no test to diagnose it, rather it is made through a process of elimination.

There is no cure but drugs such as Selgian (UK) and Anipryl (US) can help with the symptoms by increasing blood flow to the brain. Red has been on Selgian for quite some time and it has been a big help. A CD called Through a Dog’s Ear has also worked wonders to help her relax.

Read these ⇒ All About Dementia in Dogs & Diagnosing Dementia in Dogs

Increased vocalization

Your otherwise very quiet dog may suddenly start to bark, whine or howl. It could be stress, separation anxiety, generalised fear or anxiety, not feeling well, pain or discomfort, loss of hearing, dementia or just plain attention seeking. Before we can help we have to know the reason.

Ask yourself some questions to help narrow it down

  • Has there been a recent addition to the household?
  • Have you moved?
  • Are you busier than usual and not spending enough time with the dog?
  • Have you noticed something “off” about him lately?
  • If you’ve stopped spending time with your dog, he may be barking for attention and the solution is simple – spend more time with him.

If you’ve recently moved or welcomed a new family member it is likely stress related, and there are things you can do. Make sure you still spend plenty of time with your dog, provide him with a quiet area when he needs to get away from the hustle and bustle, and look into calming remedies or plug in pheromones to relax him.

Peeing/pooping in the house

Your perfectly housetrained dog may suddenly start peeing and/or pooping in the house, and I know you’re not loving that! I suggest you get yourself some pee pads, because they will save your sanity. Okay now to the problem incontinence in older dogsat hand.

He’s not doing this deliberately if that’s what you’re thinking!

There are a lot of reasons why your dog is suddenly using your carpet as a toilet:

  • Dementia is causing your dog to forget his housetraining
  • Illnesses that may cause increased thirst/peeing (kidneys, diabetes…)
  • Mobility issues making it harder for him to go out
  • Increasingly hectic schedules affecting your dogs break times
  • Showing his dissatisfaction with changes in environment/schedule/new pets/people…
  • If it’s only when you’re out he may be showing signs of separation anxiety

If this list has triggered your “aha” moment and the reason has been revealed, great! You’re halfway there, now you need to figure out how to prevent that “thing” from affecting him.

If everything has been status quo, you’re probably looking at a medical issue, but don’t start panicking. Your first stop is a visit to the vet for diagnosis then you take it from there.

In the meantime you may want to take him out for a quick pee break more often, introduce him to a crate, or block off an area for him to sleep at night and use pee pads.

Read this ⇒ Incontinence in Older Dogs

Aggression

Older dogs who have been sweet and loving can suddenly become aggressive, and we’re thrown by something so out of character. Pain is a big reason as is anxiety, a lack of mobility (he can’t get away from the annoying other Aggression in older dogsdog he lives with), doggie dementia, vision or hearing loss to name a few.

Signs your dog is in pain include:

  • Whimpering
  • Lethargy
  • Licking one spot on his body
  • Difficulty getting up and lying down

A trip to the vet will help solve the mystery of what’s causing his aggressiveness, and a treatment plan can then be put in place.

Keeping track of when your dog is showing aggression can not only help your vet with a diagnosis, but help you reduce the triggers.

Read this ⇒ Aggression in Older Dogs

Fears and phobias

As with so many behavior changes, vision and hearing loss, dementia and forms of anxiety can all contribute to fears and phobias (like a fear of thunder, or walking on certain surfaces).

As always a trip to your vet is the first course of action, so an underlying medical problem can be identified. It’s possible that treating the condition will eliminate, or at least reduce, the fear or phobia.

To help your dog cope here are some things you can do:

Dogs thrive on routine and consistency, so don’t make changes if you can help it. You may like to redecorate, but your dog won’t appreciate it if it involves his stuff. Leave his bowls, blankets and beds where they’ve always been. Keep walking and feeding him at the same time as always.  

Try keeping him away from what he fears, if that’s possible. It doesn’t mean it will always have to be this way, it might just be until the treatment kicks in.

If he’s become more sensitive to noise, some calming music like “Through a Dog’s Ear” may help.

Desensitisation can help overcome fear of noises like fireworks or thunderstorms for example. Play a recording of the sound (you can find it on youtube!) on super low volume. As long as he doesn’t react give him a treat. Over several days or weeks, gradually increase the volume, rewarding him each time he ignores it. Carry on until he’s hearing it at a normal volume and is fine. Don’t rush it and if at any point he exhibits anxiety, go back to the volume level he was comfortable at and continue from there – slowly!!  

Pheromone, natural calming agents or anti-anxiety medications may be in order.  

Destructive behavior

Another behavior you’ve never seen before which could be the result of separation anxiety or something else! If you could have the answers to some of these questions before your vet appointment, they may help with a diagnosis.

  • Is he destroying one particular thing or anything in his path?
  • Any particular room, or he’s happy to have a go anywhere?
  • Does this happen at a specific time of day?
  • When you’re home or out?
  • Has there been any change to his exercise routine? Frequency? Duration? Type of activity?

