Senior Dog Behavior Problems: How to Support Your Aging Pet
Do you have a dog who is reaching their senior years? Are you considering adopting or fostering a senior dog? Older pets can offer abundant love and companionship, but there are some senior dog behavior problems to be aware of with a senior pet. Understanding how a dog’s body and mind change as they age will help you provide better, more focused care for any senior pet.
What You Need to Know About Senior Dogs
If you’re wondering about senior dog behavior problems, you’re likely confident that your dog is a senior. But what does this mean, exactly? Here’s what you need to know about senior dogs:
- Dogs generally enter seniority around 7 years old
- Breed and size impact aging
- Seniority is a new chapter, not the end
When Is a Dog a Senior?
All dog breeds will age at a different rate, and there is no concrete formula or calendar for when a dog reaches seniority. Generally, dogs will enter seniority between 6 and 10 years old depending on their size, breed, and other senior dog health issues.
Seniority is something you and your veterinarian can decide on a case-by-case basis for an individual dog. It’s important to keep your dog’s age in mind when addressing behavior problems because their seniority might be an influence if you’re noticing changes.
Breed and Size Impact the Aging Process
A dog with a longer lifespan will probably enter the senior phase later in life. Size will be a major determinant of your dog’s seniority. Larger dogs tend to have shorter lifespans and age more quickly, so giant breeds like Great Danes and Mastiffs can enter seniority as early as 6 years old.
Medium breeds like Collies and Poodles usually enter seniority before they reach their 10th birthday. Smaller breeds often live the longest, with Chihuahuas sometimes living to be as old as 19 or 20! These dogs are usually firmly in their senior years by age 12.
There are always exceptions to the size and lifespan patterns, such as Australian Shepherds — a medium-sized dog that often lives to be around 15 years old or older. Poor care and other health problems, like obesity or diabetes, can speed up your dog’s aging process.
An Old Dog Can Still Be a Happy Dog
Canines undergo many similar changes to humans as they get older. Bodies get worn out from use, which means your senior dog might not be able to hear or see as well, and they might also have mobility problems. A dog’s immune system also gets weaker with age.
Your dog will change as they get older, but even if you think a problem is because of your dog’s age, you should still consult your veterinarian. There are many ways to keep your dog comfortable as they enter seniority, so it’s important to continue to be proactive and engaged in their care and keep their veterinarian involved.
Common Senior Dog Behavior Problems
If you have a senior dog in your care, or you think this chapter is going to begin soon, here are some senior dog behavior problems you might encounter:
- General stress behaviors
- More vocalizing/excessive barking
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- House soiling (even in a house-trained dog)
- Destructive or aggressive behavior
As Dogs Enter Seniority, They Are Likely to Experience Stress
As they say, getting old is not for the faint of heart. Aging is a difficult and uncomfortable process, and it can be disorienting and very stressful for many dogs. Even a dog who has been generally carefree his or her entire life might start to demonstrate stress signals in their old age, and these can often translate into problematic behavior in dogs.
A senior dog might start to express fear of strangers or loud noises or changes in their environment that previously didn’t impact them at all. Separation stress also crops up in some dogs who are aging. A senior dog might communicate their stress with behaviors like pacing, panting, or whining.
Likewise, stress might manifest as compulsive dog behaviors. These can include hallucinations like snapping or biting at imaginary flies, overgrooming (which can cause hot spots and other skin issues), and neurotic tail chasing (not to be confused with a simple case of the zoomies). When navigating some of these behavior problems – which can be understandably disruptive to a dog owner’s life – remember that aging is difficult and your dog is undergoing a major transformation into a new chapter of life. Give them grace.
Unprompted or Excessive Barking and Growling Is Common in Senior Dogs
Even dogs who have been quiet most of their lives may start to be more vocal as they age, barking, growling, and whining at things they used to ignore. The additional vocalizations might also be unprompted entirely. This additional noise can often be at inconvenient times, such as at night when everyone is trying to sleep. This can be especially problematic for families with young children or strict work schedules.
