Old age is not a disease. In people, thanks to good nutrition, health and wellness, 70 is the new 60, and 50 is the new 40. People that take care of their health are looking and feeling amazing well into their 80s, 90s and beyond. The same holds true for our pets: due to advancements in nutrition and health care, pets are living longer and longer. As a result, the care of geriatric pets is an area that is fast advancing in veterinary medicine in order to serve their differing needs. Whereas younger dogs are more likely to suffer from infectious disease and trauma, older dogs are more likely to develop arthritis, hormonal disorders and cancer.
What’s normal and what’s not?
Older dogs behave differently as they age. Some of these behavioural changes are a natural sequelae of aging, but others are not. How do you know the difference and what causes these changes in behaviour?
Some changes in behaviour are due to maturing from puppyhood into adulthood. The good news is that with this increase in age, some unwanted behaviours decrease: a mature dog will be less likely to chew or dig, or if your dog gets excited and piddles on the floor as a youngster, this behaviour will most probably correct itself with time. These are normal changes in behaviour.
Older dogs that are bonded to their owners develop innate ways of understanding their owners and will often seem to understand what you are saying. This bond may lead older dogs to be more attached to you, following you around or perhaps seeming slightly distressed when left alone. Increased sleeping is also a normal behaviour for very old dogs. Very old dogs don’t recover as well from stress or strenuous exercise and therefore they naturally sleep more. Very old dogs may also have a slight decrease in appetite, as they don’t require as many calories as their younger counterparts, who use more energy in their everyday activities. Again these changes are normal and should not be any cause for alarm.
One of the best things about dogs is that despite increasing age, adult dogs don’t lose their desire to play. If your older dog has stopped enjoying his favourite games (tug, fetch, chewing on toys, etc.) this could indicate an underlying problem such as painful arthritis or other conditions that may lead to a decrease in energy. In the same vein, if your older dog becomes more ‘grumpy’, has a short temper or has started having accidents in the house, this could indicate that your dog is sick, stressed or bored. Dogs aren’t grumpy or spiteful: often, dogs that have changes in their personalities need veterinary or behavioural attention.
What if my dog’s behaviour is out of the ordinary?
The most common cause of behavioural changes in older dogs is pain due to arthritis. There is a high likelihood that most dogs over the age of six are suffering from some form of degenerative joint disease. If your dog seems to be ‘slowing down’, not playing as much, or is just not themselves, then arthritis might be the culprit. A simple check-up with the veterinarian is all it takes to discover where your dog is experiencing pain and how to best alleviate it.
Drastic changes in appetite may also indicate a need for a veterinary visit. Hormonal conditions, such as diabetes or Cushing’s Disease, can increase a dog’s appetite, while pain, dental disease, cancer or hypothyroidism can decrease a dog’s appetite. If your dog has no appetite, you can try and offer some rotisserie chicken (skinless) to tempt your dog to eat. Again, it is advisable to visit your local veterinarian who can help to diagnose the root cause of this change and offer dietary or medical advice on the best way to return your dog’s appetite to normal.
Older dogs can suffer from a disease that is similar to Alzheimer’s or senility in humans, called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or CCD for short. Dogs with CCD exhibit dementia like symptoms: loss of weight and appetite, loss of house training, getting lost inside the house, wandering, circling, forgetting how to do tricks, etc. It can also cause your dog to sleep unusually deeply, pace at night or suffer from other sleep disturbances, or you might notice your dog getting stuck in corners, experiencing increased separation anxiety or compulsive licking.
The cause is brain atrophy and it progresses very slowly. If you are noticing these signs in your older dog, talk with your veterinarian. There are several prescription dog foods available to help slow the progression of CCD. A medication called L-Deprenyl helps prolong dopamine activity. This may account for part of its efficacy in treating cognitive dysfunction. In addition, since dopamine breakdown results in free radicals, L-Deprenyl also helps reduce the amount of free radicals in the brain. Propentofylline (Karsivan) is licensed for use in some European countries for dullness/lethargy in old dogs. This drug exerts its beneficial effects by improving blood flow to the brain. Nicergoline is an alpha-1 and alpha-2 adrenergic antagonist available in the United Kingdom for age-related behaviour problems (source: Veterinary Partner Information Sheet).
The good news is that senior dogs no longer have to suffer from pain or decreased quality of life just because they are ‘old’. Veterinarians are trained to maximise your dog’s health and wellness, so if your dog is over seven years of age, talk with your veterinarian about strategies for successful ageing for your dog. These include yearly blood panels to check organ function, ensuring that your dog is getting the highest quality nutrition and supplements, maintaining a healthy weight and getting mental and physical exercise.
Author info: Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California in Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado, part-time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital and writes for multiple online and print publications.