Older dog hiding under blanket to cope with anxiety

Key takeaway

Anxiety in older dogs can develop for a variety of reasons, whether due to cognitive decline or a major change in their life. Treatment may involve employing behavioral modification strategies or giving them prescription medication.

As your dog gets older, you most likely expect him or her to start slowing down. Their puppy years have passed them by, which hopefully means that they’re no longer upending waste bins, digging holes in the yard, and peeing on your carpet. However, even older dogs can experience behavioral problems that may impact their quality of life and yours.

One common condition that older dogs can face is anxiety. No matter what the breed is, every dog can experience anxiety in some form or another. Anxiety in older dogs may develop for a variety of reasons, whether it’s due to a sudden change in owner, schedule, or physical environment. Separation anxiety in older dogs may even be an indication of cognitive dysfunction.

In this article, we examine the issue of anxiety in older dogs from every angle. In doing so, we list out the signs of anxiety in older dogs, potential causes, and available treatment options.

Note: We'll use "anxiety" as a generic term throughout this post because it's a more common phrase for most pet owners. However, veterinary behaviorists use the phrase “fear, anxiety, and stress” to describe these adjacent behavioral problems in dogs. For more information on fear, anxiety, and stress, refer to our post on dog anxiety.

Do Dogs Get More Anxious With Age?

While not every dog gets more anxious with age, some dogs do. One reason for this is because as dogs age, they can begin to experience cognitive dysfunction. Cognitive decline brought on by old age can impact your dog’s memory, awareness, learning capabilities, sight, smell, and hearing. Additionally, age can bring about behavioral changes. As your dog grows older, they may begin to interact differently with the humans and animals in their lives.

Cognitive decline can impact your dog's: Memory, Awareness, Learning capabilities, Sight, Smell, Hearing

In medical terms, your dog’s cognitive decline in old age is referred to as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). Dogs with CDS may exhibit symptoms similar to elderly humans suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. They may have trouble recognizing their surroundings, remembering certain things, and perceiving the world around them. This, in turn, can lead to confusion, distress, and anxiety in older dogs.1

However, cognitive decline isn’t the only reason your older dog may be anxious. Certain illnesses and pains that develop later in life may be fueling your older dog’s anxiety. Thus, when you consult with your vet, it’s important they check for underlying issues that may be causing anxiety in your older dog.

Signs Of Anxiety In Senior Dogs

Being able to spot the signs of anxiety in older dogs will allow you to recognize when there’s a problem. Additionally, understanding the specific symptoms of anxiety in older dogs can help you and your vet rule out other illnesses, conditions, and diseases. This enables your vet to come up with a specialized treatment plan aimed at soothing your older dog’s anxiety.

Destructive dog with anxiety

If you think your senior dog may be suffering from anxiety, make sure to watch out for these common signs2:

  • Excessive drooling or panting
  • Disorientation
  • Night waking
  • Frequent pacing
  • Attempts to escape
  • Excessive howling or barking
  • Urinating or defecating in the house despite potty training
  • Destructive behaviors (chewing, scratching, digging)

If you recognize one or more of these signs, it is a good idea to schedule an appointment with your vet. A vet can help you interpret these symptoms and devise a treatment plan that tackles the most damaging symptoms your older dog may be experiencing.

Signs Of Cognitive Dysfunction In Older Dogs

As we mentioned above, anxiety in older dogs is often the result of cognitive decline or CDS. With the loss of senses and a decline in mental sharpness, older dogs may become more easily scared, startled, or nervous. As your dog gets older, it’s important to recognize the signs of cognitive dysfunction so that you can appropriately manage the condition. Understanding the level of your dog’s cognitive decline can help you avoid triggering their anxiety.

Below, we’ve provided a list of common behavioral and physical symptoms exhibited in dogs experiencing cognitive dysfunction:

Behavioral symptoms3

  • Disorientation
  • Abnormal interactions with familiar people or pets
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycle
  • House soiling despite housetraining
  • Decreased energy or repetitive behavior
  • Learning difficulties or memory loss

Physical symptoms4

  • Vision impairment
  • Smell disturbance
  • Tremor
  • Swaying or falling
  • Drooping head (head ptosis)

Graphic shows Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction 
If you have an older dog who’s displaying one or more of the above symptoms, you should take them to the vet. Keep in mind that these symptoms will often start out as mild and progress in severity as time goes on. By the time symptoms are observed by pet parents, CDS may have been present for a while, so it's important to check in right away. Additionally, some therapies are more effective earlier in treatment than later, so another good reason to check in early in the course.

Causes

In most cases, it will prove extremely difficult to pinpoint a single definitive cause of anxiety in older dogs. In order to make a diagnosis, vets will often have to review the dog’s medical records, conduct a physical examination, and may recommend some diagnostic tests, like bloodwork, x-rays to rule out a problem in another body system. It's good to keep in mind that a sudden behavior change for a senior dog is usually going to be a medical problem, not a primary brain problem.

The good news is that certain situations and factors are commonly associated with anxiety in older dogs. If any of these factors clearly apply to your dog, it may make it easier to come up with a treatment plan for your older dog’s anxiety. With that being said, here are some of the most common causes of anxiety in older dogs:

  • A new owner
  • Change in schedule
  • Change in surroundings
  • Traumatic event
  • An owner’s sudden absence
  • Genetics

Treatment

When it comes to treating anxiety in older dogs, you have a number of options at your disposal. The most effective treatment plan is going to depend on your dog’s behavior, medical history, and the symptoms they’ve been exhibiting.

