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
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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 the 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
- Lack of interest in things he used to enjoy
- Reluctant to go for walks/unable to walk
- 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.
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.
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.
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
- Not 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
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 dogs 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.