Older dogs, just like people, go through a series of changes that can alter their quality of life. Medical issues, cognitive decline, and physical changes can truly affect the way your dog interacts with the world.
Senior dogs are lovely creatures that require a little more patience and care. Their faces turn white, and their limbs become stiff. Your senior dog might walk a little slower than usual or tire more easily. They may shy away from the activities of younger dogs and may not appreciate sudden changes to their environment.
Senior dogs have a sage wisdom that comes with living a good life. As dog owners, we need to treasure our moments together and appreciate the senior years of our furry friends.
Have you noticed behavioral changes in your aging dog?
This post will give you an idea of what to expect in senior pets. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle changes to be aware of.
- Acknowledge that your dog is in his/her senior dogs. Not sure? Check the chart below for a general idea of when dogs are considered senior.
- Learn some of the most common changes that affect senior dogs.
- Understand the differences between normal aging and disease.
Behavioral changes in senior dogs can be caused by a wide range of issues. The problem (obviously) is that your dog can’t tell you what they are.
The point of this post is to help you understand the problems that older dogs may face. Find out what’s normal and what needs veterinarian attention.
It’s not easy to face the fact that our dogs are aging, but we can help you understand subtle changes and how to make life easier for him/her.
Is My Dog Actually a Senior?
The general rule of thumb is that smaller dogs live longer than large dog breeds. The point at which dogs are considered “senior’ are outlined below. Even if. you don’t notice any major changes in the early senior years, it’s important to be aware of the subtle changes occurring in an aging dog.
The table below is a quick guide to determining the age a dog becomes “senior”.
|Dog’s Size||Considered Senior|
|Under 20 pounds||Between 7 and 10 years of age|
|21 to 50 pounds||Considered senior from the age of 7|
|51 to 90 pounds +||Considered senior by age 5 or 6 (very large breeds may be considered senior as young as 4 years old)|
9 Most Common Behavioral Changes in Senior Dogs
You may not notice many changes in your dog as he/she enters the senior years. However, as time wears on, changes will become more evident. A dog’s survival instincts keep them from showing signs of illness or pain. This is where the pet parent has to be more observant.
The behavioral changes noted below are common. Some dogs will only exhibit a few of these new behaviors while other dogs may have more.
The behaviors listed below could point to cognitive decline in senior dogs. That said, they can also point to medical problems due to underlying conditions.
Fear of Familiar People
Fear of familiar people and objects can be caused by a few different things. Vision loss, hearing loss, and subtle changes in cognitive ability and make a dog fearful of what’s going on around them, even things that were once considered part of the normal routine.
Confusion and disorientation can cause personality changes in your dog. Any new cognitive changes can easily lead to an anxious older dog.
Cognitive dysfunction is one of the main reasons for sleep disturbances in dogs. This condition is similar to dementia in humans. Dogs with this condition may sleep a lot during the day but become agitated and restless at night.
Signs of dementia in dogs can include:
- withdrawal from family interactions and activities
- change in personality
- soiling in the house
- decreased activity levels
- lack of appetite
- increased anxiety
The only way dogs have to communicate with us directly is through their bark. As a dog owner, I’m sure you what every subtle bark means from the tone to the way your dog positions his/her body.
You may find that your normally quiet dog is suddenly barking at dogs passing by the street, or randomly for seemingly no reason at all.
Senior dogs may need to urinate more frequently, and that means he/she needs to bark for your attention. “I need to go out!”
Other times, a dog may bark because they’re feeling scared and confused. They may be feeling frustrated with this sudden inability to see things clearly in the fading light, for example.
Repetitive or compulsive behavior in senior dogs could point to cognitive decline. However, it could be that your old dog is just nervous. Compulsive licking, for example, may be a way for your dog to find comfort through anxiety.
It’s normal for dogs to circle around their bed before lying down. However, if you notice your dog moving in repetitive circles on a regular basis, panting a lot, making strange noises or vocalizations, etc., there could be a medical problem that needs further attention.
