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Senior dog – behavioural changes

Approx. 4 minutes read

If there is one thing all dog lovers could wish for, it would be for our precious fur babies to live forever. Unfortunately, ageing is inevitable and it happens especially fast in our favourite pets. Because we see our pets every day, we may not notice the subtle changes as they take root, so this should help you to know which behavioural changes to look out for in your dog. 

As your dog enters his golden years, he will go through a range of physical and psychological changes. His memory, sight, hearing, general awareness and his ability to learn will begin to deteriorate over time. Ageing could also change his social disposition with other dogs, and it could change physiological abilities like bladder and bowel control. Understanding these changes will help you deal with these potential problems effectively and compassionately.

Any changes should be brought to your vet’s attention. Your dog may be getting old, but don’t just assume that these changes are age-related. Many changes in behaviour can be signs of a treatable medical disorder. There are a variety of therapies that can comfort your dog and manage his symptoms, including any pain he might be experiencing. Also consider your dog’s nutritional needs, which also change as he gets older. Ask your vet what dog food and supplements your dog needs to make him a little bit more comfortable. Please remember that old age is not a disease and if your pet seems off or not well, seek the advice of your vet.

Behavioural changes to look out for in your ageing dog:

1. Loss of appetite

Some dogs never stop loving their daily meal, while others could sometimes just not be bothered. This is normal and can be caused by a number of things, BUT if there is a sudden change in your dog’s eating habits, it’s best to consult your vet. A change in his appetite could be a sign of something more serious like infection, or liver and kidney problems. Here are some reasons why your dog may lose his appetite:

  • Taste and smell senses could be dull
  • Slowing down of the metabolism
  • Dental problems such as abscesses or decay
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction (aka ‘doggy dementia’)

2. Restlessness and difficulty sleeping

Restlessness – your dog getting up and lying down multiple times, or shifting position – and difficulty in sleeping are very common in older dogs and can happen for many different reasons, including:

  • Pain or discomfort
  • Anxiety
  • Incontinence (no bladder control)
  • Lack of exercise – physical and mental stimulation
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction

3. ‘Accidents’ in the house

No matter how well you’ve house-trained your furry friend, it can happen. Incontinence is mostly common in older female dogs, but can happen to males too. There are two reasons as to why your dog may be messing in the house:

  • Canine cognitive dysfunction
  • Illness or disease

4. Anxiety and fearfulness

Your once overly-confident puppy may lose his confidence as he gets older, resulting in anxiety caused by a certain situation or due to physical or psychological changes. Your dog might suddenly become scared of things he’s known his whole life, like a phone ringing or dishes being washed. Things that can cause anxious or fearful reactions in senior dogs include:

  • Dulling of the senses such as hearing, sight and smell
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction
  • Pain or discomfort
  • Sudden or major changes in their environment

5. Irritable and aggressive behaviour

This is not as common as anxiety, but some dogs can become more irritable, bad-tempered or combative. This ‘old dog’ behaviour has different levels of intensity, ranging from mild irritability to all-out aggression. It’s usually caused by:

  • Pain or discomfort
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction
  • Loss of senses such as sight or hearing

6. Depression

Yes, dogs can get depressed too, and if you know your dog well you will be able to spot it easily. Try to determine the reason your dog is sad or gloomy. Take him for slow casual walks to try to cheer him up. Getting older isn’t easy for anyone, and your dog probably doesn’t feel great about the whole aging process either, since he:

  • May be in pain
  • May feel tired and lethargic for extended periods of time
  • Can’t enjoy his food anymore
  • Is unable to run, jump and play like he used to (getting tired quickly)

Continue to play with your older dog. Exercise and training throughout his life contribute tremendously in keeping him healthy. Adapt exercise and playtimes according to your dog’s age and preference. Slow down if you see he struggles to keep up. When going for a run in the park, consider his reduced energy levels, declining eyesight and hearing and any medical conditions he may have developed.

Find fun ways to teach your dog new and entertaining tricks, but be patient as he may take a bit longer to learn with his slowing mind. If your dog is losing his hearing, try to use more hand signals during playtime. There are many ways to keep your older dog’s life interesting and stimulating, but also remember that he’ll never stop being receptive to your love and understanding. 

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