The lifespans of dogs vary by breed. Although the species average is 7 to 13.5 years, some breeds can live for 2 decades or more. It can be hard on owners to watch their pets enter their senior years, but knowing what changes to expect as your dog ages can help prepare you to make your dog as comfortable as possible.
Here are some of the behavioral changes to look for:
Vocalization: If your pooch talks or barks more with age, it could be a sign of disorientation due to pain (such as arthritis), loss of hearing and cognitive decline. Your veterinarian can determine if extra talkativeness is due to a medical problem and treat the cause. If the problem isn’t medical, you might try to train the dog to be silent upon command, perhaps with the assistance of a non-shock, vibrating collar. In severe cases, your vet might prescribe anti-anxiety medicine.
Sleep problems: Older dogs may experience waking or restlessness at night, perhaps due to an increased need to relieve itself. Other causes could be loss of vision or hearing, which can impact your dog’s sleep cycle. Some older dogs become hypersensitive to sounds that trigger a reaction. You might try increasing the dog’s exercise, especially in the evening, to help wear it out. Also, try removing food a couple of hours before bedtime. You might let your dog sleep with you in your bed to see if that helps. In severe cases, your veterinarian might be able to prescribe sleep aids.
Increased anxiety: Many dogs experience some degree of separation anxiety, which can be manifest as excessive barking and whimpering, constant following you around, and tearing up the furniture, especially near home exits. A professional behaviorist may be needed to help address the problem.
Inappropriate elimination: If a formerly house-broken dog starts relieving itself indoors, age related reasons could include decreased mobility, more frequent urges to eliminate, loss of bladder/bowel control, or other physical problems. Start by having your vet give the dog a thorough examination to rule physical causes. If the dog seems healthy, try retraining it to go outdoors and increase the number of walks during the day.
Destructive behavior: If your dog becomes destructive as it ages, it might stem from physical or cognitive problems. Destructiveness includes chewing up furniture, destroying household items, eating inappropriate items, chewing on body parts, scratching and digging. Work with your veterinarian to find the cause. It might help to give the dog appropriate chewables, such as rawhide bones.
Fearfulness: It’s upsetting to owners to see a dog descend into fearfulness and phobia. The cause might be loss of sight or hearing. If your vet determines that the problem isn’t physical, a dog behaviorist might be able to help your dog get over its fears.
Compulsive behavior: Humans aren’t the only species that can exhibit compulsive behavior. Your dog might take up ritualistic behavior that appears to be pointless, such as constant self-licking and self-grooming, tail chasing, biting at the air, constant pacing, or going into a trance. If your veterinarian rules out a physical cause, look for situations that cause your dog fear or aggressiveness, and enlist a specialist to test out therapies and/or medications.
Aggressiveness: Sudden, unprovoked aggression could be the result of diminished senses that cause your dog to be startled easily. Your vet can look for medical causes, and a behavioral specialist can work with the dog to reduce its aggressiveness. It’s helpful to try and discern possible triggers to aggressive behavior, such as sudden movements or meeting new people. The behaviorist might be able to retrain the dog to not respond to triggers with aggressiveness.
Mourning: It’s natural for dogs to mourn the loss of humans and fellow pets. Dogs can become quite attached to other living things, but the period of mourning shouldn’t last more than a few days. Symptoms include decreased appetite, anxiety, depression and searching for the missing friend. It’s best to lavish more love on your dog during these difficult times, and if possible, get a new pet to replace the departed one.
Some age-related changes may be inevitable, but it’s always a good idea to check the dog’s physical condition to see if there is a medical cause for the problem. Successful treatment by a veterinarian can help reduce problem behaviors, and a canine therapist might also prove useful. In any event, never let your dog suffer, especially if it is in pain. Speak with your veterinarian to explore your options.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.