As our dogs age, we may begin to notice changes in their behavior. They may become more vocal, less active and interested in exercise, begin to have accidents in the house, and show signs of “senility.” Most of these changes can be attributed to physical or neurological aging, and there are steps we can take to give our elderly pets a better quality of life in their golden years.
A dog who was always comfortable being left home alone may develop a separation anxiety. Decreases in vision, hearing, and mobility may cause them to become more anxious, especially when the owner is not at home. This may result in excessive vocalization (whining, barking), destruction, “accidents” in the house, and becoming overly excited when the owner returns home. Dogs will learn to recognize departure cues, signs that you are getting ready to leave, such as the alarm clock that wakes you for work in the morning, keys jingling as you leave, putting on your coat as you go out the door. Desensitize your dog to these cues to reduce his anxiety by changing your routine slightly: set the alarm clock to go off even on weekends, getting dressed to leave and sit on the couch, jingle keys and then lay them on the table. Do not make a big fuss about leaving or coming back; this only reinforces his behavior. Teach him to associate your departure with something good, such as a special treat. Make his environment warm and comfortable, and leave some soft music playing. Have someone come in while you are gone to give him company and take him outside. Crating your dog may help him to feel secure and prevent destructive behavior.
Increased aggression can result from medical problems causing pain, such as arthritis or dental disease. Arthritis is very common in older dogs, especially dogs that are overweight, and can be treated with NSAIDs or anti-arthritis medications from the vet. Vision or hearing loss may leave them feeling insecure and anxious. If no underlying physical cause is found, the aggression may be a response to stressors. As dogs age, they do not handle stress and changes in their routine as well. Moving to a new home, additions to the family, new pets, rearrangement of furniture when they have reduced vision, and having their authority challenged by younger dogs in the family can all be contributing factors. If you add a new puppy to the household, do it before your dog is showing signs of aging, is still mobile, relatively pain free, with good vision and hearing. Fear and anxiety can be relieved with medications prescribed by your vet.
Underlying medical conditions as well as separation anxiety may be the cause of “accidents” in the house. Diabetes, urinary tract and bowel infections, kidney or liver disease, or prostate inflammation are a few of the possibilities. Elderly dogs need to eliminate more often, and it may help to have someone come in during the day so he may go outside to relieve himself. Limited mobility from arthritis or loss of vision may discourage him from attempting to go out. Arthritic dogs can benefit from ramps built beside or over steps, and non-skid rugs placed on slippery floors.
Dogs may increase their barking or whining behavior as they age. Noise phobias, pain, separation anxiety, and cognitive dysfunction may be the underlying causes. Older dogs may become more sensitive to noise because they have mobility problems and are less able to move away from the source of the noise. Medications may be needed to reduce his anxiety. Sometimes they do it just to gain your attention, calling you to them because it’s easier than going to you! If medical causes or noise phobia are ruled out, and they just want your attention, ignore them to discourage the behavior, but give them plenty of attention on your own terms. If he persists, throw a soda can filled with pennies or washers in his direction (not at him!) to startle him when he barks or whines.
Half of dogs over age ten will begin to show signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. CCD is a mental deterioration similar to Alzheimer’s Disease in humans. Some non-neurological diseases will have similar symptoms, so if your dog is acting a bit “senile” have the vet give him a check-up for underlying medical conditions.
CCD is marked by confusion and disorientation. Your dog may get lost in his own back yard, stuck behind furniture or in a corner, or forget where the door is to go out. He may not recognize family members or friends, become inattentive, staring into space, not responding when you call his name, or not greeting you when you come home. He may bark at inanimate objects and bark or whine with no apparent reason. Often, house training is forgotten and he will eliminate in places he normally would not. His level of activity will drop and sleep patterns will change; he may be awake at night and sleep more during the day. If underlying medical conditions are ruled out, a new drug called selegiline may alleviate some of the symptoms.
Your geriatric dog should have regular checkups to catch problems early and be given the proper care to make him more comfortable as he ages. After all, he’s been such a great companion all these years, does he deserve any less?