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Senile barking is not uncommon. In fact, twice a day, almost like clockwork, my elderly canine pal Ginko barks – a lot. Sometimes I think he knows he is barking. Other times he seems completely unaware that he is firing off one shrill bark at a time, every 60 to 90 seconds, for hours on end. He barks in the morning when he first wakes up, and he barks in the late afternoon. It wears on me but I know there is a good chance he cannot help it.
I often refer to this behavior as “senile barking” but there are several reasons why older dogs bark, as well as several ways to encourage elderly dogs to bark less.
Why Older Dogs Might Bark More
There are a variety of reasons why we see behavior changes in elderly dogs, including:
- Canine cognitive dysfunction. This Alzheimer’s-like condition typically appears in dogs as several behavioral changes including barking, house soiling, and changes to interactions with people and other pets in the household.
- Sensory limitations. Elderly dogs often experience at least partial hearing or vision loss. This causes them to startle more easily or to feel more concern about their environment in general. Some dogs may bark more as an expression of this concern.
- Aging brain. Even dogs who are not showing signs of true canine cognitive dysfunction may experience changes in the way their brain processes information and the way he copes in his environment, causing more barking.”A lot of times what happens with our senior patients is [that] they have had an underlying behavior concern almost their whole lives,” explains Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, DVM, MS, assistant professor and service chief/community practice at Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “[A]s the brain ages-not even talking about cognitive dysfunction or Alzheimer’s at this point-just the nature of the aging brain makes that dog less able to cope with its environment. It may have been that things triggered barking behaviors when they were younger which were either trained out or [the owner was] able to cope with it, so it wasn’t as noticeable.”
How to Help Older Dogs Bark Less
Because elderly dogs often experience additional medical concerns, it can be difficult to pinpoint how medical and behavioral issues interact and overlap. It’s best to start with a thorough medical exam from your veterinarian to address any medical needs that may be contributing to the barking behaviors such as pain, anxiety, and lost vision or hearing.
It may take some trial and error to figure out the possible causes and solutions to barking. Dr. Ruch-Gallie often begins with simple over-the-counter interventions such as:
- Adding essential fatty acids to the dog’s diet (Omega-3 and Omega-6). Do so slowly, however, since fatty acids can cause diarrhea if introduced too quickly.
- Putting a dog-appeasing pheromone collar on your pet. Each collar releases a calming scent for about a month before needing to be replaced.
- Using a Thundershirt or calming body wrap to provide a sense of security. This method is a little bit like swaddling a crying baby.
- Limiting the dog’s access to the entire house by creating a safe smaller space as a retreat. A smaller space means less to watch over.
- Keeping a consistent and predictable household routine. Too much change day-to-day can keep an elderly dog on edge.You can also help by touching your dog and letting him see your face when you speak so he can feel the vibrations of your voice and see your mouth moving. Hand signals, in addition to verbal dog behavior cues, can also help you communicate better with an aging dog. (If your dog isn’t old yet, teach those hand signals now. It’ll be a big help later.)
The End is Near?
Using my own example, I asked Ruch-Gallie about whether or not this kind of consistent barking indicates some level of “suffering” (for lack of a better word). She explains that these kinds of behavior changes in elderly pets can sometimes lead to damage to the human-animal bond. However, it’s tough for veterinarians to bring up quality-of-life discussions when an aging dog is medically strong but perhaps not enjoying life anymore.
“If you [the patient] bring it up,” she says, “it makes it so much easier to say, ‘Let’s talk about the quality of life.’ We can try some things, but what is the breaking point?” Unlike choosing euthanasia in a canine cancer patient, having the same end-of-life discussion is tougher and more nebulous in an elderly (and possible senile) canine patient.