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Understanding Senior Dog Behavior Changes

Dogs are similar to human beings in that as we age, the risk of certain diseases—ranging from arthritis to cancer to decreased cognitive function—goes up. 

That’s not to say every dog will get sick when they reach their “golden years.” However, it’s important to keep a closer eye on your senior pup, both at home and with regular veterinary checkups.

Here are some important things to know about normal behavioral changes in senior dogs, when to be concerned, and how to keep your old dog comfortable and enjoying life.

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When Is a Dog Considered a Senior Dog?

The old adage that a dog ages the equivalent of seven years for every human year, isn’t completely accurate. However, it helps emphasize one important fact—that dogs age faster than humans.

The average age at which a dog is considered a “senior” by veterinarians is around seven years. However, certain breeds age faster than others.

In general, smaller dogs live longer than large breeds. Thus, they might not look or act older until 10-12 years of age. On the other hand, giant breeds might start developing senior health issues, especially arthritis, at 5-7 years old.

Age guidelines are helpful for dog owners who want some idea of what to expect for their best friend’s health. However, the most important thing is monitoring your pet for changes in behavior or symptoms of illness, regardless of age.

Typical Behavior Changes to Expect in Senior Dogs

There are certain diseases that are more common with age, especially osteoarthritis, which causes joint pain. Another example is canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), also known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), which is similar to dementia in people. 

Other common aging issues include hearing or vision loss, increased anxiety (which might be secondary to health problems), and changes in energy, mobility, and metabolism. Aging dogs commonly “slow down” and aren’t as active as they were when they were younger.

An older dog’s skin might go through changes including hair loss or change of hair color (a gray muzzle)—some of which are natural, and some of which might be consequences of disease. Lumps and bumps are more common. Many, like fatty lipomas and skin tags, are benign. But it’s always important to get any new bump checked out by a veterinarian to be sure.

Additionally, diseases (such as hormonal imbalances, cancer, or reduced function of organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys) might develop. And reduced immune system efficiency can make a dog in their senior years more prone to infections.

However, just because a condition is more common in older pets, doesn’t mean it’s “normal.” 

As veterinarians often say, “Old age isn’t a disease.” There are many things that can be done to manage medical conditions, eliminate or reduce pain, and help senior pets enjoy a great quality of life.

Senior Dog Behavior Changes That Are Cause for Concern

The tricky thing is, sometimes natural aging changes and serious diseases have similar symptoms. So, always talk to your veterinarian or schedule a checkup to address any new symptoms or behavioral changes.

Here are some common changes pet parents notice in their senior dog, and some possible causes (not an exhaustive list, as it would be impossible to list every potential medical issue in one article) of each…

  • Confusion or disorientation. Maybe you’ve seen your dog staring at the wall, forgetting where their food and water bowls are, or wandering aimlessly. Cognitive dysfunction is a common culprit. But arthritis, loss of vision or hearing, or medical issues (brain tumors or liver disease that causes a buildup of ammonia in the blood, for example) could be to blame. 

  • Failure to respond to their name or commands. Hearing loss could mean a dog simply can’t hear you, not that they’re ignoring you. Or, this could indicate a loss of mental function.

  • Startling easily. This is common with hearing loss, since they don’t hear you approaching. It’s also common with painful conditions like arthritis, that make a dog more sensitive and defensive.

  • Clumsiness. Common causes are vision loss and arthritis or joint problems. 

  • Changes in sleep patterns. If your pup is up all night (possibly whining or pacing) and sleeps all day, cognitive dysfunction might be the cause. 

  • Aggression, fear, self-isolation, or other personality changes. Again, cognitive decline is a possibility. Arthritis or other painful conditions can also make a dog feel insecure or grumpy. Consider external factors that might be causing your dog stress, too, such as a change in the home or the adoption of a new puppy.

  • Anxiety. Increased anxiety is also common in seniors, often secondary to mental or physical changes that leave them feeling like less-than-their-best-selves. Some older dogs even develop separation anxiety at night, when you’re asleep and not responsive to them.

  • Vocalization. Increased whining, crying, or barking could be a sign of cognitive dysfunction, loss of hearing (they can’t hear how much noise they’re making), pain, or anxiety.

  • Cloudy-looking eyes. Many dogs experience a normal aging change called nuclear sclerosis. But it’s important to rule out cataracts or other eye diseases.

  • House soiling, including urinary and/or fecal incontinence. This could be due to difficulty finding the door or trouble remembering their potty training (cognitive dysfunction), trouble with physically getting up or walking outside (arthritis), age-related incontinence (especially in females), or a health problem such as a UTI (urinary tract infection) or kidney disease.

  • Weight or muscle changes. As dogs get older, their metabolism slows down. They commonly gain weight, even with no dietary changes, especially since they might be less active. As dogs get very old (geriatric, which means older seniors), they might have the opposite problem with muscle loss, weakness, and difficulty keeping weight on. And certain diseases like cancer or diabetes might cause a dog to rapidly lose weight or muscle mass.

