Senior Dog Behavior Changes: What to Expect


Photo by Stacy

In addition to their grey whiskers and slower pace, the behavior of senior dogs changes as they age. These behavior changes in your BFF can range from minor, such as slight shifts in sleep habits, to severe issues that require medical care. Often they are related to the cognitive decline, pain, and other ailments common in older dogs.

Not all older dogs will experience significant behavior changes. But knowing what to expect helps you prepare for (and cope with) any changes that arise. Here are some answers to common questions about the changing behaviors in older dogs.

Why Does My Senior Dog Pace?

Your senior dog may begin pacing uncharacteristically due to several underlying issues common in older dogs. These include:

  • Cognitive decline – As in humans, cognitive function tends to worsen as dogs age. Confusion, anxiety, and sleep disturbances increase as cognitive abilities decrease, which can lead to pacing, particularly at night. Pacing is one of the repetitive behaviors common in cognitive issues.
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction (dementia) – A more severe, clinical version of cognitive decline, sometimes called ‘Dogzheimers.’ While every dog will likely experience some loss of cognitive function, not all aging dogs get cognitive dysfunction. Sleep disturbances and pacing at night are also common symptoms of canine dementia.
  • Another brain ailment – Brain tumors and other illnesses can cause changes in the brain that affect your senior dog’s behavior.
  • PainOsteoarthritis and other joint problems common in older dogs can cause discomfort and pain. You may notice your senior dog moving around in an attempt to find relief from the pain.

What to Do

If your long-time best friend begins pacing, bring him to the veterinarian to determine the underlying causes. For both cognitive decline and dysfunction, early intervention is important to manage and even reverse symptoms. Depending upon the exact diagnosis, your dog’s veterinarian may prescribe medication. She may also suggest food and supplements that support cognitive function, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Other effective ways to manage symptoms include sustaining a daily routine, regular exercise, and mental stimulation through puzzle toys, training, and play.

If the pacing is due to pain, the underlying condition requires treatment. In the case of osteoarthritis and other joint issues, your dog may require prescription medication and/or supplements. Dogs with joint ailments also require moderate exercise and gear that improves their comfort at home, such as memory foam dog beds and dog stairs that help them reach their favorite couch, chair, or bed.

If your dog paces at night and is already crate trained, it’s helpful to keep him in his dog crate overnight so he doesn’t disturb the household or injure himself. If your older dog isn’t comfortable in a crate or is incontinent, this isn’t a viable option, as it can increase his anxiety.

Why Does My Senior Dog Walk in Circles?

Circling behavior in senior dogs usually occurs as a result of cognitive issues or anxiety. A trip to the veterinarian is warranted each time your senior dog exhibits uncommon behaviors, including circling frequently and repetitively. (Circling before lying down in his dog bed or favorite napping spot is normal.) Keep in mind the circle may be tight and easy to spot, or wide and tougher to recognize as worrisome.

Along with pacing, repetitive circling is a symptom of canine cognitive dysfunction. Other symptoms include disorientation, sleep disturbances, unusual vocalization, and incontinence. Don’t ignore circling or other symptoms as the regular effects of aging. Cognitive dysfunction is a disease, and early intervention can help delay or slow the decline of mental functioning.

As with pacing, circling can also indicate serious brain ailments, such as a tumor.

Anxiety can cause circling in dogs of any age, but it becomes more prevalent as dogs age and experience normal cognitive decline and pain associated with other illnesses. Circling caused by anxiety is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, in that it gives dogs a sense of control and comfort.

What to Do

The response to circling behavior is similar to pacing. Take your dog to the vet with notes on how long he has circled, how often, and any other changes in behavior or health. For both anxiety and cognitive dysfunction, the vet may prescribe medications that manage symptoms.

At home, keep your dog’s schedule as routine as possible and offer regular exercise and mental stimulation. Increase any activities that are particularly calming for your dog, such as belly rubs or getting fresh air. Keep rooms uncluttered and don’t move the furniture around, especially if he’s also experiencing disorientation.

Why Does My Senior Dog Pant So Much?

Noticeable changes in your senior dog’s panting may indicate several serious health issues. Increased panting is normal when dogs are overheated from the temperature or from exercise—it’s how they cool down. But when the panting is out of the ordinary for your senior dog, or unrelated to heat or exertion, it’s time to trundle your dog in the car to visit the vet.