The new chatter might be happening for a number of reasons, often related to the stress of aging. There are also nervous system issues and other medical conditions that can inspire additional or excessive barking in a canine. It’s important to note if your dog is trying to communicate something with the barking and whining, such as hunger or the need to be let out (both of which might increase with age or as a result of senior dog medical conditions).
But sometimes, this behavior issue is simply a part of getting older and unrelated to any other issue.
Senior Dogs May Experience Changes in Sleep Patterns
Another one of the common effects of aging in senior dogs is a change in sleep patterns. This can become a behavior problem because their schedule gets reversed. Senior dogs might spend the entire day sleeping or napping only to pace and feel restless at night, which can disrupt their human counterparts and result in everyone feeling underslept and stressed out.
Your dog’s circadian rhythm might be interrupted because their eyesight is declining, which means they can’t register the natural daily light and keep track of when they are supposed to be awake and asleep. It can be helpful to encourage more activity for your dog during the day if they are showing the behavior problem of restlessness at night.
CBD oil for dogs with melatonin can also be a useful resource in supporting your dog’s maintenance of a normal sleep schedule because it taps into a natural resource that your dog’s body already uses to regulate sleep patterns.
Expect Possible Bathroom Behavior Problems Like House Soiling
Even a dog who has been potty trained since it was a puppy might start house soiling in their senior years. As your dog gets older, all of their senses will start to deteriorate. That includes their ability to sense when they need to use the bathroom.
House soiling in a senior dog can also be a result of problems with the dog’s muscles, brain, or endocrine system. There are many cooperating bodily systems that allow your dog to know when he needs to go and do so outside, so when one process starts to deteriorate because of aging, it can cause other problems like loss of bowel and bladder control.
Changes in bathroom habits can also indicate your dog is experiencing stress, which may or may not be related to the aging process. Once you’ve made an effort to work with your veterinarian on how to deal with old dog incontinence, you can also consider medications to help your dog control their bathroom needs.
Some Senior Dogs Will Demonstrate Destructive or Aggressive Behaviors
Sadly, some senior dogs will respond to the aging process with destructive or aggressive actions. This might include destructive chewing or scratching of furniture or home items, excessive scratching and digging, and even self-destructive dog behaviors like licking, sucking, or chewing on paws and other body parts.
Pain and irritability are more common in old age, and these can inspire aggressive behaviors like snapping, growling, and even biting at family members and other pets. It’s not uncommon for a senior dog’s social life to suffer as they age, and it’s important to find balance between giving them the space they need and isolating them or making them lonely. Especially if you have other pets, this can be a challenge.
Other Signs That May Indicate Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
Cognitive decline is one of the most prevalent and concerning senior dog behavior problems. This decline usually appears as cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS, which is the canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s. While most of the above behavior problems can be a part of CDS, it usually appears as a collection of problematic behaviors related to your dog’s brain function. Here’s what you need to know about this condition’s symptoms, which include:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Changes in social habits or needs
- Significant increase or decrease in activity level
A Dog with CDS Will Be Confused or Disoriented
General confusion is a major indicator of cognitive dysfunction syndrome. You might notice your dog forgetting the location of things like the food bowl or door, not seeming to recognize you or other family members, or forgetting how to navigate various parts of the home. A dog with cognitive dysfunction syndrome might also stare at walls or fixate on strange items.
Your Dog’s Social Habits May Be Impacted by CDS
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome often causes dogs to change their social behaviors. This can mean an increase in their need for social interaction, causing them to be clingy and follow you around the house, or the opposite – they may start to feel irritated and become less interested in visitors (both human and animal).
A Change in Activity Level May Indicate Cognitive Dysfunction
Your dog’s appetite for activities like playing games and going on walks might be impacted if they are experiencing cognitive dysfunction. They may seem less excited when you get out the leash or be less attentive to their typical grooming behaviors. You may also notice more activity, such as excessive pacing, licking, or vocalizing.
