How to treat anxiety in senior dogs?

A common condition that senior dogs face as they age is anxiety. No matter the breed, every dog experiences anxiety in some form. Anxiety in senior dogs can also have a variety of causes. It can be due to sudden changes in the owner, schedule or physical environment. They start to have cognitive dysfunction. Cognitive decline associated with old age can affect a dog’s memory, consciousness, learning ability, sight, smell and hearing. In addition, age can bring about behavioral change. Just like puppies, anxious senior dogs just need patience, understanding, and a few lifestyle adjustments to navigate their world in happier, healthier ways.

In medical terms, your dog’s cognitive decline in old age is known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Dogs with CDS may exhibit symptoms similar to those seen in older adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. They may be unable to recognize their surroundings, remember certain things and perceive the world around them. This, in turn, can lead to confusion, distress and anxiety in senior dogs.

With sensory loss and decreased mental acuity, senior dogs may become more easily frightened, startled, or nervous. As your dog ages, it is important to recognize the signs of cognitive dysfunction so that you can manage the condition appropriately. Knowing the extent of your dog’s cognitive decline can help you avoid triggering anxiety in them. The causes of anxiety in dogs can be very different, and you need to understand and treat them accordingly.

Generalized Anxiety

The Symptoms:

Usually as dogs get older, they become more anxious. Physically, this may manifest as panting, licking, shaking, or pacing. Behaviorally, an anxious senior dog may also urinate or defecate in the home, drool, lick/bite itself excessively, and even become aggressive or otherwise destructive. They may be restless and have changes in appetite or sleep, or become clingy, restless or lethargic.

The Solution:

It’s best to create a cozy space filled with their favorite toys and blankets. This creates an environment where your dog can feel safe. Just like older humans, senior dogs are stubborn and wary of change. Keep a predictable routine to give your dog peace of mind. Stick to waking up, walking, eating, playing and sleeping at regular times so the dogs know what to expect each day. Do not change the dog’s healthy eating habits or move the placement of toys, dog beds, etc.

Heat therapy can also be an effective way to deal with anxiety in senior dogs. Senior dogs, in particular, can become agitated when left alone for long periods of time. This pressure usually produces physical changes, such as muscle tightening. Wearing a heating therapy brace can improve blood flow and relax muscles. This soothing comfort also helps ease stiffness and anxiety.

Separation Anxiety

The Symptoms:

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioral problems in senior dogs. It is estimated that separation anxiety affects about 14 percent of dogs. Dogs with separation anxiety cannot find comfort when left alone or separated from their families. They become very anxious when they sense their owner is leaving, often shaking, panting, pacing, or licking excessively. When left alone, they may try to escape, bark excessively, become destructive and even aggressive, such as chewing, scratching, digging, or urinating or defecating indoors. Disruptive behavior is common in separation anxiety. Damage is often located around entry and exit points, such as doorways and windows, but dogs in a state of high anxiety are also at risk of harming themselves. Trying to break a dog’s cage, window or even door can result in painful injuries and expensive veterinary treatment.

The Solution:

Try gently massaging. When calming an anxious senior dog, the first step is to stay calm. Don’t engage in distressing or erratic behavior that could make your dog even more anxious. You can also try gently massaging your dog to soothe his or her mind and body.

Make the house seem less empty. You can turn on the radio or TV and let your dog hear something so they don’t feel particularly alone. You can put in more toys that your dog likes. If you are not home at night, you can also leave them a light or two to avoid them being alone in the dark.

Switch up your departure routine. Many senior dogs are smart enough to get anxious when they hear your alarm go off in the morning, see you answer the phone, or change your shoes for work. You can try to change your routine so that they don’t expect you to leave, such as sitting on the couch after taking your keys or returning to the living room after changing your shoes.

Stranger Anxiety

The Symptoms:

Anxiety associated with fear may be caused by loud noises, strange people or animals, visual stimuli such as hats or hair dryers, new or unfamiliar environments, specific situations, such as a veterinarian’s office or a car ride, or surfaces such as grass or wood floors. While some dogs may have only a transient response to these stimuli, they may have a greater effect on anxious dogs. Even dogs that used to be friendly to strangers can develop stranger anxiety as they get older. This can take the form of becoming agitated, putting your tail between your legs, urinating, or even becoming aggressive around unfamiliar people.

The Solution:

Proper socializing can prevent anxiety from developing. Introducing your dog to new people, dogs, animals, places, and experiences can help avoid exaggerated reactions in dogs when encountering strangers and can help your dog become a well-adjusted canine citizen.

Anxiety from Failing Senses

The Symptoms:

You may be curious about some of the changes your dog is going through, including how the once brave dog is now afraid of his own shadow. As dogs age, some show a significant increase in anxiety and other behavioral problems. A dog’s hearing, sight, and smell may be diminished, so it is more likely to startle.

The Solution:

Be more obvious. Take care not to accidentally sneak up behind your dog, always approaching in their line of vision.

Help them get their bearings with sound cues. Try purchasing a bubbling water bowl so they can find it more easily, or placing bells on your shoes to let them know where you are.

Eliminate dangers in your home. Do what you need to do to make your dog feel safe in his space, such as placing a baby gate at the top of the stairs, or providing a crate that makes them feel as if they have their own shed.