New Mexico's Pet ResourceFALL 2003



by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Q: Recently my 12 year old dog has become aggressive. He even growls at our family members. I am afraid that he may one day actually bite. He is a mixed breed that we got at the shelter when he was 4 years old. He has NEVER been this way before. What can I do?

A: At your dog’s age, it is likely that he is responding with aggression to one or several problems associated with aging canines. These can be behavioral or medical. Diminished capacities of senses, decreased mobility, cognitive disturbances, loss of status or pain can all increase aggression in dogs.

The first step in dealing with the problem is to determine the underlying cause of the aggression. Make sure that you keep your family and pets safe as you seek the cause and solution to the aggression.

Do you have other dogs? One cause of aggression in older dogs is alpha demotion. If the older dog is the alpha, there will come a time when his aging condition is noticed by the other dogs. They can sense his weakness and will start to challenge his dominance. The old alpha will try to hide his weaknesses from the “pack.” As the older dog tries to retain his position of dominance, he will become more aggressive as he deals with his challengers. If your older dog is weakened by age or illness, he will most likely fare badly in a fight with a younger dog. If the aggression escalates, you will have to interfere with sharp admonitions of “no,” or shaking a penny can. Keep the dogs separated when you are away from the house or unable to monitor them. This will dissipate as the dogs settle on their new hierarchy.

Older dogs may have diminished capacities of their senses. Most dogs can compensate for the loss of one sense through the use of their other senses. With the loss of sight, dogs can still maneuver in their environment using their acute hearing and sense of smell. But for some older dogs, the loss of sight or hearing can lead to startle responses especially if there is diminished capacity in more than one sense. A dog with sight loss when awakened from sleep may strike out at the unrecognized assailant. People or other pets approach undetected, and the dog may be startled when the person or animal touches him. The dog may growl or snarl at people and animals he has lived with because he cannot recognize them. This is confusing and frustrating for the older dog, and can elicit aggressive responses. You can minimize these responses. If your dog is asleep, call his name until he is fully awake before you touch him. Do not nudge or shake him from sleep. Talk as you approach him, so that he is aware of your position with relation to him.. A blind dog learns the layout of his environment. Do not rearrange the furniture and keep the floor free from clutter. You will decrease the amount of times he bumps into a chair or stumbles over a toy left on the floor.

Like humans, older dogs can suffer from senior dementia. These conditions affect their ability to think and process information. If you have noticed confusion, attention deficit, and failure to respond to once known directions like “sit” or “no”, it may be one of these cognitive disorders. The confusion created in a dog’s mind by such cognitive disorders may lead to aggressive behavior.

Older dogs have diseases like arthritis which can cause the inability to move easily, get up or down, and otherwise navigate about the environment. You may notice a decrease in your dog’s activity level, or a reluctance to climb onto an elevated sofa or bed. As humans, we know when we are in pain and can ask for medical help. Dogs silently cope with the discomfort and limitations brought about by aging joints, bones and muscles. By the time your dog is showing symptoms of pain, the pain may be quite severe.

Aggression which has a sudden onset in an older dog, is not behavioral, does not respond to correction, and is accompanied with one or several of the above mentioned age related conditions is likely caused by pain. A trip to the vet is in order for any of these conditions. If your dog’s condition is a medical one and you can find no relief for him, you may have to face putting your dog to rest from his suffering. But there is much good news. Canine geriatrics is a growing veterinary field,. Some veterinarians are using alternative medicines like acupuncture and chiropractics to complement traditional Western medicine. There are many new medications and drugs available which can help with cognitive and physical disorders and pain in aging canines. One note of caution: if your dog takes any medication on a regular basis, check to see whether increased aggression is a side effect.

Dogs are remarkable in the ways that they handle the infirmities of old age. Using the many resources now available, you can maintain a longer, safe, happy, and pain free quality of life for your aging dog.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

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