Understanding Behavioral Changes in Senior Dogs

November 25, 2020 - 9 minutes read

Our Senior Dog Care Series focuses on common challenges that older dogs face and provides helpful tools and suggestions to help your senior dog maintain an optimal quality of life for as long as possible. Find more articles in the series here.

Photo by Helena Lopes

Perhaps you walk into a room and find your furry friend standing awkwardly in the corner or behind some furniture. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night to find your canine companion unable to settle down. What’s going on? Sometimes dog owners will have the general feeling over a period of weeks or months that their dog seems to be acting off, but they can’t quite put a finger on what is different.

Have you ever experienced any of these situations with your older dog? If so, you have probably wondered not only why this happened but also what you should do about it.

Why do we see behavioral changes in senior dogs?

Behavioral changes are common in older dogs, and they can happen for many different reasons. Sometimes dog owners jump to the conclusion that all of these changes are related to canine senility. In dogs, this is called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or canine dementia. However, there are other possible causes for many of these behaviors.

Pain from arthritis, mobility issues, or dental disease can cause behavioral changes so can underlying medical conditions such as neurologic disease, metabolic disease, endocrine disease, cancer, or immune-mediated disease. Like humans, declining sensory functions like loss of vision or hearing can also affect aging dogs. Older dogs are often more prone to these types of conditions, so it is important to look for all possible causes of behavioral changes before assuming they are being caused by cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Identifying and treating contributors to behavioral changes are vital in reversing or slowing these changes down. The American Animal Hospital Association Senior Care Task Force recommends twice yearly wellness examinations and bloodwork screening for senior dogs. (Look for more on the topic of preventative care later in the Senior Dog Care series!)

Anxiety can also be a big reason for behavioral changes. While all of the above-mentioned conditions can contribute to anxiety, it is important to remember that anxiety can also be influenced by environmental changes. Anytime a person has to make a major change in their life, it can cause a considerable level of stress and anxiety. Dogs are the same way, especially our seniors who can be quite set in their ways!

While younger dogs may be able to deal with some inconsistencies in routine, older dogs have a much tougher time. Anxiety has both psychological as well as physical impacts on dogs. Due to age, an older dog’s behavior may change in response to certain environmental factors that a younger dog would be able to tolerate. For this reason, avoiding stressful activities and maintaining a consistent routine is key in addressing behavioral changes in senior dogs.

What behavioral changes should I look for in my older dog?

There are many types of changes associated with behavioral disorders in senior dogs, and being able to identify these changes early allows for the most effective intervention. When specifically discussing cognitive dysfunction syndrome, veterinarians have classically used the acronym DISHA to classify different types of behaviors that may be related to cognitive dysfunction.

DISHA stands for:

Disorientation (staring blankly at walls or floor, getting “stuck” in corners or behind furniture, going to the wrong side of the door, etc.)

Interactions (abnormal interactions with familiar people or other pets, including, aggression, irritability, increased attention seeking, decreased social interaction, etc.)

Sleep-wake cycle changes (increased sleeping during the day and/or difficulty sleeping through the night)

Housesoiling (urinating or defecating in areas previously kept clean, decreased signaling to go outside, going outside but then eliminating after coming back inside, etc.)

Activity changes (decreased time spent active, increased time spent resting, increased repetitive activities such as pacing, wandering aimlessly, walking in circles, etc.)

In addition to these five categories of behavioral change, veterinarians who care for senior dogs pay attention to two other types of behavior:

  • Anxiety (fear of people, places, or specific situations; inappropriate or excessive vocalization, etc.)
  • Learning difficulties/memory loss (being slow or unable to learn new tasks or tricks; unable to perform previously learned tasks or tricks, etc.)

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome can be challenging to diagnose as some of these changes are subtle and develop slowly. Additionally, certain symptoms such as learning and memory impairment can be difficult to identify without performing specialized behavioral testing.

What should I do if I see behavioral changes in my older dog?

If you observe any of the behavioral changes described above in your dog, it is important to discuss these with your veterinarian. They will have the best plan to identify the underlying cause of the behavioral changes and find the best intervention. This can include treating a contributing medical condition, maintaining a consistent routine, reducing environmental stress factors, introducing enrichment activities, changing diet, and recommending specific supplements and medications when appropriate.

How is the Dog Aging Project studying behavioral changes in senior dogs?

As an observational, longitudinal study, the Dog Aging Project will be following dogs throughout their lifetime. As such, we have developed several surveys to assess cognitive function. The Health and Life Experience Survey asks some basic questions about behavior, and the Canine Social and Learned Behavior Survey digs deeper into the investigation of age-related behavioral changes in canines. We ask participants to update both of these surveys annually so that we can track changes over time.

Because early intervention for conditions like cognitive dysfunction syndrome is crucial in delaying disease progression, finding new and better ways to recognize and diagnose this disease could greatly improve our dogs’ healthspan, the period of life during which the dog is active, healthy, and feeling good.

Here at the Dog Aging Project, we’re hoping to revolutionize our understanding of cognitive function and aging in dogs in order to accomplish this very goal!

Please keep in mind that while our team is full of experts, we can’t ethically offer medical advice. We urge you to discuss your dog’s unique situation with your primary care veterinarian because they are the experts on your dog’s particular history and needs.

Gray Barnett bio photo - web

Gray Barnett, DVM
Research Team