Anyone who has raised a dog from puppyhood to old age knows that their dog changes during the different stages of their life. What causes these changes, and is there anything you can do to help your dog age gracefully? Here are the behavioral and mental changes you can expect in elderly dogs.
What Causes Senior Changes
As dogs grow, their brains develop. For humans, this development is what marks the difference between an impulsive teenager and a responsible adult. For a dog, you might notice a silly and curious puppy transition to being a confident and cautious adult dog.
As an adult dog becomes a senior dog, their own bodies start to lose energy and flexibility. It’s not as apparent as it sounds though. What happens is the dog’s cells are exposed to unstable oxygen atoms known as free radicals. Sometimes these free radicals are simply in the environment. Sometimes they are produced by the dog’s own body.
Wherever they come from, these free radicals work to break down healthy cells. The same happens in all animals.
Mental Changes in Older Dogs
A young, healthy dog is able to fight off these free radicals. But as a dog ages, its cells produce less energy and more free radicals. Unfortunately, these free radicals seem to attack brain cells specifically. Brain cells have a higher lipid content and have a higher need for oxygen than other cells. Due to this, the brain is most susceptible to deterioration through natural processes.
This process usually occurs very slowly. It’s so slow that most people wouldn’t even notice the difference. Dogs are living longer than ever because of our increased veterinary care quality. This means that age-related changes are becoming more prevalent in our dogs.
Some symptoms that your dog may be experiencing age-related changes include:
- Not responding to verbal cues
- Appearing confused in familiar places
- Staring spells
- Wandering or appearing restless
Other Behavioral Changes in Old Age
When your dog’s mind starts slowing down, you may also notice changes in its behavior. The first thing you might notice is them sleeping more. Very young dogs can sleep most of the day away. Adult dogs will usually be full of energy and ready to head out on an adventure at the drop of a hat. An older dog may not be so ready to leave its cozy spot. You might also notice an older dog “dreaming” more often. You’ve probably seen your dog yipping and moving their paws while they sleep. An older dog may do this more often as well. If you do see these behaviors, do not wake your dog up. Just let them sleep as waking could startle them.
An older dog may start having accidents around the house. This could because they are having a harder time holding their urine. They could also be having mobility issues. If your dog is having accidents while you’re not at home, they could be experiencing age-related separation anxiety. This anxiety can be the result of dealing with changes to their routine. It can also be feeling more vulnerable being left alone. The stress of these issues can cause your dog to have more accidents even if they were previously well trained.
An older dog may be more aggressive. There are a number of reasons a dog might get more irritated or aggressive. They may be dealing with chronic pain. Arthritis, dental disease or sore joints is enough to make anyone irritable. Pain is difficult to treat in older pets.
Elderly dogs deal with diminished sight or hearing. If this is the case, they may startle more easily. You should be cautious approaching your dog if you think they are losing their hearing or sight. If they get scared, they may snap at you thinking they need to defend themselves. An old dog might not know that you are trying to pet them or offer them a treat. If you’ve seen this behavior in your senior dog, be sure to supervise any small children living in or visiting the home.
How to Slow Age-Related Changes
These changes come on very slowly. They’re so slow that you might not actually notice anything is wrong at first. It’s important that if you do notice age-related changes that you discuss them with your vet. They’ll be able to talk to you about if the changes are normal and what course of action you might consider taking in the future.
But even before your dog starts to show signs of age, you should be trying to help them stay young. The first and probably most important thing you can do is simply feed them a good diet. Whatever your dog’s stage of life is, buy high-quality food that is targeted at their age. If you’re unsure of what food is good for your dog, again your vet will be a great resource. You can also supplement your dog’s food with healthy and appropriate fruits and veggies. The antioxidants in these foods can help combat cognitive decline.
You should also keep your dog lean. Along with a healthy diet, your dog needs physical exercise. You should be giving them at least a 30-minute walk each day, though some dogs will need more than that depending on age and breed. To supplement their physical exercise, you should exercise their mind too. Food puzzles and agility games can be great at keeping an older dog young.
Help your dog age gracefully, and manage your expectations so that can offer the best care to your aging pet.