In this post, we’re going to look at aggression in older dogs, what causes it and most importantly, what we can do about it.
You must have been so shocked to find your once docile and sweet-as-can-be pup acting like a character out of some horror flick. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly, but I think you get the picture.
Sudden aggression in an older dog can occur for a number of reasons, but let’s first look at what form it can take.
Last Updated: Sept 2, 2023
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What Can Senior Dog Aggression Look Like?
Aggressive behavior in older dogs doesn’t differ much from the behavior in a younger pup.
This includes snapping, snarling, nipping or biting. The aggressive behavior can be directed towards you, other family members, strangers, or dogs (both outside and others you share your life with).
Causes of Aggression in Older Dogs
The first step to addressing the situation is identifying why your dog is becoming aggressive with age.
If they exhibited aggressive behavior at a younger age, it might have escalated or worsened due to age-related changes.
To deal with this problem, you must first identify and tackle the root cause.
But what about an otherwise sweet older dog getting aggressive as they age?
There are several factors to consider if you notice a change in your senior dog’s behavior.
Pain or Discomfort
Older dogs often develop aches and pains, just like humans. Once the pain reaches a level of obvious discomfort, it’s perfectly normal for a dog to lash out.
This pain could be caused by arthritis, hip dysplasia, dental disease or recovery from surgery, to name a few examples.
Some Signs Your Dog May Be In Pain
Dogs are naturally good at hiding pain, but it doesn’t mean they’re perfect at it.
There are several subtle signs we can watch for, including:
- Whining or whimpering
- Lack of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Reluctant to go for walks/unable to walk
- Difficulty sleeping or resting
- Licking one spot on their body
- Difficulty getting up and lying down
If you’ve noticed any of these, or it just seems like “something isn’t right,” get your dog checked out by your vet ASAP.
Too many changes are attributed to the natural aging process – when, in reality, many medical conditions brought on by old age are treatable or manageable – and many dogs suffer as a result.
Once your vet diagnoses 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, or hydrotherapy, to name a few options.
Dogs may experience increased anxiety as they age, which could be generalized or associated with a specific situation, such as when left alone.
It can sometimes translate into aggression towards their humans, other pets in the family, strangers…anyone really.
Has it been a while since you’ve brushed your dog’s teeth? Has it become increasingly difficult as they have gotten older?
That’s a bit of a vicious cycle because the more irritable they get, the harder it is to brush. The harder it is to brush the more likely they will start to suffer from dental disease.
The pain your dog will experience as a result can easily lead to aggression.
If your dog has bad breath, is pawing at their mouth, drooling or lost interest in food or treats, take them to the vet right away.
If they do have dental issues and they are addressed, the pain will disappear and so will their aggression (if it was the sole cause).
Lack of Energy or Mobility
If you have younger dogs in the household that your senior dog used to play with but just can’t keep up with anymore, attempts by the other dog to play can be met with aggression.
They will probably allow some play, but if their tolerance level isn’t what it used to be, they will let the other dog know when they have had enough.
This is particularly true if a lack of mobility prevents them from removing themselves from an annoying situation.
Usually, a dog will start with a warning, like a growl, bark, or snap. But if this warning is ignored, it can lead to aggression in older dogs.
Dog Dementia Aggression
Imagine walking through a place you don’t recognize and being surrounded by people you don’t remember.
Dog dementia can lead to a dog feeling experiencing confusion and anxiety. They begin to forget things that were familiar, even a home that they have lived in their whole lives.
Increased levels of stress, anxiety, and confusion can lead an otherwise sweet-natured dog to display bouts of aggression.
Vision And/or Hearing Loss
They have no idea what’s happening, and because they are startled more easily, they may lash out before they realize who’s approaching them.
It’s essential to make adjustments to accommodate these changes in your dog. Some simple changes include:
- Calling out to your dog, or somehow making your presence known before touching them – and that includes telling everyone else to do the same
- Not moving furniture around so they doesn’t bump into things, get hurt and get scared
- Keeping the floors clutter-free so they don’t trip, get hurt and become anxious
- Keeping the noise and activity level in the house down for a bit
Not common but not unheard of, a mass on the brain can cause a sudden personality change.
