Behavior Changes in Aging Dogs
Specific Geriatric Behavior Problems and Their Behavioral Treatment
Anxiety-Including Separation Anxiety
Some common concerns reported by guardians of aging dogs are increased sensitivity and irritability, increased fear of unfamiliar pets and people (sometimes accompanied by aggression), decreased tolerance of touch and restraint, increased following and desire for contact, and increased anxiety when left alone. Noise sensitivity from hearing loss can also make some dogs more anxious and vocal. Your own frustration and distress over your dog’s behavior can add to your dog’s anxiety as well.
If house soiling has become a problem, some guardians opt to crate their dogs when they’re not home. Unfortunately, confining a senior dog to a crate can raise his anxiety level if he’s never been crated or is no longer accustomed to it. To make things worse, if he can’t get comfortable in the crate, or if he can’t control his bowels or bladder, he’ll be even more anxious and may attempt to escape. In these cases, it may be the confinement, not the guardian’s departure, that causes anxiety.
If it’s the guardian’s departure and absence that causes a dog’s anxiety, it’s called separation anxiety. The cardinal indicators of separation anxiety are:
- Predeparture anxiety: pacing, panting, salivating, hiding, trembling or depression as you prepare to leave
- House soiling (or soiling the crate), destructiveness or vocalizing that occur soon after you leave the house
- Destructiveness directed at exit points, like windows and doors, and house soiling while you’re gone
- Refusal to eat when left alone (even if you leave your dog food, treats or a food-stuffed KONG® toy, he doesn’t eat at all when you’re gone, but does after you return)
The most important factor in diagnosing these behaviors as separation anxiety is that they occur only during your absence. If these behaviors occur while you or your family members are home, other issues may be causing them instead. For example, if your dog soils in the house both when you're gone and when you're home, you probably have a house training problem. The same is true of destructiveness. If destructive chewing happens when you're home, it's a training issue, not separation anxiety.
A distinct feature of geriatric (late-onset) separation anxiety is that it can manifest as nighttime anxiety, almost as if your dog views your sleeping as a form of separation. Your dog may keep you awake by pacing, panting and pawing at you, and demanding attention. This type of separation anxiety may indicate undiagnosed disease, and it can be relieved by treating the disease or, at minimum, relieving your dog’s pain or discomfort. A thorough examination by your dog’s veterinarian is crucial to determine whether there’s a medical basis for your dog’s anxiety.
Treatment for separation anxiety involves controlling any underlying medical problems and using a behavioral treatment called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). Please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for more information about the effective use of these treatments. Identifying and changing any of your own responses that might be aggravating your dog’s behavior is also helpful. In conjunction with behavioral treatment, pheromones and drugs can be used to reduce anxiety and improve your dog’s cognitive function. Please see our article, Separation Anxiety, for more detailed information on this disorder and its treatment.