Anxious dog visiting vet

Once you notice signs of anxiety in your older dog, it’s best to act quickly. Persistent anxiety in older dogs can result in high levels of stress, which in turn can lead to more serious mental and physical health problems for your dog. At the same time, quickly providing your dog with treatment can benefit both your dog’s quality of life and your own.

So, how do you go about treating separation anxiety in older dogs? Below, we explain some of the treatment options that are commonly used with older dogs who have anxiety2:

  • Behavior modification: Behavior modification can improve your dog's perception of the world and relieve anxiety at its source, resulting in long-term transformation. Two behavioral modification techniques are counterconditioning and desensitization. Please keep in mind that some commonly taught or wrongly taught techniques might worsen anxiety, so speak with your veterinarian about developing a behavior modification plan that is right for your dog.
  • Managing changes: Older dogs typically won’t be as accommodating to changes when compared with young dogs or puppies. In fact, suddenly altering an older dog’s physical environment or routine can lead to feelings of anxiety, confusion, and distress. So, when dealing with an anxious older dog, it’s generally a good idea to maintain a consistent environment, routine, and schedule, while enriching their environment. This can help lower your dog’s stress levels and make them feel reassured.
  • Pharmaceuticals: In some cases, medication may prove to be the most effective option when treating separation anxiety in older dogs. Prescription medication can soothe your dog’s mind and relieve symptoms of anxiety. A course of medication may also be combined with the behavioral adjustment strategies described above. A vet can help you decide if supplements or pharmaceuticals are best.

While the treatment options listed above can be used to address separation anxiety in older dogs, they may not always be effective in directly addressing cognitive dysfunction. In cases where your older dog is experiencing cognitive dysfunction, providing physical and mental stimulation can help to slow this decline.

Additionally, your vet may recommend a prescription veterinary diet for your dog if he or she is displaying signs of CDS. A specialized diet can improve their quality of life and mitigate many symptoms typically associated with CDS. Aside from dietary modifications, medications such as selegiline have also shown promise when it comes to treating cognitive decline and CDS, along with essential fatty acids, Vitamins C, E, arginine, and L-carnitine.2

Before deciding on a treatment option, it’s important to consult with a vet. With Dutch.com, you can quickly schedule an online consultation with a qualified vet, who can assess your dog’s symptoms and make a diagnosis. From there, the vets we work with can create a customized treatment plan aimed at treating anxiety in your older dog and provide ongoing care.

Anxiety in Dogs: Frequently Asked Questions

Do dogs get more anxious with age?

While not every dog gets more anxious with age, anxiety in older dogs is not unusual. As dogs age, their sense of smell, hearing, and sight may be impacted. Additionally, they may experience cognitive decline and struggle when it comes to perception and memory.1 These physical and mental changes may manifest as anxiety in your older dog, as there are many studies that support that normal brain degeneration and older age results in worse anxiety.

Is anxiety in older dogs common?

Whether or not your older dog experiences anxiety depends on a number of factors, such as their past experiences, their natural disposition, and their genetics. It’s also important to keep in mind that older dogs can experience different levels of anxiety, ranging from mild to severe.


How do you calm an older dog with anxiety?

When calming an older dog with anxiety, the first step is to stay calm—don’t engage in distressing or erratic behavior that could make your dog even more anxious. You might also try gently massaging your dog to soothe his or her mind and body.

If you have a dog who’s constantly anxious, it may be a good idea to create a comfortable space that’s filled with all of their favorite toys and blankets. This creates an environment your dog can feel safe in.5 To prevent future anxious episodes and address the root of their anxiety disorder, long-term treatment involving medication or behavioral adjustment strategies may be necessary.

Final Notes

As your dog ages, anxiety can develop either due to cognitive decline, a major change in their life, genetics, or a variety of other factors. Dealing with anxiety in older dogs at night and during the day can be problematic and impact both your quality of life as well as your dog’s. The good news is that, in many cases, you can minimize the impact of anxiety in older dogs using behavioral modification strategies or medication.

If you think your older dog might have anxiety, use Dutch to access high-quality veterinary care and get your dogs the help he or she needs. We can treat a wide range of conditions, from separation anxiety in older dogs to dog diarrhea.

Once you schedule an online consultation, you’ll be able to quickly meet with a qualified vet who can review your dog’s symptoms, come up with a diagnosis, design a customized treatment plan, and provide ongoing care. Dutch is also the only pet telemedicine company to facilitate medication delivery right to your doorstep. Reach out today to get the treatment your dog needs.

References

  1. Kriss, Randa. “Understanding, Preventing, and Treating Dog Anxiety.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 15 Jan. 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/treating-dog-anxiety/.
  2. Landsberg, Gary M, and Sagi Denenberg. “Behavioral Problems of Dogs - Behavior.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, May 2014, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/normal-social-behavior-and-behavioral-problems-of-domestic-animals/behavioral-problems-of-dogs.
  3. “Cognitive Decline in Aging Dogs: What to Know.” CVMBS News, Texas A&M University Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, 15 Apr. 2021, https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/cognitive-decline-in-aging-dogs/.
  4. Ozawa, Makiko, et al. “Physical Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.” The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, The Japanese Society of Veterinary Science, 1 Nov. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6943310/.
  5. Lloyd, Janice K.F. “Minimising Stress for Patients in the Veterinary Hospital: Why It Is Important and What Can Be Done about It.” Veterinary Sciences, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), 13 Apr. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5606596/.