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My old dog is whining for no apparent reason or whining at night. What can I do?

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No one likes to think of their old dog as being in pain. However, as senior dogs get older, many owners may notice that their faithful companions begin to whine when trying to perform activities that they once found easy. Their older dogs may even start to whine at night or whine for no apparent reason.

While some dogs may whine for attention or food, an older dog that has recently started to whine is likely doing so because they feel uncomfortable or confused in some way and as such is something that shouldn’t be ignored.

It’s heart-breaking to hear your dog whining; perhaps your dog only whines in certain situations such as when climbing the stairs or jumping in the car, or perhaps there is no obvious cause. Whatever the case may be, it’s important to be aware of the possible causes and know what you can do to help.  

What are the possible causes of whining and how can I help?

chichuahua with anxiety

Whining is a very non-specific symptom; it can be caused by pain, confusion, anxiety, or it can be a sign of a more serious underlying disease. Often expressed as a high-pitched vocalisation, if your dog never used to whine when they were younger then investigating why they may have started now is a good idea.

Try to identify which situations make your dog whine, the duration of whining and if the frequency of whining throughout the day is increasing as this information can help both you and your veterinarian pinpoint possible causes. While some causes of whining aren’t treatable, many are – the sooner you investigate the cause of the whining, the faster any appropriate treatment can begin and the better the prognosis.

Here are some of the most common causes of whining in older dogs:

Pain and discomfort

If your dog whines when struggling to get into certain positions or seems to be uncomfortable when performing basic day to day activities, they might be in pain. Pain can explain why an old or senior dog may be whining at night or whining for no apparent reason.

The most common causes of pain in older dogs are usually musculoskeletal issues or abdominal pain. While both can appear to be similar, they may have very different treatments so it’s important to identify where your dogs’ pain is originating.

Arthritis

If your dog seems to whine when jumping on the sofa, climbing the stairs or when exercising, then they may have some form of musculoskeletal pain – that is, pain of the muscles, joints or bones. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of joint pain and mobility issues in senior dogs, and they will often vocalise to express their discomfort. As a dog ages, so too do their joints; grinding of the joint surfaces and a gradual deterioration of the cartilage within the joint results in uneven wear, inflammation, and pain. Other than whining, common signs of arthritis include stiffness, muscle wastage and a reluctance to exercise.

Thankfully, there are many things you can do to help. Old-Dog proofing your house by providing ramps, grip pads and reducing the distance they need to walk to eat or sleep can help prevent unnecessary movement that your arthritic dog might find uncomfortable. Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin can help keep your dog’s joints lubricated and healthy, while keeping your dog from becoming overweight will prevent excessive load on the joints.

Cosequin Maximum Strength Joint Supplement by Nutramax might help, and is available to purchase on Amazon:

If your old dog has arthritis, It is recommended to exercise your dog little and often. This will help prevent overexerting them in one go. View our page on exercising & older dogs.

dog running

If your dog is still in discomfort then they may require regular pain relief or anti-inflammatory medication, and there are various options available. Many medications do come with side effects however, so be sure to talk to your local veterinarian to help you weight up the pros and cons. Many non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are harmful to the kidneys when used long term for example, regular blood tests should be performed to ensure you aren’t causing any adverse effects.

Learn more about dogs & arthritis.

Abdominal pain

Unlike musculoskeletal pain, a dog with abdominal pain may be uncomfortable and whine even when not moving. A hunched back, tense abdominal muscles and even enlarged stomach can all indicate pain originating somewhere within the abdomen. Abdominal pain can indicate a more serious underlying condition including cancer, liver and kidney damage or even internal bleeding.

If your dog is displaying these symptoms, especially if the pain is sudden in onset, then you should take them to the vets immediately where blood tests or an ultrasound scan can be performed.

You can also view our page on pain relief for senior dogs.

