Changes in behavior are one of the most misunderstood and overlooked symptoms. In fact, most of the time, behavior changes are not considered a symptom at all.
If you were to remember just one thing, remember this – every change is significant. That absolutely includes any changes in the way your dog acts. Listen to what your dog is telling you.
What would such a change look like?
- Did your normally friendly and playful dog suddenly become grouchy and snappy?
- Does your dog no longer enjoy going for walks? Did they suddenly start seeking places to hide, looking to be left alone?
- Has your dog stopped listening to you?
- Does your dog no longer get on the bed with you?
- Does your dog pace around all night?
- Did your dog start licking at the air and everything in sight?
There is a reason for any of these things.
Changes in behavior
There is a lot of overlap but things that qualify as changes in behavior include:
- new aggression
- unexplained disobedience
- loss of interest in play or walks
- obsessive behaviors
- excessive sleepiness
- loss of housebreaking
- avoiding touch/grooming
- changes in vocalization
- mood changes
Things that fall under changes in routine include:
- changes in urination and defecation
- changes in appetite
- no longer getting on furniture
- exercise intolerance
- reluctance to use stairs, getting in and out of vehicle
The most common cause behind changes in behavior or routine is pain. Whether it is from an injury or a disease, surely you don’t want your dog to suffer. Pain can cause any of the above signs or their combination. What signs you might notice depends on how much and where it hurts.
Signs of pain are not always as obvious as crying or limping. It is essential to have your veterinarian investigate and get to the bottom of it. Pain is the first reason you should suspect when your dog’s behavior changes.
Further information: Recognizing Signs of Pain in Dogs: How Do I Tell My Dog Is Hurting?
Before we found out about Jasmine’s arthritis and bad knees, she started refusing JD’s rough play. She got grumpy when he got into her space when resting. We thought it was because he was rather obnoxious, which he was back then. Further, Jasmine lost interest in chew toys and stopped fetching a ball but would fetch flatter objects such as the Flying Squirrel—she had arthritis in her jaw. That’s how subtle the first signs can be.
Back then, we didn’t understand these changes.
To further complicate things, she’d been at the vet often enough that we figured if something were wrong, the vet would have alerted us. But many of our concerns got dismissed.
When I learned to pay closer attention, my frustration grew even higher. At one time, Jasmine started burying her pee. No, I don’t mean ground-scoring; I mean trying to cover up her pee by pushing dirt on it with her nose. Her vet at the time was not listening to me. He just kept repeating that it was normal. Ground-scoring is normal, yes. But that’s not what she was doing. I was unable to get through to him.
It wasn’t until later, with a new vet and Jasmine’s IBD diagnosis and treatment, that she stop doing that and actually started to score the ground instead. We always celebrated when we saw that behavior because, to us, it was evidence of her positive self-assessment.
Some changes scream out loud, such as aggression, while others whisper. The sooner you catch on, the better the outcome for your dog will be. Health problems are always best caught early.
A welcome change that is not welcome
What if your dog’s behavior changes in a desired direction? For example, if your hyperactive dog rests more instead of bouncing off the walls or is no longer running along the fence and barking at anything that goes by?
As much as you might welcome such change, it is still likely a sign of a potential problem.
Besides pain, potential causes behind behavior changes include:
- a decline in hearing or sight
- organ dysfunction
- hormonal diseases
- neurological disease
- urinary tract disorders
- and/or any condition that results in pain could be behind your dog’s behavior changes.
In other words, any change in health status is going to reflect in behavior.
New aggression and irritability
Any condition causing pain or discomfort can lead to an increase in irritability or anxiety/fear of being approached or handled.
A dog with impaired hearing or vision can snap when startled and become more irritable because the world has become a much scarier place.
However rare, rabies should not be ignored as the potential cause of new aggression, irritability, and other changes.
Dogs can get distracted, too excited, even stubborn, and ignore our requests—that might happen under certain circumstances. But if your dog suddenly stops listening for no obvious reason, consider this:
- they might be unable to hear you or
- are unable to comply
- they are developing dementia (or canine cognitive dysfunction)
Impaired hearing or vision, pain, or severe weakness can prevent your dog from obeying.
Bruin’s example: Towards the end of his life, Bruin started ignoring us when we asked him to do something. He’d just lay there and stare. Loss of hearing could result in disobedience, but his hearing was fine. It wasn’t until he got to the point that we knew the end was near when we learned what was happening. We took him into the clinic thinking it was his time; indeed it was. His heart was so weak the vet couldn’t even detect a pulse. Poor Bruin just didn’t have the energy to do what we were asking of him.
A dog might hide because of fear or anxiety. However, if your dog is normally outgoing and social, and doesn’t have history of anxiety and phobias, the reason they’ll hide is most likely pain or illness.
Cookie’s example: Cookie is an active, outgoing girl who loves fun and attention. The one time she withdrew under the desk and would come out only to go potty, she was diagnosed with pancreatitis. She exhibited other signs but hiding and severe tiredness were the most obvious first signs.
Compulsive disorders can have root in stress and anxiety. Whatever the reason your dog is stressed out, it is bad for their health.
However, there are medical problems that can result in obsessive behavior as well.
If your dog is excessively licking, scratching, and biting at their own body, you might be looking at:
- foreign bodies
- pain such as from arthritis etc.
Compulsive licking of surfaces can signify GI upset or disease.
Compulsive eating of inedible objects (pica) can be rooted in
- GI disease
- hormonal disorder such as Cushing’s
- side effect of certain medications such as steroids
Circling can be brought on by:
- ear infections
- vestibular disease
- stroke, or other neurological problem
- liver failure
- Cushing’s disease … basically, anything that has an adverse effect on the brain.
Pressing head into corners is a sign consistent with serious neurological disorders, or head trauma and is often seen in hepatic encephalopathy, where the brain is affected secondary to severe liver disease. See a vet immediately if your dog starts head pressing.
Loss of housebreaking/potty accidents
A dog who suddenly starts having accidents in the house is not being “bad” but is usually suffering from:
- a urinary or digestive disorder
- neurologic issues (particularly cognitive dysfunction),
- or anxiety
Don’t forget, though, anything that makes your dog severely weak or painful can prevent them from eliminating normally and lead to potty accidents too.
Avoiding touch or grooming
If your normally cuddly dog starts avoiding touch, grooming, or other contact, suspect pain.
Exercise intolerance, disinterest in activity and play
If your dog loses interest in play, walks, and other activities, or hesitates to use stairs, get on furniture, and in and out of a vehicle, suspect
Lethargy and unusual sleepiness
Lethargy and excessive sleepiness is an escalation of reduced activity. A lethargic dog is a sick dog. The more severe the lethargy, the more serious the problem.
Panting, pacing, restlessness
Panting, pacing, and restlessness can be sign of emotional distress. However, you need to consider
- pain/physical discomfort
- neurological issues
- cognitive dysfunction
Beware that these signs are also consistent with medical emergencies such as bloat (GDV).
Changes in appetite
While you might be tempted to celebrate when your “chowhound” loses his fixation on food or your picky eater begins eating everything in sight, changes in appetite are associated with a long list of disorders ranging from dental disease, GI conditions to hormonal imbalances.
I cannot list all the possibilities, but the rule of thumb with any change is to look for a medical reason for any behavior change first.
Know what is normal for your dog, be a keen observer, and investigate the cause no matter how deep you might have to dig.
Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: The Big Picture