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Behavior Changes You Might See in Your Senior Dog

Learn some common senior dog behaviors.

As your dog gets older, you might find it challenging to separate signs of illness from those of normal aging. Here are some common behavior changes that occur as dogs age and their causes.

Pacing and Vocalizing at Night

While pacing and making strange vocalizations could indicate pain or another medical condition in an older dog, it could also be caused by cognitive dysfunction or senility. As your dog's brain ages, the connections between neurons can atrophy, abnormal proteins can build up, and neurotransmitter production can change, which may all cause the behavioral signs associated with a senile dog.

In addition to getting their days and night mixed up, acting confused and pacing and whining at night, cognitive dysfunction can also cause these signs in dogs:

  • Forgetting housetraining—urinating and defecating in the house.
  • Confusion—appearing baffled upon entering a room, forgetting where the food and water dishes are, and getting stuck in corners or behind other previously negotiable items in the home.
  • Waning interest in previously enjoyed activities—walking away or appearing uninterested in previously enjoyed activities or games.
  • Difficulty recognizing people—acting like previously known people, sometimes including close caretakers, are strangers.
  • Forgetting commands or tricks—not responding to previously known commands like sit or down.

Some of the above signs, like house-soiling, can be caused by conditions other than senility as well.

Signs of Anxiety

Older dogs may develop anxiety, either general or related to separation from their human caregiver. This could be the result of early onset senility or changes in hearing and eyesight that makes the dog feel vulnerable.


Dogs sometimes become aggressive to humans or other pets as they age. Usually, that is the result of some type of pain, such as arthritis. It can sometimes be due to cognitive dysfunction also. Another reason dogs might begin to snap more often as they age is because of a decline in hearing and vision that can leave them easily startled and defensive.

Sleep Disturbances

As mentioned above, cognitive dysfunction is a significant cause for a dog to get days and nights confused. But other age-related conditions can also negatively impact a dog's nighttime sleep. For example, changes in hearing and vision can cause a dog to become more anxious at night and wake often. Older dogs might need to urinate more often, which disturbs their sleep. Pain from arthritis can cause them to wake up, stiff and sore, before morning.

What Can You Do to Help Your Aging Dog?

The first thing to do if your dog develops any new behavior is to make an appointment with the veterinarian. A thorough check-up with lab work can help catch a medical problem. Medications to help with arthritis or changes in diet and routine can help improve many older dog conditions.

Make sure your older dog gets daily exercise and enrichment. Depending on his medical conditions, he might not be able to go for long walks or do vigorous exercise like ball-chasing, but make sure you keep him moving at least a bit every day and interact with and play with him to keep his brain active.

Get your dog a nice, cozy bed or two with extra cushioning for sore joints.

Ask your vet if an omega fatty acid supplement is a good idea for your dog. They can help with joint and brain conditions.

Medications for cognitive dysfunction, arthritis, and anxiety are all available, but their use should be strictly overseen by a veterinarian. Discuss the risks versus possible benefits for those types of medications with your vet.

You May Also Like These Articles:

My Older Dog Sleeps a Lot: Is He OK?

Caring For Your Senior Dog

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome: Senility in Dogs

Arthritis in Dogs

Causes of Lameness in Dogs: An Overview

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