If your instincts tell you that something is wrong, don’t ignore them. Get your dog to a veterinarian for a checkup as soon as possible.
Forgetting Basic Commands
Forgetting commands that they’ve always responded to in the past could be a sign of cognitive dysfunction. This is a tricky one, though, because it’s possible your dog is having hearing problems. Maybe he/she just doesn’t know what you’re saying.
Another thing to consider is whether your dog doesn’t remember the command, or whether it’s painful to perform it. A simple “sit” may be painful for dogs with osteoarthritis or hip pain.
House trained dogs will do anything they can to hold it until they can get outside. If your dog has begun soiling in the house, whether it’s urinating, defecating, or both, it could be due to:
- senility (forgotten where he is supposed to go)
- osteoarthritis (unable to completely evacuate bowels may cause your dog to use the bathroom in inappropriate places)
- neurologic diseases including degenerative myelopathy, lumbosacral disease, intervertebral disk disease, infectious diseases, and neoplasia (growth, lesion, or ulcer)
Senior dogs can quickly become disoriented, especially if they are experiencing some loss of vision or hearing loss.
Keep a close eye on your dog when out for a walk (especially off-leash) because they may quickly lose sight of you and wander off. They may quickly become disoriented and fearful.
Anxiety is a common reaction when otherwise normal activities become less manageable. This can be said for dogs and humans as well. Loss of hearing, vision loss, disorientation, pain, changes to daily routine, visitors (pets or people), and a number of other things can leave senior dogs with more anxiety.
Decreased Activity Level
Not all senior dogs suffer activity loss. There are, however, many physical changes occurring in the senior body that can impact the level of exercise tolerance he/she can manage.
As dogs hit their golden years, medical conditions can crop up. Heart disease, for example, can leave your dog too tired to exercise. Joint pain is another reason why dogs tend to slow down in their senior years.
Medical Problems More Likely to Affect Older Pets
Depending on your current age, you may already have a sense of the types of difficulties aging can present. The older we get, the further we move away from our prime. This is true for our dogs as well.
Unfortunately, there are many conditions that aren’t entirely obvious until the dog begins to show symptoms. In some cases, symptoms of certain diseases only appear after the disease has progressed.
This is why it’s really important to bring your senior dog to a veterinarian for regular wellness checks. Your veterinarian will be able to do a physical examination, complete history, order blood tests, check blood pressure, assess your dog’s weight, etc. These are all important in detecting signs of disease as early as possible.
Common Conditions Affecting Senior Dogs
The following list is an example of the types of problems older dogs can develop. This doesn’t mean that younger dogs are not vulnerable.
Royal Canin has identified the following common illnesses in older dogs.
- kidney disease
- dental disease
- gum disease
- cognitive dysfunction
Physical Changes Seen in Older Dogs
The physical changes we see in aging dogs are often very much like the ones we notice in ourselves. Greying hair, thinning hair, loss of muscle mass, joint pain, and skin changes are all common signs of aging.
It’s no different for dog. One of the first and most noticeable sign of an aging dog is the whitening fur around the face. It stars as a few white hairs around the nose and chin. Gradually, your dog’s face grows increasingly white. Their eyes may become clouded with cataracts or dim with vision loss.
Common Physical Changes in Aging Dogs Include:
- Thinning fur
- Greying fur
- Weight loss
- Weight gain
- Less energy or stamina
- Loss of muscle mass
- Joint stiffness causing a limp or awkward gait
How to Help Your Dog Through the Aging Process
Aging isn’t a disease.
It does, however, cause wear-and-tear on the body. Unfortunately, as time marches on, our dog’s bodies become more susceptible to disease.
Your dog may need more encouragement and safety considerations, but there is still a lot you can do to help keep him/her active and as healthy as possible.
