By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
If your canine BFF is getting up in years, you've probably noticed some physical changes in him. For example, many dogs' coats, especially around the face, tend to go grey or white as they age. You may also have noticed he's getting up a little more slowly these days, or taking more frequent or longer naps than he did when he was younger.
While physical signs of aging are easy enough to recognize, many pet parents don't notice or aren't prepared for the behavior changes that often also occur as a dog ages. In an older dog with no history of behavior problems, the cause is typically either an underlying medical condition or cognitive decline. That's why if your senior dog's behavior has recently changed, the first stop should be your veterinarian's office for a senior wellness checkup.
I like to see my senior and geriatric patients two to three times a year, because after about age 8 (younger for some large and all giant breed dogs), a dog's wellness and nutritional needs can require fine-tuning every four to six months. In older pets it's also very important to review weight, muscle tone, joint range of motion, diet, supplement protocol and exercise habits at least semi-annually.
Signs a Medical Condition Is Causing Your Dog's Behavior to Change
Any sort of underlying medical problem has the potential to trigger behavioral problems in older pets. For example, if your dog is feeling pain or general discomfort, often from either a musculoskeletal or gastrointestinal (GI) problem, it can cause her to pace, become restless, wake up during the night and even show aggression. According to Dr. Nicola Parry writing for Veterinary Practice News:
"Dogs with underlying musculoskeletal problems may show behaviors such as aggression when they are lying down and forced off furniture, excessive licking of their feet or joints, and aggression toward other dogs in the family that occurs outside.
GI problems may cause food aggression. In particular, new cases of food aggression directed toward people should prompt questions … to help rule in or rule out the possibility of underlying GI disease — for example, if a dog is refusing to eat but does not want the owner to remove the food bowl."1
Signs your dog may be dealing with a musculoskeletal problem include the tendency to slide on smooth flooring or rise slowly after lying down. She may also have become less active and gradually gained weight as a result. If there's a GI disease involved, she may have nausea, which in dogs often takes the form of chewing things, as well as excessive swallowing and/or picky eating.
Endocrine diseases can also cause behavior changes in dogs. According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Marsha Reich, hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's syndrome) can cause irritability, lethargy, excessive thirst and urination, and even food aggression.
"Cushing's disease is one of the most common endocrine disorders that I have seen associated with behavioral problems," Reich said in an interview with Veterinary Practice News. "However, although hypothyroidism is a common endocrine disease in dogs, I rarely see it associated with behavioral problems."2
Just like older people, older dogs are more likely to develop diseases, and because those diseases can lead to behavior changes, again, it's critically important to take your pet for regular senior wellness exams with your veterinarian.
Signs of Cognitive Decline in Your Senior Dog
Cognitive decline in an older dog should always be a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning all potential medical causes for a behavior change have been ruled out. Veterinarians sometimes use the acronym DISHA to evaluate cognitive dysfunction (CD) in a senior dog:
- Disorientation. Is the dog walking aimlessly about the house, staring at the walls or even losing his balance and falling?
- Interactions. Is the dog interacting differently with family members or other pets in the home?
- Sleep. Is the dog no longer sleeping through the night, or is restless or wakes frequently?
- House soiling. Is the dog no longer alerting his owner when he needs to go out? Is he urinating or leaking urine indoors?
- Activity level changes. Does the dog seem restless, agitated or anxious? Does he have a decreased appetite?
Clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction are found in 50 percent of dogs over the age of 11, and by the age of 15, 68 percent of dogs display at least one sign.3 Additional symptoms, especially in the later stages of CD, can include:
Failure to respond to commands and/or difficulty hearing
Standing in corners or facing walls
Inability to recognize familiar people
Difficulty navigating familiar environments
I can't emphasize enough that cognitive dysfunction in a dog is a diagnosis of exclusion. There are many conditions your older pet can acquire that mimic the signs of cognitive decline, so it's important to rule out all other physical reasons for a change in behavior.
For example, a small seizure can cause a pet to stand still and stare. If your pet seems detached, he could be in pain. Inappropriate elimination can be due to kidney disease. These disorders and many others can result in a change in behavior unrelated to cognitive decline. That's why it's so important to rule out all possible alternative reasons, especially in aging pets.
In dogs with CD and older pets in general, nutraceuticals can significantly improve memory, and the effects are long-lasting. Studies of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil show they can significantly improve cognitive function in older dogs. Supplementing with MCTs is a great way to offer an instant fuel source for your pet's brain. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of your dog's body weight, added daily to his food.
I also recommend providing a source of SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine). Other supplements to consider are jellyfish extracts and resveratrol, which is Japanese knotweed. Japanese knotweed has been proven to help reduce free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits. Ginkgo biloba may improve blood flow to the brain. Phosphatidylserine and ubiquinol, which is the reduced form of CoQ10, feed your dog's mitochondria and improves cellular energy.
12 Ways to Enrich Your Aging Dog's Quality of Life
Address subtle changes in your dog's behavior when you first notice them. Talk to your holistic or integrative vet about homeopathic remedies, flower essences, herbs or nutraceuticals that may be appropriate for your dog's symptoms.
Keep your dog at a healthy size — overweight dogs are at significantly increased risk for disease as they age.
Maintain your dog's dental health.
Pets need more protein as they age to maintain lean muscle mass and good organ and immune function, so feed your dog a balanced, fresh and whole food diet made with organic, non-GMO ingredients. Some senior pets may need a diet that restricts phosphorus or sodium intake.
When it comes to supplements, I typically recommend digestive enzymes and probiotics for all older pets. If your dog needs additional fiber in the diet, supplement with natural sources of fiber such as psyllium husk powder, ground dark green leafy vegetables, coconut fiber or canned 100 percent pumpkin.
I almost always recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement such as krill oil (my favorite), another fish body oil (but not cod liver oil) or algal DHA for pets who are allergic to seafood.
Most aging dogs can also benefit from joint and antioxidant supplements such as glucosamine sulfate with MSM, cetyl myristoleate, eggshell membrane, perna mussel (green-lipped clam), several homeopathic remedies, ubiquinol, supergreen foods and natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs such as turmeric and yucca, proteolytic enzymes, SOD and nutraceuticals).
Provide treat-release and food puzzle toys, and short training sessions for mental stimulation and to relieve boredom.
Take walks instead of jogs or other intense forms of exercise. Switch to tug games instead of chase games. If your dog likes the water, provide him with opportunities to swim, which is a wonderfully gentle exercise for older pets.
Invest in ramps so he can still get into the car or up on the bed or his favorite chair. Cover slick floors with nonskid rugs.
Provide adequate social interaction with other pets and people; short periods of exercise and playtime in controlled situations are best for older dogs.
If your dog has problems hearing or seeing, use natural (not chemical) odor cues like essential oil diffusers to help him find his way around.
Guide your dog with clear cues and easy-to-follow instructions, especially if he's showing signs of mental decline.
When you talk to your dog, keep your voice quiet, calm and kind. No shouting.