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What is Behavioral Changes Due to Aging?

As dogs age, they experience a number of physical and mental changes that can cause their behavior to change. Age-related disorders like arthritis or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction may increase behavioral symptoms such as irritability, confusion, and disorientation and senior dogs frequently have fluctuations to their sleep cycles that may cause them to be up at night and sleep more during the day. Their senses, particularly hearing and sight, may also be affected by aging triggering reduced responsiveness, anxiety, and sometimes irritability.

As dogs age, several of the physical and mental changes that occur can lead to behavioral changes. If you see behavioral changes in your aging canine, you should have a veterinarian evaluate the animal for underlying medical disorders.

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Symptoms of Behavioral Changes Due to Aging in Dogs

There are several behaviors that are frequently seen as dog's age, behaviors that are due to symptoms such as pain, cognitive decline, or sensory changes. Some of the behaviors that may emerge as your dog grows older could include:

  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Increased vocalization
  • Irregular sleep/wake patterns
  • Irritability
  • Reduced responsiveness
  • Repetitive or obsessive behaviors
  • Restlessness

Types

Although the prevailing theory in the past was that dogs aged seven years per year of human life, it has since been proven to be much more complicated. Although it has long been known that smaller dogs tend to have longer lifespans than larger dogs, the reason behind it remains somewhat of a mystery. Some of the recent studies aimed to discover more about why this occurs have uncovered some interesting information regarding aging differences in dogs. These studies indicated that although the signs of aging typically began around the same age, larger dogs had a faster decline than the smaller dogs.

Causes of Behavioral Changes Due to Aging in Dogs

Anxiety Disorders

The chance of new anxiety disorders cropping up increases in elderly dogs, particularly separation anxiety. Anxiety disorders may develop independently, or they may develop or be made worse by cognitive dysfunction, pain, or sensory decline.

Chronic Pain

Older dogs are susceptible to many disorders that can cause pain and stiffness such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or dental disease. This chronic pain, particularly if triggered or worsened by touch, may increase the older dog’s anxiety levels and irritability. 

Cognitive Dysfunction

Cognitive processing naturally slows down somewhat in aging, your older dog may take a few more repetitions before getting a new trick, or spend a little longer figuring out a new puzzle toy, but more serious confusion and disorientation may be related to a disorder known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or CCD, a canine disorder similar to Alzheimer's disease in human beings.

Sensory Decline

Dogs that are older may experience declines in their sensory capabilities, particularly in the senses of sight and hearing. This may increase their confusion, reduce their response times, and cause them to be more irritable.

Diagnosis of Behavioral Changes Due to Aging in Dogs

When you bring your dog into the veterinarian’s office to address a behavior problem related to aging, a behavioral history will be requested while the veterinarian performs a complete physical, checking for signs of pain or disease. The information that is generally included in a complete behavioral history includes any information that is known about the breed, sex and age of the canine as well as information about the animal’s behavior both past and present. Data about the duration of the dog’s actions and how its behavior changed once the situation was resolved may also be useful in helping to identify any underlying disorders. 

Your dog’s doctor will need to know if there have been any recent changes to your pet’s diet, medications, or routine and traditional diagnostic tests, including a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis, will be completed. These tests may help to rule out bacterial, viral, or fungal infections that can affect the central nervous system as well as imbalances such as diabetes or endocrine imbalances. Your veterinarian may also choose to evaluate the dog’s eyesight and hearing to find out if sensory decline may be a factor.

Treatment of Behavioral Changes Due to Aging in Dogs

The treatment method would be dependent on what behaviors are being exhibited and what circumstances are causing the behavior, but will most likely involve a combination of behavioral and medical treatments. If there are any underlying medical issues, those will need to be addressed first. That may mean the administration of drugs such as antibiotic or antifungal medications in the case of underlying infections or anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the pain and swelling associated with arthritis. 

Anti-anxiety drugs may be recommended in severe cases of anxiety, however, it is important to ensure that the medications that are employed do not have any contraindications with any of the medications or supplements that the patient might already be taking. Dogs that are diagnosed with CCD may also be prescribed a medication known as Anipryl, which is also used to treat Parkinson’s disease in humans. Several methods can be employed to help keep an anxious or confused dog calm, such as playing music designed to reduce stress for dogs, using a calm and low voice when speaking with the animal, giving your dog some exercise (whether through gentle play or by taking a nice long walk), or using calming pheromones.

Recovery of Behavioral Changes Due to Aging in Dogs

Dogs should have a space that they can go to where they can get away from people or more boisterous pets once in awhile, and this is doubly important for older dogs. As dogs age, they may require more comprehensive evaluations as aging renders them more susceptible to many conditions which can have either a direct or secondary effect on the canine’s behavior. It is also important to ensure that your senior dog continues to get appropriate exercise in order to maintain the joints and to prevent obesity. Pain in the mouth may also increase behavior problems like irritability, so regular dental examinations are also important as dogs age.