How to Support and Care for Your Senior Dog
Remember, the senior years are not the end of your dog’s life – they are simply another chapter. When your dog enters seniority, they likely still have many happy years of life left and it’s important to provide proper care to ensure they can make the most of the time they have. Here are some tips for how to make an old dog comfortable:
- Consider updating their diet for senior health
- Ensure their physical environment is navigable
- Senior dogs may need more grooming support
- Trade some physical exercise for mental exercise
- Keep up consistent veterinary visits
Senior Dogs Need a Different Diet
The diet that has worked for your adult dog for many years might need to be changed when they become a senior. Older dogs have different nutritional needs. For example, most veterinarians recommend senior dogs should have a diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins C and E.
These will support a strong immune system for an older dog. Check out the treats and food you’ve been giving your dog and see if there is a dietary improvement you can make to better support them in old age.
Maintain a Safe, Navigable Physical Environment for Your Older Dog
If your dog has been bouncing up and down stairs their whole life, it might be time for a change in the arrangement of their essentials. If they’ve always slept in your bedroom on the second floor, but the stairs are starting to give them trouble, you might need to move their bed downstairs. Likewise, if a senior dog’s vision is failing, you may need to rearrange some furniture to ensure your dog has a clear and simple path to all their items.
That said, you don’t want to introduce too many changes all at once, especially for a dog demonstrating cognitive struggles. Moving the bed or food bowl might be very confusing for a dog if they’re already disoriented, so make any changes to the environment with great consideration and care. Monitor your pet after you’ve made these changes to ensure it’s making their life easier and not more difficult.
As Dogs Age, They Might Need Additional Grooming
One behavior problem for some senior dogs is that they stop grooming properly or as often as they should. This might be because of cognitive issues (i.e., they simply don’t remember to groom or forget how to do so), or because of physical impairments (grooming becomes physically painful or challenging). Regardless of why your dog’s grooming habits change, you will need to pick up the slack to ensure their skin and coat stay healthy.
A dog’s grooming schedule is crucial to their overall health, and if it is reduced or eliminated it can cause skin and fur issues that can make your pet really uncomfortable. A senior dog might need more regular baths, additional brushing, or even more visits to the professional groomer for nail clipping, hair cuts, and other detailed services.
Senior Dogs Need Appropriate Mental and Physical Stimulation
While physical exercise remains important in your dog’s senior years, it will probably look different than it did at the peak of their adult life. Senior dogs still need to maintain hip and joint health and mobility, but the most functional type of exercise for them will be low-impact and relatively short. Don’t make dramatic changes to your dog’s physical exercise schedule, but make gradual ones – encourage them to slow down in increments and take slightly shorter walks as they get older.
You can replace that physical activity with mental stimulation for your senior dog. Dogs need lots of mental engagement in their later years to head off cognitive decline. Interactive dog chew toys and games can be hugely helpful in keeping your senior pet alert and free of behavior problems.
Your Veterinarian Will Be Even More Crucial in Senior Years
As your dog gets older, it might become more difficult to make the trips to the veterinary clinic. Sometimes it’s harder for an older dog to get in the car, or the prospect of travel gets them stressed out and causes chaos in the house. It might be tempting to postpone or even cancel their veterinary appointments in order to maintain some peace in your household. This is not a good idea.
It’s incredibly important to maintain consistent, open lines of communication with your veterinarian as your dog enters their senior years. They will be able to offer plentiful advice on how to navigate behavior problems associated with age, and they might even be able to offer medication or other treatments that can make your dog more comfortable as they age. Don’t skip the vet visit.
Above All, Be Patient with Senior Dog Behavior Problems
You might not be able to eliminate some of the senior dog behavior problems, which means you and your dog will have to learn to live with their new habits. Your canine companion is a part of your family, so the aging process can require some adjustment from you and other family members to accommodate the needs of an older pet.
Always approach your dog with grace and compassion and recognize that they are doing their very best. After a lifetime of loving you, they deserve your love and support in these twilight years.