Treatment/management options will vary depending on the underlying cause of the problem.

To keep your dog, and your things safe, make changes to your home environment based on what he’s been going after. If he’s decided to chew your shoes all of a sudden, keep them out of reach. Offering new and different types of toys, bones and even treat dispensing toys may help. Remember to never leave your dog unattended when chewing on a bone.

Read this ⇒ How to Correct Bad Behavior in Dogs

Changes in sleep patterns/restlessness

Restlessness, pacing and changes in sleep patterns could stem from:

  • Confusion caused by doggie dementia
  • Pain
  • pee pads for incontinence in senior dogsThe need to pee more frequently
  • Vision or hearing loss
  • Your dog has started sleeping more during the day, and is now restless and active at night – possibly the result of boredom
  • Drinking too much water late at night. Taking away the water bowl before bed can help (with your vet’s approval)

A visit to the vet will answer the “why” and then the “what to do about it.”

You may want to confine your dog to an area away from your bedroom at night, so your sleep isn’t disturbed, or conversely sleeping in your bedroom may give him comfort. It could be a case of try one and see how it works.

Increasing the amount/frequency of walks or play time during the day and evening (within his abilities of course), can be the solution. Practice doing tricks, and giving him an interactive toy for some mental stimulation will also help.

Adjusting to interlopers in the house

Before you run out and adopt a new dog, consider whether or not your senior would be happy about it. You think he needs a friend, but he may be happy on his own, living a quiet life. If, for whatever reason you insist, think about your dog’s needs, likes and dislikes and take your time to find the right match.

If your dog is having mobility issues, or is obviously not as sociable as he used to be, a puppy or high energy dog is not going to be the right fit.

Behavior changes in older dogs – conclusion

Your older dog may be more easily stressed, have lower tolerance levels than he used to, need more alone time or have a medical issue. It’s up to us to ensure changes to their routine are done gradually, exposure to stressors kept to a minimum, and behavior changes brought to the attention of a vet quickly.

You may be faced with behavior changes in older dogs, but with timely medical care and ensuring their needs are met, you can still have many quality years together.  

 

Have you noticed any behavior changes in your senior dog? What specifically made you take notice? What was the underlying cause and how were you able to help him? Sharing helps others so leave your comments in the section below, or on my Facebook page. 

Hindy Pearson on FacebookHindy Pearson on GoogleHindy Pearson on Twitter
Hindy Pearson
Helping people care for their senior dogs
I am a dog trainer, pet care consultant, long time animal welfare advocate, and future director of The Saffy Pearson Retirement Home for Animals. I foster and adopt senior and special needs dogs, and advocate for shelter adoption of all animals, particularly older dogs and cats.

25 Comments

  1. Tonya Wilhelm

    Wonderful post! As a dog trainer, I’m often contacted about change in a dog’s behavior as they age. Even though the behavior or medical issue needs to be addressed, dog parents are relieved to know it’s age vs something they have done.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks Tonya. I’m encouraged hearing that many pet parents are looking for answers about behaviour changes they’re seeing. That’s so much better than chalking everything up to aging and doing nothing.

      Reply
  2. Lola The Rescued Cat

    Such an informative post! I’ve been hearing more about dementia in pets lately and it’s very interesting.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks. Dementia is not something I would wish on anyone, 2 legged or 4. It’s tough to watch your dog circling for hours on end, worried she may be in pain. Thankfully there is a medication that helps, but it’s not a cure. I’m always banging on about pet parents going to the vet whenever they notice any behaviour changes, no matter how slight. The sooner a problem is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated, or at least managed. That of course includes catching dementia before it’s so far advanced there’s not a lot that can be done.

      Reply
  3. Joely Smith

    Thank you for this! Our Lyla is getting up there in age and I am always on the lookout but this gives me direct things to look for!
    I am scheduling her a well pet visit this coming week. Better safe than sorry!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      That’s a great idea to have a wellness check. I watch Red like a hawk, and if anything is slightly off my radar lights up. Better safe than sorry is right!! Good luck I hope Lyla passes with flying colours.

      Reply
  4. Cathy Armato

    This is such good information, Hindy! It’s scary when suddenly your pet becomes anxious or confused. That happened to my cat, I hope my dogs don’t have to go through it.
    Love & biscuits,.
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks Cathy. It’s really awful to witness, I see that with Red sometimes and she’s blind so it’s even worse. No reason to worry anything will happen to the dogs, think positive instead of worrying like I do!

      Reply
  5. Tenacious Little Terrier

    Mr. N has separation anxiety but he’s had it for quite a while. He has several of the risk factors though. He’s slowly improving.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Separation anxiety can be tough on everyone, glad to know he’s doing better.

