Old Dog Anxiety - An Owners' Guide

Old dog anxiety can come on slowly over time, or appear seemingly out of nowhere.

Anxious older dog

Even if Fido has always been a confident, happy dog, when he reaches his senior years it won't be unusual for him to begin to show anxious behavior.

Sometimes this is a result of the normal aging process, at other times it can be caused by physical or psychological problems.

Our older dogs are like older people - not always too keen on change, find security in routine and habit, and may feel less confident in their own abilities.

Being almost on the far side of 'middle-age' myself, I can relate to this and sympathize!


Symptoms of Anxiety In Dogs

These can vary depending on what is causing your dog to feel anxious or scared, but generally you'll see at least a couple, and possibly many more, of these symptoms...

  • Excessive panting
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sleeping problems - including both more, or less, time spent asleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Yawning
  • Restlessness
  • Clingy-ness
  • Barking, whining or howling when left alone
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control (either mild or severe)
  • Personality changes
  • Depression, disinterest or lethargy 


Types of Anxiety In Older Dogs

Nervousness, fear or anxiety can take different forms, and be triggered by different situations.

Sometimes it's a more generalized behavior and your dog may just seem 'jumpier' than usual, perhaps a little unsettled, and maybe less inclined to enjoy things that he previously did.

Other times it's much more specific.

For example, a fear of thunder-storms, of being left alone when you go out (separation anxiety),  of strangers, loud noises, etc. etc.

Anxiety can also be just one symptom of a systemic or more wide-spread health problem such as Canine Dysfunction Syndrome (aka 'Old Dog Syndrome'), which is similar to human Alzheimers.

It can also start as a reaction to a stressful situation or experience. Sort of like canine PTSD.

Let's take a look at all of these types of situations and see how we can help our Golden Oldies' manage their fears and anxieties so that they can maintain a good quality of life....


Causes of Anxiety in Old Dogs

Even if Fido has never before complained about being left at home while you go to work, or go shopping or visiting, it's not unusual for him to start doing so when he reaches old age.

Why is this? Well, although our dogs' can't tell us exactly what's upsetting them there are several possibilities:


He isn't feeling well or is in pain

Your dog relies on you for everything, you're basically his 'security blanket' when he's scared or hurt.

Senior dogs can suffer from all sorts of health problems, some of which may be causing him symptoms of pain or discomfort - these can include anxious or unusual behavior.

This is understandably scary for him and he just knows that he feels better, and safer when you're close by.

The end result is often a clingy, 'velcro' dog with separation anxiety, one who wants to be right next to you at all times. 

Canine Dysfunction Syndrome

Like human Alzheimers' Disease, this condition causes a whole slew of psychological and physical symptoms.

These include changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, confusion, disorientation, loss of bladder/bowel control, restlessness, compulsive behavior and much more.

However, just that short list gives you a good idea of why Fido might be feeling scared or worried, especially when left alone.

The separation can increase confusion, disorientation and compulsive behavior. 

If you think your Golden Oldie may be suffering from this condition, visit my Old Dog Syndrome page for more information on symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options.

Loss of bladder/bowel control

For a dog who's always had good toilet habits, a reduction in the ability to control his bladder/bowels can cause some serious stress.

When he has an 'accident' he knows that he's made a mess which isn't allowed, but he's unable to help himself.  

If you're gone and he's alone he may be really frantic to get outside to pee or poop but there's no-one to help him do that. 

An after-effect of a traumatic experience

Older dogs can have their self-confidence shaken by one bad experience.

Whereas a puppy or younger dog may take a scare in their stride and bounce back quickly, and older dog is more likely to be more traumatized and to show short-term or even long-term after-effects.

This can be caused by something which caused him pain (such as a veterinary procedure or a less-than-gentle grooming session) or by something which scared him (such as a July 4th fireworks display, or a run-in with a bossy dog at the dog park).

Failing Senses

As Fido gets older his senses start to become less acute. 

He may not see, hear or smell as well as he used to. 

This is frightening enough when you understand what is happening, but for a dog who only knows that he can't see where he's going or is living in a very quiet world, it can be truly terrifying.

The results of fading eyesight, hearing and smell in older dogs usually results in behavior changes which include increased periods of sleep, loss of appetite, loss of interest in games or walks and your dog may even look (and feel) depressed.