As with many conditions, there are warning signs. But these signs are often ignored under the mistaken assumption they are signs of old age.
A New Pet
Your oldie may be very content with their current lifestyle and have little patience or interest in interlopers.
You may have decided to bring a new pet into the family without first considering your old dog’s needs, but now the new family member is “too much” for your dog and they are not liking it.
This can be perceived as an older dog attacking a new puppy. But, they may just be trying to convince the newest family member that they need space.
Please don’t dump your older dog if they start showing signs of aggression. They never asked for the change and shouldn’t have to pay the consequences.
Calming an Aggressive Old Dog
Now that we have discussed the possible causes of aggression in older dogs, let’s explore the recommended next steps.
There are many things you can do to manage or reduce your older dog’s aggression.
This starts with identifying the cause and addressing any underlying problems that could contribute to it.
You can also make small changes to your home and lifestyle that could significantly impact your senior dog’s comfort level and way of life.
Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:
Take Your Dog to the Vet
The first thing you should do if you notice an unexplained change in your dog is take them to see your veterinarian.
Any change in behavior, from something as apparent as aggression to a “feeling” something is off must be investigated.
Aggression in older dogs usually results from a health issue, so please don’t adopt a “wait and see” attitude.
Only once you have a diagnosis can a treatment plan be drawn up.
Be Aware of What Triggers Your Dog’s Aggression
An old dog biting (or any dog, for that matter) is rarely, if ever, without explanation.
Take note of situations when your dog shows aggression and provide as much information as you can to your veterinarian (or an animal behaviorist if you need assistance beyond what your veterinarian can provide).
- Time of day
- What behavior did you witness (film it if possible)
- What was your dog doing right before it happened
- Was anyone bothering the dog
This will help identify a pattern and may help your vet with the diagnosis.
Create a Safe Space
Make sure your dog has a safe space to retreat to – an area that is theirs where no one will bother them.
Whether you want to add a covered crate they can crawl into (leave the door open), a bed in a quiet corner, or designate another room as the “dog room,” it’s important to keep your dog away from any unnecessary stress.
Explain What’s Going On to the Rest of the Family
Let everyone know what’s going on, including those in your household as well as friends and family that visit your home regularly.
This allows you to avoid surprises that could cause anxiety, take appropriate precautions, and create a situation where everyone is safe and comfortable.
Include your loved ones in coming up with strategies to help your dog, allowing them to be part of the solution.
Play Calming Music
Studies have shown that music can directly impact our dog’s health and well-being.
For example, classical music has been shown to have a calming effect on dogs, even in stressful environments.
One CD that has proven to be a sanity server in the past when my former dog was navigating the effects of aging is called “Through A Dog’s Ear.”
This CD has also been used by veterinary clinics and shelters around the world for its calming and destressing influence.
While I don’t believe CBD oil is a cure for everything that ails humans and animals, the success stories from senior dog parents I know is compelling and cannot be ignored.
Not all are created equal so do your research.
CBD oil may be an option if your dog is diagnosed with pain or anxiety but check with your vet first.
Valerian or Valerian with Skullcap
Another possible aid is Valerian (or Valerian Root) which is used to treat anxiety, if that’s what the aggression stems from.
You can buy a supplement specially formulated for dogs or purchase a human grade supplement under the guidance of your veterinarian.
They will be able to check the products in question to ensure they are safe for your dog and help determine the correct dosage.
The ThunderShirt applies constant, gentle pressure and helps calm anxiety and fear.
Whether your dog is experiencing high stress due to separation anxiety, fireworks or visits to the vet, it’s definitely worth a try.
Final Thoughts: Aggression in Older Dogs
If your senior dog is exhibiting behavioral changes in general, and aggression in particular, I recommend your first step be a visit to your vet.
What you see as aggression may simply result from a medical issue and could be resolved once treated.
If no medical reason can be found, a chat with a dog behaviorist may give you the answers you need to help manage your dog’s stress levels, keep him calm, and create a safe situation for everyone you encounter.
Have you had experience with senior dog aggression? What behaviors did you see that had you concerned? What was the reason, and how did you treat it? Sharing helps others, so please leave a comment below.