Anxiety in Senior Dogs

By: Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC

TVMA Member
Flower Mound, TX

Published December 2019

Getting old can be tough. Your joints often ache, you can’t eat the same things you used to, and your memory can be poor. All of these can happen to our dogs too as their body systems start to decline. You may be curious about some changes your dog is experiencing, including how that once brave individual is now getting scared of its own shadow. As dogs age, some show a significant increase in anxiety and other behavioral issues. With a potential decrease in their senses of hearing, sight and smell, dogs can startle more easily. It may be more generalized, with your dog seeming to enjoy things less or even being jumpier.

Signs of Anxiety

If your dog is showing more extensive signs of anxiety—from panting, shaking, trembling and irritability to having sleep and appetite issues—you need to pay closer attention. If they seem restless, clingy, more depressed and lethargic or they howl, consult your veterinarian for a complete evaluation. Sometimes behavioral changes are the most recognizable indications of underlying pain, discomfort or a medical condition, and these issues can be addressed by your veterinarian. Seek help if they suddenly develop more advanced separation anxiety at night or when you leave them alone or if they are showing new signs of storm anxiety and fear of loud noises or strangers.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

It is recognized that increased anxiety is a distinct component of dogs that start to experience a form of dementia called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) or canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. Other aspects of CDS can be summarized with the acronym DISHAA: Disorientation; Social Interactions; Sleep/wake cycles; House-soiling (learning and memory); Activity (change in levels); and Anxiety. Any of these issues should be part of a comprehensive assessment by your veterinarian to include medical, pain and behavior assessment.

Steps to Lessen Anxiety

Once you have visited your veterinarian for an evaluation, follow any recommendations to help manage disease conditions, such as kidney issues and painful arthritis. If the veterinarian determines the cognitive issues are contributing to the anxiety, there are several steps you can take. Avoid changing the pet’s environment too much, and simultaneously provide some environmental enrichment and share some activities by interacting more with your pet and exercising with them. Modify situations that can make your dog anxious by using non-slip mats on slick floors or getting toe-grips to help her get around better. If house-soiling is an issue and seems to contribute to anxiety (hers or yours), take her out more frequently or gently adjust the environment so clean-up is more manageable. Some dogs are comfortable with the use of a diaper or belly band, but in others, it can cause additional stress. If accidents occur, avoid scolding as that can cause more anxiety.

Anxiety Management

Move slowly around your dogs and carefully approach them as sensory deficits (e.g., loss of hearing, sight) coupled with anxiety can make them irritable and even aggressive. They may feel abandoned at nighttime when you sleep or experience separation anxiety when you leave the house. For both cases, provide a secure place with favorite objects (e.g., your old shirt), and leave on lights or music/television to make it seem like someone is there. Different products, such as pheromones, supplements and even Omega-3 fatty acids, help some patients, so ask your veterinarian about those as well. For more severe reactions, especially for separation anxiety or noise phobia (e.g., storms), talk to your veterinarian about possible medications that can help and get information about counterconditioning your pet.

As your pet shows these changes, take a proactive approach. The interventions you and your veterinarian can offer will be more effective than waiting until the signs worsen. Medical recommendations could include treatment of primary medical problems and contributing behavioral problems, including management of CDS. While CDS is a progressive disease, any significant distress (regardless of etiology) may benefit from medical and behavioral intervention by the attending veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. Provide optimal care for your senior dog from the start, and you can make their golden years the best they can be!

Dr. Heidi Lobprise, DAVDC (Diplomate, American Veterinary Dental College), practices dental specialty at Main Street Veterinary Hospital.

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