Behavioral Changes in Aging Dogs

Sudden changes in the behavioral patterns of older dogs should be taken seriously since these changes may indicate that the dog is having some form of physical problems. This page looks at some typical behavioral changes in older dogs and the possible health problems indicated.

Do you have an older dog? If so, you may have noticed that the behavioral patterns of your dog have changed over the year. Some such changes are obvious and inevitable due to the aging process (e.g. sleeping more; less tolerant of exercise, etc.).

However, many behavioral problems stem from health issues in aging dogs. If we are observant and are able to catch them early, some such problems can be fixed. Watch your dog closely, and note on a calendar any changes in behavior that deviate from the norm. Dogs are very much "creatures of habit," and even slight variations from their normal behavior can indicate health issues. For example, changes in movement behavior may indicate joint problems, circulatory, ear or eye issues; changes in elimination patterns often indicate kidney, blood sugar, digestive, hormonal or metabolic issues.

Paying close attention to your dog's patterns, and noting variation from normal activity can help you and your veterinarian determine whether organ systems may be compromised and help you address or accommodate changes.

Common Behavioral Changes in Older Dogs

Uncharacteristic Aggression

Dogs in Sunset A normally gentle dog may suddenly turn aggressive as he ages due to changes in his body, such as:

  • loss of hearing or vision, which results in the dog being easily startled;
  • physical pain, such as painful joints, gum or dental problems, etc;
  • diseases that directly affect the nervous system (e.g. cognitive dysfunction);
  • reaction to certain drugs.

If your aging dog is showing signs of aggressiveness, it is important that he be checked by a veterinarian to find out the underlying cause.

Separation Anxiety

Some older dogs may show typical signs of separation anxiety (e.g. barking, chewing, eliminating in inappropriate places, etc.) when they are left alone. There are several possible reasons:

  • Older dogs (as in older people!) tend to be more "set in their ways" and thus have a decreased ability to cope with changes.
  • Older dogs may suffer from a loss in their hearing or vision. As such, they may feel insecure and unsure of his surroundings.
  • Separation anxiety in older dogs may be triggered by aging-related health problems. When dogs experience pain or physical discomfort, they tend to become more clingy.


Just like people, some aging dogs tend to wake up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep! Instead, they may whine to get attention, or pace through the house. Possible reasons include:

  • physical pain;
  • anxiety due to loss of vision or hearing;
  • the need to relieve himself more often.

Herbs such as skullcap, valerian, chamomile, and oat, can be used to calm an aggressive dog, or a nervous dog suffering from separation anxiety, or a sleepless dog.

Inappropriate Elimination

Sometimes a dog that has been properly house-trained will start soiling the house here and there when he gets older. This may be due to a number of reasons:

  • Physical diseases (such as chronic diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, urinary incontinence, urinary tract infections, bladder stones, bladder infections, kidney problems, or liver disease) can cause a dog to lose control of his bladder or bowel. Curing or managing the physical disease can solve the house-soiling problem. If you suspect that your aging dog's "accidents" are caused by a physical disease, take him to the vet for a check-up.
  • Physical pain such as arthritis or loss of vision may hinder the dog from getting up and going outside to relieve himself. If arthritis or difficult movement is stopping your dog to go outside to relieve himself, consider training him to use an indoor "toilet".
  • Cognitive problem may also cause house-soiling in older dogs - They simply may not realize what they are doing.

Again, treating and managing the underlying physical ailment can solve this problem, so work together with your vet if your aging dog starts having "accidents" around the house.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Sometimes an aging dog that shows some of the behavioral changes mentioned above does not have any other health problems (such as arthritis or hearing loss). The dog may just be suffering from a disorder known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). According to a study, around 60% of dogs 10 years and older has this disorder.

Common symptoms of CCD include:

  • Confusion or disorientation (e.g. The dog may not be able to find his way home from his own back yard).
  • Aggression because the dog cannot recognize his friends or family members.
  • Restlessness, circling, stiffness or weakness.
  • Sleeplessness or a change in sleeping patterns.
  • House-soiling.
  • Increased vocalization.
  • Decreased activity level.
  • Decreased attentiveness or staring into space.

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Things to Remember

As you can see, many older dogs change their behaviors due to physical problems. It is important therefore that we take our older dog to be examined by a veterinarian if he exhibits some of the above behavioral changes.

There are things that you can do to help make your dog's golden years more pleasant:

  • Older dogs tend to get stressed out more easily, so try to eliminate as many stress-causing factors as possible around the house.
  • Keep to a daily routine and avoid irregular lifestyle - Older dogs feel less anxious if they know what to expect.
  • As older dogs may have hearing or vision loss, do not move too quickly into their space or make sudden movements or loud noise that might startle them.
  • Never get angry or punish an older dog for accidentally soiling the house.
  • Be very patient, understanding, and loving to your older dog!