Other age-related health problems

Aging is a natural process but it's also a degenerative one.

Bones, joints, ligaments, bladder, bowels, eyes, ears, nose, brain, heart and other major organs all have declining function and this makes everything more difficult for your senior dog.

Also, as Fido gets older the body produces lower levels of the hormones designed to combat stress.

Any combination of these is hard on Fido and makes him much more prone to getting anxious in situations he would previously have sailed through.

Change in environment or routine

Dogs are creatures of habit and they thrive on routine and predictability.

For older dogs this is especially true, and any big (or sometimes even small) changes in Fidos' daily routine, environment or family life can really throw him for a loop!

The adjustment to anything new will be longer for an older dog than it will be for a younger one, and the changes may even cause short-term physical symptoms in addition to the anxiety (this might include lethargy, loss of appetite and depression).


Treating Older Dog Anxiety Issues

The way you handle your dogs' anxiety depends on the reason/s for his fears and, to some extent, his own individual personality.

The treatment options include behavioral and lifestyle modifications, natural treatments and products and some medications.

Here's a closer look at how these fit with certain types of anxiety...

Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety is a very common problem in both puppies and adult/senior dogs and there are many ways to manage it, although it can be difficult (sometimes impossible) to fully eliminate it.

In older dogs this is often a new behavior and may be a short-term reaction to a stressful situation or experience.... or it might be a more long-term issue with physical causes.

Either way, there are some tried-and-tested tips and techniques you can use to reduce your dogs anxiety levels and help him feel more secure....

Make the house feel less empty

This sounds strange, but it can really help your older dog feel less scared when you're not home.

If you leave the TV or radio playing the house will feel more lived in. If you have a CD player you can try one of the Dog Relaxation CD's.

Also, leave a light or two on so that if you're out and night falls, or it's already late, your dog isn't left in the dark.

Give him a security object

Make sure Fido has access to his favorite toys,  bed and belongings. 

Leaving an old piece of your clothing in his bed/crate with him can help him feel closer to you and give him comfort. Just don't pick something you want to wear later!

Most senior dogs are no longer big 'chewers' so it's safe to leave them with clothing or soft toys, but if your golden oldie is the exception to the rule then obviously this isn't a good choice.

Try natural anti-anxiety products

There are many natural products which are specifically designed to have a calming effect on dogs.

In our family we've used natural pheromone products with great results for a variety of different situations. 

There are collars, room diffusers and sprays - all made with natural dog pheromones (secreted by mother dogs to calm puppies).

They're totally safe, non-habit-forming and surprisingly effective.

But they are not an instant fix, it takes 24 - 48 hours for the pheromones effects to 'kick-in' so these products are best used on a regular basis as an anxiety-maintenance program.

Other popular natural anti-anxiety treatments include Bach Rescue Remedy for Pets and Homeopet Anxiety Relief For Dogs.


Treating Specific Anxiety-Inducing Situations

If you plan ahead for this type of anxiety you can often reduce the severity of the symptoms.

Scared old dog

Obviously avoiding whatever it is that causes the problem is the first step.

Trying to 'de-sensitize' your dog by repeatedly exposing him to the thing that scares him won't help, and will almost certainly make things worse.

Of course it's not always possible to completely eliminate the trigger either, nor is it necessarily wise. But limiting his exposure is almost always do-able.

If it's thunder or fireworks that suddenly terrify him you can try to minimize his exposure to the noise as much as possible.

Perhaps set him up in a small interior room with no windows, where there's a TV or radio playing to help mask the noise and light outdoors.

If he is happy in his crate, tuck him in there with a heavy bedspread across the crate to muffle the sound and a soft crate pad or blanket to absorb the vibrations (but make sure he doesn't overheat!)

Saving an especially tasty or beloved toy for this type of situation can also be a good source of distraction. 

You can also use the natural products recommended in the section above (the pheromone products need to be used for 24 - 48 hours prior to the anxiety-making situation though).

Also, a Thundershirt can be very effective in this type of situation and was designed with storm-induced anxiety in mind :)  

It works on a similar type of principal to swaddling in babies. By wrapping the body firmly but gently it helps calm the central nervous system naturally and safely.

