November is National Senior Pet Month! With the advancement and growth of veterinary medicine over the past few decades, our pets are living longer, healthier, and happier lives than ever before. While this is wonderful for the human-animal bond, it also means we should be aware of normal aging changes, such as an increase in anxiety, and things we can do as pet owners to make life a little more comfortable for our senior pets.

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.

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. If house-soiling is an issue and seems to contribute to anxiety, take them 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.

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, talk to your veterinarian about possible medications that can help and get information about counter-conditioning 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. Medial 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 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!