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Vet Explains Old Dog Behavior Changes at Night

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Old Dog Behavior Changes at Night

What causes old dog behavior changes at night? Old age brings with it a variety of medical conditions. With good care and regular checkups, many of them can be either prevented or treated. Old age also brings many natural, age-related changes that can be slowed down through your intervention. There is much that is predictable about your dog’s age-related health, and within breeds even more predictable. Many geriatric medical problems seem more frequent now because dogs are living longer than ever before.

Is gabapentin making your dog wobbly?

Is gabapentin making your dog wobbly?

Old Dog Behavior Changes at Night 

As the body’s metabolism slows, its systems are not as efficient as they once were. Hair turns grey and loses its natural luster. Joints stiffen and muscles lose their strength and tone. The nervous system appears less sharp in its responses to the outside world. The senses seem less reliable, particularly eyesight and hearing.

Left to nature, a dog’s life expectancy is limited by its ability to find food, defend itself and avoid illness and injury. Through living with us, many dogs now live long enough to become true geriatrics. Aging is natural, not an illness. With increasing age, your dog’s body simply does not work as well as it once did.

Aging also allows illnesses to occur more frequently. Over that we have little control. But there are signs of aging that are similar to signs of illness, and it is important to separate the two. Older dogs lacking mental stimulation become dull and lethargic, but lassitude or depression is one of the natural ways in which a sick dog’s body responds to the stress of illness.

Never assume that changes in your dog’s behavior are simply the changes of aging. If your dog’s behavior changes, see your vet. As a general rule, dogs in the last third of their natural life benefit from twice-yearly medical checkups.

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Increasing disorientation, changes in social relationships, and alterations in sleeping patterns are common. Many elderly dogs eventually interact less with their family, sleep more during the day and less at night. They get befuddled, some dogs start staring into space or walking into corners. A curious phenomenon is that while neutered females become more aggressive, neutered males get less so as they grow old.

Physical Changes in Old Dogs

Dog pupil showing cloudiness of nuclear sclerosis.

Changes in eyesight may contribute to old dog behavior changes at night

With age, messages travelling through the nervous system slow down, and every sense becomes less acute than it was in youth. Eyesight and hearing are the senses that deteriorate the most and where deterioration is most noticeable and most problematic.

Diminished Eyesight

Some breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever, inherit the risk of developing mature-onset cataracts. If a cataract does develop, the crystalline lens of the eye is removed but, unlike in humans, it is rarely replaced with a plastic lens. The anatomy of the dog’s eye makes this a more difficult solution in dogs.

Cloudy changes in older dogs’ eyes may resemble a cataract but are more likely to be an age-related connective tissue change in the lens called lenticular sclerosis. Every dog over the age of nine develops sclerosis and suffers from nearsightedness.

A dog sees through a mist and can still see movement, especially at a distance of 20 feet (six meters), but it has difficulty finding a ball in front of its nose.

Diminished Hearing

Impaired hearing is common in older dogs. Total deafness also occurs, often quite rapidly over a six-month period. Owners often misinterpret true hearing loss with selective hearing – an older dog’s realization that it does not always have to do what it is told.

Degenerative Joint Disease

The incidence of painful degenerative joint disease or arthritis increases with time. Although any old dog can develop painful joints, it is a problem that is more likely to occur in some breeds than in others. Glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin supplements nourish the joints and when given chronically, tend to reduce the pain.

dog trick

Behaviors Changes in Old Dogs 

Most of the signs of senile dementia that we might see in people also occur in dogs. A typical age-related change in dogs is standing at the wrong place by the door when wanting to go in or out. Some dogs tend to bark absently. Others seemingly forget why they are where they are. This can be associated with loss of housebreaking.

The term canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) has been coined to describe the behavior changes that are typical of old age. The term itself is a mouthful, but it is helpful because its use indicates that this is a medical disorder.

To be more precise, the term cognition describes a series of mental processes like perception, memory, learning, awareness and decision making. Simply put, cognition allows the animal to take in information, process them and eventually act upon them.

The term canine cognitive dysfunction describes behavioral changes that normally occur in aging dogs and are not solely associated with general medical conditions. Basically, canine cognitive dysfunctions develops due to old age.

The behavioral changes associated with CCD can be classified in four different categories: 1) loss of cognition and recognition, 2) loss of housetraining, 3) disorientation and 4) changes in the sleep-wake cycle.

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The clinical signs associated with CCD include: excessive whining, vocalizing and barking, exercise intolerance, increased irritability, new fears and phobias, increased clinginess towards the owners, destructive behavior, urinating and/or defecating inside the house.

It should be noted that the terms cognitive dysfunction and senile dementia are often used interchangeably. However, although they manifest similarly, they are not the same. CCD is exclusively due to natural aging. On the other hand, senile dementia can develop due to previously existing structural or metabolic conditions (tumors, inflammations, endocrine abnormalities).

Dealing with Behavior Changes in Old Dogs 

All in all, older dogs sleep more and take more time to remember the who, what, when, where, after they wake up. They are also less tolerant of weather extremes.

Habits, such as feeding time or the hour the family goes to bed, become deeply ingrained. Older dogs hate changes in routine. They are naturally less energetic, less curious and less active. Some become irritable, especially those with diminished sight or hearing.

Routine, daily mental stimulation is extremely beneficial for older dogs and helps to keep the brain in good working order. The drug selegiline (Anipryl), which was developed for use in humans to delay the development of advanced signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, is licensed for use in dogs with CCD.

If your dog is having "senior moments" look carefully at its behavior. Some aspects of aging are irreversible, but others can be delayed, or even reversed, with regular, frequent mental stimulation and effective use of licensed medication.

Photo Credits:

  • Wikipedia, Nuclear sclerosis, Nuclear sclerosis in a nine year old Collie mixed breed. This condition is often confused with a cataract.by Joel Mills - Own work CC BY-SA 3.0

About the Author 

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

ivana crnec

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