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Old Dogs’ Illnesses Can Go Unnoticed
Behavioral changes may be falsely attributed to age

It’s natural for an older dog to rest more, to play less and to be without the pep so prevalent in earlier years. The aging process changes us all, but that doesn’t mean that every change in an elderly dog is due to aging. Sometimes a dog is feeling unwell, and we make sense of his actions by attributing it to his age. This is especially true when the decline is gradual.

We often don’t realize that the behavior we’ve been seeing is a result of a medical issue until it is resolved. That’s when people say things like, “He hasn’t been this energetic in three years!” or “It’s been so long since I’ve seen him play with our other dog. I thought he just didn’t like to play anymore.”

Recently, I had a friend share with me that her 12-year old dog was diagnosed with cancer. The dog has recovered well from the surgery to remove the tumor, and is currently undergoing additional treatment. The change in him in the six weeks since learning he was ill has been remarkable. He is eager to run at any pace and to go on long hikes, which is in contrast to the indifference he exhibited towards these activities in the last couple of years. He is playing with the other dog in the house, a seven-year old female, which he has barely done for two years. My friend is thrilled to see him doing so well, and appearing so energetic and happy. She is also heartbroken with the realization that his “old man ways” were because he was sick, not because he was getting old. She wishes that she had known to get him into treatment earlier, but nobody could blame her. He went to the vet regularly and had no obvious signs of the illness until recently. The decline in energy as well as losing interest in play happened so gradually, and at the age when it affects most dogs.

I’ve heard many similar stories over the years, because it’s so easy to attribute a general decline in energy and playfulness to getting older, when that may be only one piece (or no part!) of the explanation for the changes. Have you had the experience of realizing that your old dog’s behavior wasn’t just due to the passing years?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

photo by carterse/Flickr

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