Fear or anxiety

As dogs get older, they become more reliant on their owners. Old dogs will sometimes whine if they are becoming anxious, especially when left alone. Separation anxiety can affect dogs of any age but often becomes worse as they age. They may also whine when something scares them like a loud noise or changes in the environment. Elderly dogs that are stressed or anxious may also tremble or pant. Anxiety is a frequent reason why a dog may be whining at night.

There are solutions to this issue including training, medication, or homeopathic treatments. Although training won’t have as much impact as it may once have done when your dog was a puppy, crate treating can help them get used to being left alone. If your dog whines when in the car then travelling may be the trigger for their anxiety – start with short trips and gradually build up the time in the car to get them used to it. Plug-in pheromone diffusers such as Adaptil can help reduce separation anxiety, nervousness and fear, reducing the symptoms associated.

In more severe cases, medication such as diazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, or amitriptyline, an antidepressant, can be prescribed by your vet; all medications have side effects so these shouldn’t be used lightly and your vet can talk you through the pros and cons.


WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]


Ultimately you may not be able to cure your old dog of anxiety, but the above solutions will help alleviate the symptoms associated with it. To learn more, view our page on old dogs & anxiety.

Doggy dementia

As a dog ages their cognitive function gradually diminishes, like in humans. Pacing, confusion, staring into space and whining are some of the symptoms of doggy dementia. If your old dog is becoming less aware of their surroundings and losing interest in their favourite activities then their cognitive abilities may be reduced. Dementia is a condition that is hard to diagnose in dogs as there are no cognitive tests they can take; it is important to rule out other neurological diseases however, such as seizures or incoordination, as these could indicate more serious brain problems.

Unfortunately, there is no cure to doggy dementia. It is a degenerative process that will gradually worsen with time as the once efficient neurons within the brain decrease in numbers. In most cases dementia effects owners more than our pets themselves; they are none the wiser and as long as your dog still has a good quality of life, it may not be too much to worry about.

There are various diets available that claim to help with cognitive dysfunction, however these have limited results. A medication called propentofylline is available from your vet which may provide some benefit by improving blood flow the brain, but the effects from dog to dog vary.

A note about older dogs whining at night

When your older dog wakes up and gets up in the middle of the night, they might be confused, anxious or in pain. There could be behavioral, cognitive, or environmental reasons explaining why your dog is not sleeping well through the night and waking up regularly. If they suffer from pain, sleeping through the night may be challenging and they may be looking for help. If they suffer from dementia or anxiety, it is likely that waking up alone in a dark room makes them restless. It could also simply be that they get worried sleeping in a room alone without their owners. We recommend reading our page on Why is Your Old Dog Restless at Night? for more details.

How should whining be investigated?

dog at the vet

Questions to answer

If your dog has recently started whining, the first step is to take them to your local veterinarian. Be ready to provide the following information:

  • Describe when the whining occurs: is your dog whining at night or during the day?
  • Does whining happen in specific circumstances or for no apparent reason?
  • How frequently does whining take place?
  • Are there any other abnormal symptoms that you’ve noticed?

Clinical exam

Your vet will perform a full clinical exam including checking various neurological reflexes and they will manipulate your dog’s limbs to test for any signs of stiffness or pain that may indicate arthritis. Blood tests can help investigate any organ disfunction that may have been causing abdominal discomfort.

The most important thing is to rule out any serious, potentially life-threatening, conditions. If your dog gets the all clear then their whining may be due to doggy dementia or anxiety issues. Ask your vet which drugs, if any, they would recommend.                                                                                                                                              

Author

  • Alex Crow is an RCVS accredited Veterinary surgeon with special interests in neurology and soft tissue surgery. Dr Crow is currently practicing at Buttercross Veterinary Center. He earned his degree in veterinary medicine from the Royal Veterinary College (one of the top 3 vet schools in the world). Outside of work Alex enjoys keeping fit, travelling and painting.


Still have questions?
The information on our site is not a substitute for in-person veterinarian consultations. Vetster has partnered with several thousand licensed US veterinarians to provide online video consultations 24/7. Book an appointment (get 10% off with our code SENIORTAIL10).

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