Possible causes of increased or heavy panting in older dogs include:

  • Heart Disease – Other symptoms include low energy, coughing, reduced appetite, and difficulty exercising.
  • Cushing’s syndrome – overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal gland. Other symptoms include a distended belly, excessive hunger and thirst, increased urination, and hair loss.
  • Respiratory illnesses – multiple possible conditions
  • Heat exhaustion or stroke – Senior dogs are at elevated risk of heat-related illnesses because of preexisting conditions and medications.

What to Do

Sudden panting unrelated to heat or exercise requires immediate medical attention. Once the underlying cause is determined, your dog’s veterinarian will determine next steps.

If you suspect the panting is heat related, get your dog to a cool place, give him cool water (not cold), and get him to the veterinarian or the emergency room at the nearest animal hospital.

Do Older Dogs Sleep More?

Yes. As your dog gets older, he’ll probably sleep, take cat naps, and rest more often. Though sleep changes are a normal part of aging, they can also indicate underlying problems such as cognitive decline and osteoarthritis. The loss of cognitive function, and pain from these illnesses, can cause sleep disturbances resulting in one exhausted senior dog.

What to Do

Take your dog to his veterinarian if you notice a sudden change in his sleep pattern or sleep changes combined with other symptoms. Depending on the diagnosis, the vet may prescribe medications to manage or slow symptoms. At home, offer your dog a comfortable, peaceful sleep environment to help facilitate the best night’s sleep possible. If it’s a joint disease such as osteoarthritis, an orthopedic dog bed offers protection from cold, hard floors which can worsen symptoms.

Do Dogs Get More Anxious as They Age?

Yes. Anxiety can increase in dogs as they age, and the causes are often the same as for the behavior changes outlined above. Joint pain can make your dog anxious because he can’t find relief, and he may be sensitive to touch. The disorientation and confusion that coincide with cognitive dysfunction also increase anxiety, as do incontinence and hearing loss.

What to Do

Discuss your dog’s anxiety symptoms with his veterinarian so he can determine causes and suggest treatment options. A routine schedule and regular exercise can soothe anxiety symptoms, as can ensuring your older dog is with a family member through most of the day.

Are Older Dogs More Aggressive?

Older dogs can become irritable, and even more aggressive. You may find your senior dog growls when touched or snaps when rambunctious children or puppies are nearby. This transformation in your dog’s normally sweet demeanor is likely fear-based aggression caused by cognitive decline, pain, hearing loss, or vision loss. He’s suddenly irritable about touch because petting hurts his sore joints. He’s scared or confused when there’s a hubbub because his vision, hearing, or cognitive impairments leave him vulnerable.

What to Do

The first step, as always, is a visit to your dog’s veterinarian to determine the cause of his aggression. If there’s an underlying illness, medications may be necessary. At home, pay attention to where petting your dog causes him pain so you can avoid those areas. Stick to a familiar daily routine, and keep the chaos to a minimum, as much as possible.

Why Does My Older Dog Whine?

Older dogs can whine excessively because of pain, anxiety, cognitive problems, hearing loss, or other medical issues. Increased vocalization in senior dogs may come in the form of whining, howling, or barking, and often occurs around the clock.

What to Do

Managing excessive vocalizations in senior dogs is important because it can cause unhealthful sleep interruptions for the entire household. A trip to the vet should go on the docket as soon as possible. Once the cause is determined, the veterinarian will outline a treatment plan that may include medication for an underlying ailment. On the homefront, your dog will benefit from many of the above strategies, including exercise, a consistent routine, and sleeping in a dog crate (provided he’s already accustomed to this sleeping arrangement).

As your dog ages, you are likely to encounter at least some behavior changes. These can be painful to watch, and coping with the more extreme behaviors is challenging. By understanding the root causes, you can seek early medical interventions, manage symptoms, and offer comfort. Awareness and preparation also help you sustain your patience and kindness—what your dog needs most through his golden years.

One thought on “Senior Dog Behavior Changes: What to Expect”

  1. No this doesn’t help . I know all of this I need to figure out quantitatively how to deal with it.
    Do I give more med or more stimulation. Do I leave him alone more or increase contact.

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