Dog getting grumpy? It could be more serious than ‘just old age’

Sleepy dog on the floor
Sleepy dog on the floor

Grumpiness, sleepiness and bad breath are not necessarily signs of old age in dogs and could be an indicator of serious disease, scientists have warned.

People often have a tendency to blame “just old age” on a dog’s slowing pace and some physical changes.

But new research from the University of Liverpool has found that the changes seen in advancing years are actually caused by disease and pain, which can be treated if caught early enough.

They have developed a short but comprehensive scientifically-backed quiz that pet owners can use to give their ageing dogs an at-home health MOT every six months. This helps to check for signs not only of age-related decline, but also of potential disease.

They have created a traffic light system test, and dog-owners are being implored to grade their dog’s health on various aspects, including mobility, behaviour, dental and confusion.

It is hoped that regular concerted efforts to assess a pet’s condition will help detect signs of sickness as early as possible, when it is more treatable.

The tool, funded by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association’s (BSAVA) PetSavers, is available online or in a print booklet and owners are encouraged to use it and share the results with their vet.

‘Grumpiness is often a sign of pain’

“‘It’s just old age’ is literally the phrase owners use, but sometimes it is actually something else,” Dr Carri Westgarth, a scientist from the University of Liverpool who helped create the Ageing Canine Toolkit, told The Telegraph.

“Grumpiness is often a sign of pain, as well as confusion and disorientation.”

She added that dogs will often willingly show their pain to their owners, but some will be more reluctant to ask for help than others.

Cats, being a species that is both prey and predator, hide pain as much as possible, but dogs are social creatures by nature and are more prepared to show their discomfort, but people can still easily miss the signs.

Dr Lisa Wallis, a dog expert also at the University of Liverpool, told The Telegraph at the BSAVA 2023 Congress in Manchester that if a dog has been absolutely fine around people for a number of years but suddenly snaps, then the animal is likely in distress.

It has been estimated that up to 80 per cent of behavioural consultations are pain related, she added, and that medication to treat the pain can lead to completely different behaviour.

Different breeds have varying life expectancies depending mostly on their size. Larger breeds like the Irish wolfhound have a life expectancy of around seven years, whereas a terrier can be expected to live well into its teens.

Some scientists are hopeful of being able to extend dog life expectancy but for now most researchers are focused on maximising improving quality of life in geriatric pets.

Dr Westgarth added that owners should start using the new checklist when their dog is around five years old, if it is a big breed, and from eight if it is a smaller dog.

“Owners should take pictures and videos of their dogs regularly and use the Ageing Canine Checklist every six months, if they can,” she said.