Behavior Problems In Geriatric Dogs

Older dog laying on floor

Dear Jean,

Our border collie, Fly, is thirteen years old. Aside from some mild arthritis, she has no health problems. In the last few months, she’s begun wandering around in the middle of the night, often waking us up. I don’t think she’s requesting to be let out as she keeps doing it even after we’ve just let her out and she’s pottied. During the day she snoozes more (probably tired from waking us up the night before) and wanders less though she managed to wander behind the sofa and become trapped the other day. Is this attention seeking behavior or early signs of senility? She can play Frisbee and ball fetch as much as she did as a young dog so we know she’s in good shape! Can our old dog be taught new tricks?

Old dogs are the dearest of souls and I have always considered it my honor and privilege to attend to their needs, especially after all they have given to us over the course of their lifetimes. You don’t mention when Fly last was last at the veterinarian. Even if she was in not too long ago, I recommend getting a thorough work-up done in light of these symptoms – things can progress fast at this age.

Changes in behavior in older dogs are not always signs of normal aging. Liver and kidney diseases, cancer, infections and thyroid problems can all manifest as behavior problems. If these are ruled out, cognitive dysfunction is another possibility in your dog’s case. Both her night-time restlessness and disorientation are flags for cognitive decline. The other symptoms are decreased ability to recognize familiar people and places, confusion or decreased awareness of surroundings, decreased activity, hearing loss, housetraining lapses, loss of appetite, decreased responsiveness to name or commands and separation anxiety.

I can see both sides of the argument about whether to aggressively intervene or simply support dogs as they get older, but I do get alarmed when dogs are euthanized for treatable problems and miss out on quality months or years.

House Soiling

House-soiling that is secondary to cognitive decline is an excellent case in point. This can often be improved with some knowledge and good veterinary intervention, and so prompts me to urge people with older dogs to get them checked out and given the latest and greatest in care.

Separation Anxiety

In the case of geriatric onset separation anxiety, I know of many cases where standard departure desensitization procedures, which have an excellent track record for the disorder in younger dogs, failed to help.

What did end up helping was addressing the dog’s medical issues, which might include relief from arthritis pain, and dietary changes or medications to help with poor organ or endocrine function. I would urge you to not be lulled into complacency by Fly’s zeal and stamina for Frisbee as her ultra-strong border collie drive to compulsively fetch can mask underlying ailments.

In the film parody Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a game knight, after having both arms and both legs sliced off, exhorts his adversary that “it’s only a flesh wound” and wants to keep fighting. I can imagine a legless border collie, seconds before succumbing to loss of blood, shrieking, “I’m fine, REALLY, c’mon, throw the Frisbee…” So get thee to thine veterinarian.


The cognitive decline in older dogs has been dubbed “doggie Alzheimer’s” and with good reason. In human Alzheimer’s the presence and quantity of beta amyloid plaques in the brains and blood vessels of victims are associated with the degree of decline in brain function. When geriatric dogs are so tested, a similar association is found. It is not known yet whether dogs suffer from reductions in key neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine as has been found in human Alzheimer’s patients. There is some suggestion that this may be so based on the response of symptomatic dogs to a medication that inhibits the action of enzymes that metabolize dopamine.

It’s not surprising that health care of older dogs is a hot topic among proponents of alternative and integrative medicine (which combines mainstream medical practice with nutrition, herbs etc.). There may be changes in diet or supplements that would be in the can’t-hurt-might-help category for Fly.

For example, it has been suggested that certain B-vitamins, antioxidants and even the herb ginkgo biloba might help preserve or even improve cognitive function.

Free radical reduction and scavenging are among the speculated mechanisms of Anipryl so it’s certainly plausible that anti-oxidants such as vitamin C, E, mixed carotenoids, alpha lipoic acid, CoQ10 etc. could be beneficial. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish oils, are recommended to humans who wish to maximize brain function. Before implementing any herbs or supplements, be sure to run your plans past your veterinarian as interactions between medicines, herbs and supplements are not always benign.

I am especially intrigued by evidence that exercising one’s brain with new learning, problem solving and social interaction, is a route to preserve brain function as this is something that could be also evaluated in dogs. Very often older dogs are sidelined due to declines in performance levels, absence of behavior problems to motivate the owner to provide exercise and stimulation (i.e., they are more forgiving than younger dogs) and, in the case of multi-dog households, time and energy devoted to the performance activities of younger housemates. Perhaps problem-solving and learning activities – teaching old dogs new tricks – could be part of a comprehensive effort to keep their brains sharp into old age.

From the November/December 2010 Issue of DNM

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