Treating Other Types of Anxiety in Older Dogs

The other causes of anxiety or fear in senior dogs include physical problems such as failing senses, or specific conditions such as incontinence, poor eyesight/hearing and canine dysfunction syndrome.

Plus generalized anxiety that's a result of how the normal aging process affects behavior and emotions.

Here are some tips to help with all of these...

Maintain a predictable routine & environment

Dogs like things to stay the same, and this is especially true of senior dogs.

Just like human seniors, old dogs are often pretty set in their ways and wary of anything new or different.

Whether it's the food they eat, where they sleep or what time they go for their daily walk it can really help to reduce anxiety by keeping things predictable.

Routine gives them stability and this in itself can be a good antidote to stress.

Plus if your old dogs' sight isn't as good as it once was, or he's not as steady on his feet,  moving the furniture around or changing where his bed or food-bowl is kept is going to stress and confuse him.

Obviously it's  not always possible to keep everything the same. Maybe you have to move house, or go on vacation, or a child leaves home or the mother-in-law moves in.... there are times when life can be messy, complicated and unpredictable.

BUT, regardless of what else is happening try to keep your dogs' routine as predictable as possible - mealtimes, walks, bedtime, playtime, where the toys are kept, where the treats are kept, where he sleeps... each one counts.

Going Away or On Vacation?

If you go on vacation or be away and your dog isn't a good traveler or isn't in good health, allowing him to stay in his own home rather than go to a boarding kennel will be easier for him.

If you have a friend or relative who would be willing to come and stay with him that's perfect. Failing that, there are many great pet-sitting organizations who can help you find a reliable, responsible pet-sitter. Or ask friends/relatives who have gone this route before for personal recommendations.


Use products that can help keep your dog happy and secure

In the sections above I've mentioned certain natural anxiety-reducing products that can help, such as the Thundershirt, Adaptil Pheromone products and dog relaxation CD's.

There are other things that can help too. These include

  • A comfy crate - dogs often feel safer when they have their own 'den'
  • Rugs and non-slip mats - for slick flooring to help Fido keep his feet
  • Socks or bootees - another way to help prevent your dog from slipping/falling
  • Diapers or belly bands - these can help with the stress & mess of incontinence 
  • Mobility aids - such as harnesses or slings to prevent falls or injuries
  • Use Night Lights - on stairs, in hallways or wherever needed

Check out my Exercising Older Dogs page for socks/boots, harnesses and slings.

Also my Dog Incontinence Products page for the best diapers, belly bands & more.

There are lots of natural products that can help reduce anxiety in dogs of all ages.

These include herbal and homeopathic remedies, supplements, accessories and more.

Find a full range of the best, most effective choices here... Natural Remedies For Dog Anxiety


Veterinary help & medications for old dog anxiety

If you've tried all of the appropriate tips and advice and your older dog and none of them are really helping, or if he seems very agitated (or seems to be in pain/distress), then it's time to visit your veterinarian.

There are medications which can treat many of the health issues which plague senior dogs, and getting something physical under control may alleviate the anxiety - at least to some degree.

Also, there are drugs which can be used for dogs who are suffering from severe anxiety/fear issues, but only a veterinarian can decide whether this route is appropriate, advisable or safe for your golden oldie.

And Finally.....

You mean the world to your elderly dog and he relies on you for everything.

Loved Labrador

He'll also take a lot of his cues from you, so please do your best to stay calm, loving patient and cheerful - for his sake.

Don't get angry or frustrated with him, even if his fears seem silly or unnecessary to you. They're important and very real to him!

If he's having trouble with his bladder, don't scold him, he already feels anxious, upset and worried about his lapses in control.

Instead of getting mad, get him diapers or a belly band or take him outside much more often.

Don't stop taking him for walks unless your veterinarian says that's best or he has severe mobility issues, just make the walks shorter instead.

He may not be able to run and jump anymore, but he can still practice his basic obedience and get a tasty reward for 'sit' or 'down' (after all he's doing a lot of those anyway!).... or he may be able to chase a slowly rolling ball or catch a flying treat.

Fido may be slower, or grayer, or less confident than he used to be, but he's still the same dog and it's up to you to make his senior years as comfortable, happy and anxiety-free as possible. 

Good luck :)


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