Watch our for behavioural changes into the golden years


Physical changes in the body with age are a normal thing. But it becomes a matter of concern, when your pet shows unexpected behavioral changes. Read on to find out the 8 behaviours that may change as your pet grows older and be the beginning of a bigger health concern.

Garima Singhal and Boo

Most pet parents are aware of the physical changes that can take place as their canine companion grows older. But did you know that with the age your dog’s behaviour might also change. Dogs express underlying physical problems or discomfort through a change in their behaviour. Watch out for these 8 signs:

Unexpected Weight loss

Unless there was a plan for an overweight or obese pet, to facilitate weight loss, a sudden loss in weight is a warning sign. This is a non-specific sign, but it can be related to many underlying illnesses, many of which occur due to ageing.

It is extremely important to know what the ideal weight of your pet should be. Keep a track of their weight, ideally on a monthly basis. Even a slight change in your pet’s weight can be an indication of a disease. The earlier the disease is diagnosed, the better it is for the health and overall well-being of your pet.

Unprovoked bouts of Aggression

Changes in a pet’s behaviour are a common sign as they get older. Some of these changes can be signs of diseases such as dementia, where the pet starts to forget things, or forgets his toilet training. An unfortunate behavioural change is unprovoked aggression, wherein, your dog may startle more easily, and in some dogs this can result in unprovoked aggression.

With the help of your veterinarian and behaviourist, you can find out the underlying causes of these unexplained bouts of aggression. Perhaps, your pet is in pain, or there are other factors making them uncomfortable and hassled.

Dogs who are anxiety-prone as youngsters and adults (for example, those with noise phobias or separation anxiety) often become more so as they grow older. After all, things that were easy otherwise like, listening, seeing, smelling, are now becoming progressively difficult. Just like with the elderly people, older dogs will also exhibit certain signs of anxiety, and you must keep an eye for the following symptoms –

  • Heightened sensitivity and irritability
  • Fear of and/or aggression toward strangers or unfamiliar pets
  • Decreased tolerance for being restrained or even touched
  • Needing to be with you constantly or demanding more attention and increased physical contact
  • Destruction of doorways (typically the ones you leave by) and/or refusing to eat while you’re away
  • Licking, sucking or chewing of their own body parts, those of family members and objects in the household.
  • Digging and scratching

The help of a trained and experienced behaviourist, along with positive reinforcement training, to help your pet remember what he seems to be forgetting would be helpful.

Hypersensitivity, Fears and Phobias

Deteriorating vision and hearing are complementary gifts of old age that we and our pets cannot let go off. You must understand that when your pet’s basic senses weaken even his own home can become a frightening place. Loss of these primary senses can take away the familiarity. Pets thrive on routine and consistency, particularly ageing pets who are set in their way may have heightened difficulty during this phase.

It is your duty as the pet parent of an ageing pet to keep environment consistent. Do not move things around much, keep their food and water bowls at consistent places, adhere to timings (feeding, walks), avoid loud sounds, and make appropriate preparations for vacations, festivals, or when you plan to have guests over. You can use classical conditioning to help your pet deal with his phobias. Also talking to your vet is the best option.

Losing Control Over Elimination

A dog who was steadfast when it came to housebreaking and toilet training, and would not be caught stiff eliminating indoors or outdoors can very easily forget his toilet training. There are a number of potential causes, and none of them are deliberate disobedience.

Please don’t confuse the lack of physical control for obstinacy and use harsh punishments or scolding. Your pet might already be struggling and you don’t want to add to it.

Talk to your vet to eliminate any underlying chance of a disease. Once that’s done, you’ll need to investigate other possible causes for inappropriate elimination, including decreased mobility, needing to pee/poop more often, or less control over his bladder or bowels.

Initial steps you can take to resolve the problem include taking him outside more often to eliminate, and/or introducing/re-introducing him to a crate. It’s also important to recognise urine dribbling, over which your dog might have no control no matter how often he goes outside and urinates.

Night-time Restlessness

A sound sleep indicates a sound mind and body. As dogs get older they may develop an inability to sleep through the night. This can be due to anxiety, or increased bodily discomfort, loss of vision and hearing, which can cause loss of sleep and/or affect sleep quality, increased responsivenesss to benign noises and many other factors.

Gradually increase the amount of exercise so that your pet is tired by bed time. Let your dog sleep in your bedroom. Sleeping near you will help ease any anxiety and night time restlessness.

Obsessive Compulsiveness

These are certain behaviours that your dog may perform over and over, for no apparent reason. These can include constant licking (usually of a particular body part like a paw), which can result in hot spots, hair loss and even acral lick dermatitis, which needs veterinary intervention. There can be other obsessive compulsive behaviours too, such as tail chasing, spinning, jumping, pacing, “air biting,” and staring blankly into space. Get your dog checked by a vet to rule out any underlying health decline. If there is none, then your pet is doing so out of age related anxiety.

Talk to your pet in a soothing way, spend time massaging them, or just pat them. This would ease off the tension.

Barking or Excessive Vocalisation

In some cases it is seen ageing dogs become excessively vocal. Barking, whining, crying are all means of being vocal, and it can be unsettling for the pet parent. As a pet parent you try to understand

Ageing causes decline in cognitive function, disorientation and confusion. All these can often lead to vocalisation. Loss of vision, hearing and olfactory senses will all make the world a scary place for your dog and he will vocalise asking for your help. If there is no underlying medical condition, as ascertained by your veterinarian, try training your dog to respond to a gentle verbal cue such as “Quiet” or “Shhh”, and reward her lavishly for her efforts.

Sometimes, however, it is possible that they don’t even realise the vocalisation. In such cases you’ll just need to distract them when they bark or whine by talking to them in a reassuring manner.

Growing older is a part of life. As per pet parents it is your responsibility to shower them extra care. All their life they’ve been your faithful companion, and now that they’ve slowed a bit, you need to do all the catching up (of signs and symptoms).

(Garima Singhal is a behaviourist, neurobiologist, school teacher and a long-term per parent of her dog Dobie)

  • As soon as you notice any of the above signs, take your little one (yes, they’ll always remain your little ones) to the veterinarian.
  • You can also consult a trained and experienced behaviorist.
  • Don’t ignore any changes, and address them as soon as you notice them.
  • Try natural remedies such as ayurveda, naturopathy, balms, essential oils, homeopathy, Bach flower remedies for anxiety relief.
  • Treat-release and puzzle toys provide fun and mental stimulation and reduce mental decline.
  • Exercise needs to be gentle. Don’t make your pet jog or run. Tug of war is a favorite amongst senior dogs as opposed to fetch or chase.
  • Add ramps to your home to make movement easier.
  • Keep up with his socialization so that he doesn’t become more and more isolated which will increase the behavioral issues. However, overstimulation can lead to anxiety. Always observe your dog and listen to what he is telling you.
  • Dogs with impaired vision can be trained anew with hearing and odor cues, as is done with young blind dogs.
  • Be patient with your dog, calm and kind voice will ease his anxiety and keep him comfortable.
  • Feed an anti-inflammatory, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, which is the foundation of good health and a long life for pets of any age.