Behavior Problems in Older Dogs

Reviewed by Vanessa Farner, DVM on February 13, 2021

Dogs have become more than companions for most dog owners. They are your family. They are one of your kids. Your dog is someone that needs to be cared for throughout their lives. We lose physical and mental abilities as we age, and so do our dogs.

As your dog ages, you might notice changes in some of their behaviors or abilities. It is usual for them to age and change. There are some symptoms that you should be able to recognize that can help you make your aging pups’ later years more comfortable.

What Is a Senior Dog?

It’s a well-known fact that dogs age faster than we do. All breeds have different life spans. In general, smaller dogs enter their senior ages at around 7 of our years. Larger breeds become senior at 5 to 6 years.

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.

Unfortunately, our dogs share many of our other degenerative problems. Their minds can also start to function differently as they age. Many of them display symptoms that are very similar to Alzheimer’s disease. This is called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

Cognitive Dysfunction in an Old Dog

Your senior dog may begin to display some symptoms of cognitive problems. 

They might forget where their water bowl is. They may bark at nothing. You might start to wonder if your pup is going senile. This is entirely possible. Dogs can develop cognitive problems just like humans do. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) affects around 50% of dogs over the age of 11 years.

At around 15 years of age, more than 68% of dogs begin to experience cognitive problems associated with CCD. 

Changes in your dog's nervous and neuromuscular system cause them to demonstrate physical symptoms such as:

Some mental symptoms your dog might display are:

If you see any of these signs in your dog, they might have CCD. You should call your veterinarian. You need to be sure that they are not also dealing with another health issue.

How to Cope With and Care for an Older Dog

Your senior pup might need to be switched to a diet that is designed for older dogs. A senior dog diet should be rich in vitamins E and C, and high in omega-3 fatty acids. Veterinarians like to see physical and learning exercises paired with an older pup’s diet because it keeps them mentally and physically active.

Your old friend might need to eat less or go to the bathroom more. Their beds might need to be more firm and warm. This can keep their joints from aching while they are resting. 

Your veterinarian might also decide that your dog could benefit from psychoactive medications and dietary supplements, which may reduce some of the effects of the disorder.

Like humans, older dogs become more prone to heat injuries such as heat exhaustion. It’s very important to make sure that they drink enough water and remain cool.

It’s essential for your dog to have annual physical examinations by your veterinarian. It helps if you established a routine of taking your older dog to the veterinarian while they were younger. This provides a vet with a health baseline for them to judge your dog's progression or regression. Ideally, your older dog should see their veterinarian every 6 months.

Recognizing Old Dog Behaviors

If your dog is over the age of 5, you should start to look for any signs that might indicate they are losing some of their cognitive abilities. If you see any signs, call your veterinarian. Veterinarians run additional tests in dogs to ensure they aren’t dealing with other health issues that can cause similar functional problems.

Keep in mind that your older dog may not be able to control their behavior as well as they once did. This is due to the changes that they are experiencing. Other health issues that might pop up in your aging pup are specific organ problems, kidney disease, diabetes, or heart issues.

If your dog is not responding as much to seeing their favorite toy or hearing its sound, then they might be losing their vision and hearing. It can be hard to tell unless there is a visual indicator such as cataracts. A visit to the veterinarian can help you identify problems.

As your dog ages, you should pay close attention to the cues that they are giving you. Observation is one of the best methods of figuring out what is going on with your best friend. You might be able to make them more comfortable. You might even be able to identify and treat an underlying condition that can give you both a few more rewarding years together.

Show Sources


AARP: “How to Keep Your Veterinary Bills Down.”

American Kennel Club: “An Owner’s Manual for: LIFE WITH A SENIOR CANINE CITIZEN," “Senior Dogs: Caring & Tips,” “Come, Grow Old With Me — CDS and Caring for Elderly Dogs.”

The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science: “Physical signs of canine cognitive dysfunction.”

The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine: “Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).”

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