As dogs age, they often experience small or significant changes in behaviour. Many of these changes are a normal part of the aging process while others merit a visit to your vet.
Many older dogs begin to develop some degree of separation anxiety even if they did not experience this as a puppy or during their young adult life. As you prepare to leave, your dog may become agitated or restless. If you leave your senior dog alone for extended periods of time (perhaps while you are at work), it is not uncommon for chewing or other destructive behaviours to occur including defecating or urinating in the house. They may also bark, whine, or howl.
There are several reasons why separation anxiety may be more common in older dogs than in their younger counterparts. Neurological issues or changes to vision or hearing may cause a normally calm dog to become scared or anxious. Furthermore, visually or hearing-impaired dogs come to rely much more on their owners for guidance and may become disorientated when they are left alone.
To manage age-related separation anxiety, it is recommended that you do not act overly excited when you see your dog after a period of absence. Wait until your dog is calm before you approach, praise, and pet. Doing these things when your dog is excited reinforces their anxious behaviour. Alternatively, when you prepare to leave the house, do so very calmly to ensure your dog does not associate your leaving with a stressful or high-energy experience. If your dog’s separation anxiety is becoming a serious issue, please consult with your veterinarian who may be able to offer medical support or refer you to a trainer that specializes in these types of problems.
Some older dogs who were fearless explorers in their young age may suddenly become quite timid or afraid of new sights, loud noises, or unfamiliar situations. This is not uncommon. It simply relates to a potential decline in their cognitive function and mobility impairments that may prevent them from removing themselves from these frightening environments. The best techniques for managing phobias are reassurance, counter-conditioning (or desensitization training), and/or medication. If phobias are becoming a serious concern to you or your pet, speak to your veterinarian.
Perhaps the most worrisome of behaviour changes that may affect some older dogs is aggression. Unfortunately, it is also very common. Aggression can be brought on by pain, decreased vision/hearing that creates stress, anxiety, nervous system disease, and more. Figuring out the root cause of the aggression is imperative in managing it. If your senior dog is solely aggressive towards other dogs, it may be a sign of mobility issues or pain that prevent him or her from socializing properly. In all instances of aggression, it is best to speak to your veterinarian and consider professional support from a certified animal behaviorist.
House soiling is also very common but is often due to underlying medical conditions. Urinary tract infections, diabetes, some cancers, digestive diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, infections, Cushing Disease, bladder stones, and kidney or liver disease are often implicated. If your senior dog is routinely defecating or urinating in the house, which is out of character to his or her normal behaviour, please consult your veterinarian and consider bringing a sample of urine or stool for testing.
Many dogs experience decline in their cognitive function as they age – as do people. Signs of neurological issues include pacing, confusion and disorientation (e.g. getting trapped behind an open door or failing to recognize some family members), decreased attentiveness, pressing his or her head into a wall, and changes in sleeping behaviour. Some potentially serious neurological issues that require an immediate visit to your vet include seizures, dramatic changes in gait (i.e. severe unsteadiness when walking, falling over, etc.), unexplained twitches, extreme confusion, or excessive vocalization.
Although there are many behaviour changes that can negatively affect both your and your pet’s livelihood, older pets tend to be more affectionate, calm, and patient. A little understanding of the dog’s aging process can go a long way in ensuring you give your pet the care they need to live a quality life without pain or disease.