Regular Wellness Checks
When’s the last time you had your dog to the veterinarian’s office for a check-up? Wellness checks are easy and relatively quick to perform. During wellness checks, the veterinarian or veterinarian technician may:
- Physically and visually check for lumps and bumps
- Check your dog for signs of cataracts or vision loss
- Check the ears for signs of any infection
- Palpate the tummy
- Check the mouth, teeth, and gums for any signs of oral disease
- Get a current weight on your dog
- Check the dog’s gait
- Check for signs of joint pain
- May order routine blood work
This is the best time to ask your veterinarian about your dog’s diet and how much exercise your senior dog should get.
Your aging dog might not have the same staying power he/she once had. However, that doesn’t mean exercise should stop. It’s important to keep your dog’s muscles working and functioning well.
Healthy, strong muscles are important for maintaining a healthy metabolism.
Sarcopenia, also known as the loss of lean muscle mass, occurs naturally as our pets age. However, it’s important to allow your dog safe and tolerable activity. Instead of one big hike, for example, it might be time to bring your dog for a few shorter walks.
Clean and Healthy Diet
Depending on your dog’s health, he/she may need to switch to a different diet. Prescription diets are often helpful in managing signs of chronic diseases like diabetes, liver disease, and kidney failure, to name a few.
Pet nutrition is a complicated topic. Talk to the veterinarian about healthy eating options for your pet. If a pricey prescription diet is out of your price range, ask your veterinarian about other options including the best dog food available in retail stores.
The American College of Veterinary Nutrition has great resources for pet parents.
Dog beds used to consist of a torn blanket thrown on the floor. Not any more! Thankfully, dogs of all sizes and ages can reap the benefits of orthopedic mattresses.
These days, you can get them in styles and colors to match your décor. Many companies offer dog beds that are waterproof, have removable, machine-washable covers, and look absolutely fantastic.
Help Keep Your Senior Dog’s Teeth Clean
If your dog hasn’t had a professional dental cleaning, it’s time to get one completed. Talk to your veterinarian about pricing and scheduling an appointment.
It can be costly, depending on what they find. However, it’s a vital process for your aging dog. Rotting, painful teeth will make it hard for your dog to eat properly. This can cause your dog to lose interest in food, develop nutritional deficiencies, and other problems.
It’s better to have a professional cleaning performed before small signs of dental disease become huge issues.
Comfort, Warmth, Love, and Care
These things are easy for dog lovers to provide. Senior dogs may not be able to regulate their body temperatures as easily as they once did. Tuck them into their new bed with a light blanket or throw to keep them cozy and warm.
Patience is key when caring for a senior dog. They need your love just as much now as they did when you first brought them home.
Aging is not a disease. It’s a normal part of life that we all go through if we’re lucky. Many of the same ailments that affect people in their senior years also affect dogs.
Hearing loss, vision loss, disorientation, anxiety, and pain are often part of growing old. Keep your dog as healthy as you can, for as long as you can, with regular wellness checks. Observe your dog for changes in personality and watch for signs of pain or senility.
You can’t stop the aging process, but there is so much you can do to keep your dog happy and content for as long as possible.
Behavior Problems in Older Dogs. (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/behavior-problems-older-dogs
Granson, H. (2021, August 17). Sleep Disturbances in Older Dogs – Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital. Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital – Houston Heights Vet. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://urbananimalveterinary.com/event/sleep-disturbances-in-older-dogs/
Munford, M. (2020, June 16). 5 Tips for Caring for a Senior Dog — River Landings Animal Clinic in Bradenton, Florida. River Landings Animal Clinic in Bradenton, Florida. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from http://www.riverlandingsanimalclinic.com/news/2020/6/11/5-tips-for-caring-for-a-senior-dog
Monk, M., & posts by Michelle Monk →, V. A. (2018, August 8). Can I slow my pets aging process and help them live longer? Dogs in Motion Canine Rehabilitation. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from https://www.dogsinmotion.com.au/can-i-slow-my-pets-aging-process/