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As dogs get older, there are likely to be an increasing number of health concerns where a change in behavior is noticed as the first sign of illness.

Some of the changes associated with aging may not seem significant, but even a minor change in behavior might be indicative of underlying medical problems or a decline in cognitive function. 

Senior dogs experience changes in their bodies in similar ways to humans. They can’t see as well as they used to. Their once sharp hearing is also a bit duller.

Your older dog’s joints can start to ache. This can cause them to want to move less. Even as the effects of old age creep up on them, senior dogs need to move about. They must continue to be active to keep their weight down. Physical activity also keeps their muscles and joints strong.

The aging process is different for all types of breeds, although the larger dogs (such as Newfoundlands, Rottweilers, etc.) age faster than the smaller dogs.

We probably see more cases of cognitive decline in smaller breeds because they live longer. And while there is no set age for when things start to decline, on average, the earliest signs start to present themselves between 8 and 10 years of age.

Common Behavioral Problems in Older Dogs

There are various behavior changes we can see as our dogs age. Often this is due to brain aging, but may be worsened by other health problems. The most common older dog behavior problems are:

  • Anxiety or fear of noises, children, housemate dogs
  • Aggression towards other dogs, children, being petted
  • House soiling and accidents
  • Confusion – can’t find the door to go out, can’t find owner when called, pacing and wandering in the home
  • Compulsive behaviors – licking objects, floor or self, pacing continuously, digging in furniture excessively

Symptoms of Behavioral Problems to Watch for

Remember, sometimes small changes in behavior can be an early indicator that your dog is in pain, is ill, or has a degenerative disease. These subtle signs should be reported to your veterinarian right away!

In addition, keep an eye out for the following symptoms, which could be an indication that something is not right for your pet:

  • Increased drinking/urination
  • Loss of bladder control (dribbling urine or bedwetting)
  • Changes in bowel movements or frequent digestive upsets
  • Change in appetite
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Sores, lumps, or shaking of the head
  • Bad breath or drooling
  • Dry, red, or cloudy eyes
  • Coughing, excessive panting, or labored breathing
  • Lack of enthusiasm for normal activities
  • Stiffness or soreness
  • Changes in weight
  • Disorientation
  • Tremors or shaking

Some Causes of Behavior Changes in Older Dogs

Many of the problems have similar causes to those in younger pets. Changes in the household, changes in the environment and new stressors can lead to problems regardless of age. 

Older pets are also likely to develop an increasing number of medical and degenerative problems as they age. Any of the organ systems can be affected and play a role in the development of a wide variety of behavior problems. For example, diseases of the urinary system and kidneys can lead to house-soiling.

Pain causes lots of behavior changes. Humans do not interpret correctly when their dog is showing pain because it is different than when humans show pain. Also when dogs have arthritis and chronic pain they do not cry or limp at first. Instead they avoid being around active dogs or people. If they cannot get away from these things, then they may become grouchy or attempt to bite.

A decline in the senses (hearing and sight), painful conditions, and those that affect mobility may cause the pet to be more irritable or more fearful of approach and handling.

As with other organs, the brain is susceptible to age-related degenerative processes that can affect the pet’s behavior, personality, memory, and learning ability. When these changes occur, the pet may show varying degrees of cognition or cognitive dysfunction and in pets that are more severely affected, this might be referred to as cognitive dysfunction.

Treatment Options

Many of the problems of senior pets can be controlled or even resolved. Early detection and intervention with drugs, diets, or supplements can control or greatly slow the progress of many disease conditions, improving the pet’s quality of life and perhaps even longevity (see Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction).


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