  • Slowing down, limping, or mobility issues. Arthritis is a common cause. You might notice your furkid doesn’t want to jump or run like they used to. Some breeds are prone to problems like bone cancer. Hormonal changes and heart disease can also cause a dog to “slow down” and rest more.

  • Bad breath (halitosis). This is common with dental disease. It can also be a sign of an internal problem, like kidney disease.

SEE ALSO: Dog Sedatives: When and How to Use Them

What to Watch for and When to Call the Vet

It’s important to have a veterinary consultation for any behavior change to rule out medical problems, rather than assuming it’s “just old age.” Even for “normal” aging issues, like arthritis and cognitive dysfunction, there are things you can do to help your dog.

In addition to the list of symptoms and old dog behavior changes above, the following things should prompt a veterinary visit…

  • Vomiting or diarrhea.

  • Coughing or sneezing.

  • Appetite changes (increase or decrease).

  • Weight loss or gain.

  • Increased urination and drinking.

  • Severe lethargy/collapse, trouble breathing, or other serious symptoms that warrant an emergency visit.

Dogs are individuals, so your pup might experience different symptoms. Or, maybe they’re just acting a little “off” but you’re not sure why. Your instinct is probably right. When in doubt, it never hurts to call your vet office and see if they recommend a visit.

Even for things that aren’t emergencies (unless your dog is obviously ill), a consultation should be scheduled as soon as possible. Early discovery and treatment of disease usually allows for better treatment options.

Coping with Senior Dog Behavior at Home

Unfortunately, we can’t completely prevent aging. But the good news is, there are lots of ways to help your furry friend.

Early intervention can help slow down certain diseases. Some diseases are curable, while others can be easily managed for a great quality of life. And dog-safe pain medications, when indicated, can provide some much-needed relief and allow a senior pet to enjoy their favorite activities.

Here are some tips for helping your senior dog stay as happy and healthy as possible…

  • Pursue regular veterinary care. Since dogs age faster than people, your vet might recommend checkups at least twice a year. This can help uncover diseases in the early stages—possibly before symptoms show, and when treatment is much more likely to be successful. Of course, also schedule a veterinary visit whenever your pup develops a new symptom, to see if there’s a medical cause behind it.

  • Make it easy for your dog to move around. In addition to medical management, home modifications can greatly help dogs with arthritis, joint pain, or mobility issues. Place non-slip mats on slick surfaces like tile or wood. Get doggy ramps or staircases to help them get into the car or onto furniture. Consider adding an indoor potty area if your dog has trouble walking, especially when the weather turns cold or it’s slippery outside.

  • Avoid change as much as possible. Sometimes life changes are inevitable. But try to stick to a routine so your dog knows what to expect. Avoid rearranging furniture and other items in the home. This helps dogs with cognitive dysfunction or vision loss.

  • Adjust bathroom habits. If your pup has to “go” more frequently, consider adding more short walks or hiring a dog walker for when you’re at work. Be patient and gentle with your dog if they have an accident in the house, since it’s not their fault.

  • Maintain a healthy weight to reduce pressure on your dog’s joints.

  • Consider grooming and nail trims. Some dogs need additional help keeping their fur and skin healthy. They might need more frequent nail trims since they’re less active. And arthritic dogs might require pain medication prior to a grooming appointment.

  • Give your dog a “safe space.” Older dogs might want a quiet area where they can rest without being bothered by rambunctious children or younger, more energetic pets in the home. Although well-meaning, attempts to play by children or other pets could hurt an arthritic or aging dog, causing them to lash out to protect themselves. A private room, bed, or crate where they can rest and relax could be much appreciated.

  • Give your dog the right amount of exercise. An active lifestyle provides a variety of benefits, including helping with bone and joint health. But injuries might occur with over-exercising. Start slow and see how your dog responds.

  • Try “brain games.” Mental enrichment is important for reducing boredom, but it can also help keep a dog’s mind sharp. This could include hide and seek, puzzle feeders, training, or simply taking your dog to explore a new place. 

  • Talk to your veterinarian about diet and supplements. Nutritional needs, digestive efficiency, and other factors change with age. There are some dog foods designed for seniors. Also, many old dogs can benefit from a supplement like glucosamine for joints, omega-3 fatty acids for a variety of health benefits, and other supplements. Your vet can help guide you on these decisions for your individual pet. 

Additionally, some dogs benefit from prescription medications for a specific medical condition, or dog-safe pain relievers. Your vet will discuss this on a case-by-case basis, as well as any other medical treatments that might be beneficial.

Many medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers, are toxic to dogs! Always check with your veterinarian prior to giving any new supplement or medication.

Home monitoring, regular checkups, and some TLC can go a long way toward keeping an older dog happy and healthy—potentially extending their lifespan while maintaining quality of life.

Is your senior pup due for a health check? Have any questions about something you’ve noticed your dog doing at home?

We’d love to help! Schedule a virtual or in-person consultation with one of our caring Bond Vet veterinarians today to get started and get your questions and concerns answered.

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