      Reply
  6. The Daily Pip

    We saw many of these changes in our dog, Pip, in the last year or so of his life. Definitely a little doggie dementia as well as some compulsive behavior and restlessness. So painful to watch …but you have provided such great resources. I will feel much more prepared if Ruby ever faces these issues in the future.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      That’s what sucks about our pets getting older, although we should be grateful they do get older. It can be very tough to watch, I’m experiencing that with Red right now. It seems like her dementia is starting to act up, and there’s not a lot that can be done. We just have to make sure we’re always focused on doing what’s right for them. Hopefully Ruby will be fine for many years to come. It is comforting to know there are plenty of animals who stay relatively healthy throughout their lives.

      Reply
  7. Jane

    This is a great list to refer to as our dog ages and to keep these behavior changes in mind. I have one dog who is heading into his senior years and starting to loose his vision. He does not like playing with the younger dogs much any more and will get a little snarly if they invade his space.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks Jane. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be aware of behaviour changes, and seeking vet help as soon as we notice any, no matter how slight. Sorry to hear about your dog. Is there anything the vet can do to stop his vision loss progressing? Hopefully the young ones will take the hint and socialise on your older dog’s terms!!

      Reply
  8. Kitty Cat Chronicles

    Our senior girl Lucy unfortunately suffers from a couple of these behavior changes as she’s gotten older (she will be 17 in May). She has separation anxiety, though it’s not so severe that she is destructive. She just cries when we leave her at home, and if I go into a room and shut the door without bringing her in with me, she cries at the door. She also goes through periods of time when she goes to the bathroom in the house. This is partly because she has to go more often, and we had to make the adjustment to let her out more often. I think she may be a bit senile too, so she sometimes forgets to let us know when she needs to go out. Thanks for this helpful information!!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Happy early birthday to Lucy!! Poor baby, separation anxiety can be very difficult to watch in our pets, as is aging in general when problems start to crop up. That’s the hard part about sharing our lives with pets isn’t it? You actually manage to close the door? Sometimes I wonder why we even have any, because as soon as one is closed someone is there scratching to get in. The fact they were nowhere near that room when the door was open makes it even funnier.

      Reply
  9. Sarcastic Dog

    As Zora approaches her 14th birthday next month, I am starting to notice more mobility/pain, vocalization (mostly when I’m upstairs) and cognitive issues. I was really worried when she started having some balance issues so I did take her in for a complete neurological exam. The vet said that most of what we are seeing is old age related so we are managing her arthritis pain and her mood and appetite are really good, which is encouraging. I really appreciate your point about being very careful to introduce a new pet during this stage of life. As always, thank you for such a thoughtful and informative and supportive post.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Happy birthday to Zora!! Wow so many of us are climbing into the same boat when it comes to issues with our seniors aren’t we! It’s definitely encouraging she has her appetite, I know with Red if she ever loses interest in eating it’s time to panic. I’m glad you found the information helpful, I do my best to offer as much helpful information as I can, for anyone lucky enough to share their life with a senior pet.

      Reply
  10. Robin

    I totally agree – all changes in a pet’s life should be investigated. There are things that we can’t control as our pets age, but in so many cases there are treatments available to help our pets. A lot of illnesses have symptoms that look the same too. You just don’t know what is going on until you get a thorough examination.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I couldn’t agree with you more Robin, if only more people realised the importance of investigating all changes. As you said, there are plenty of things we can’t do much about, but by the same token many conditions can be treated/managed, especially if caught early enough.

      Reply
  11. Sweet Purrfections

    I honestly haven’t thought about dementia in pets until reading more posts and watching tv shows. Thanks you for sharing this information.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Until Red started pacing and not being able to settle, I knew nothing about dementia, I don’t even know how I thought of it since I had never read about it or known anyone who had a pet that suffered from it (at least that they were aware of). It’s heartbreaking to watch an animal suffer from it, so the earlier it’s diagnosed the better chance it can be managed, at least for awhile.

      Reply
  12. Jenna Hughson

    I find so many pups are being diagnosed with anxiety and things like that lately. Its sad but at the same time I am glad it is starting to be better diagnosed.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I wonder why so much anxiety. Pet parents not knowing how to care for their pups? Not enough training?

      Reply
  13. Bren Pace | Pibbles & Me

    Simply amazing post! I have an 8 year old and 9 year old and have noticed little changes. My 9 year old we just adopted last year so we really don’t have much to base it on. However, my younger guy was rescued at 1.5 years old. He’s always had some sort of dysfunction but I have noticed a few smaller things creeping in. Thankfully, we are very proactive with changes and consult with our vet.

    Thank you for sharing this! Pinning it!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks so much, very kind of you to say and I appreciate you sharing!! I love hearing you adopted an older dog, fantastic. I know what you mean about having no background info, it’s really like starting with a blank canvas and learning as we go. It’s good you’re so proactive and keep in touch with your vet. Personally I don’t mind being considered a pain, as long as I keep my pets healthy.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*