Dear Dr. Thompson: My husband's sister moved in with us five years ago, bringing her lab mix along. He is about 15 and not very active, but appears to be in good health. Before they moved he was mostly an outdoor dog, preferring that to indoors even the winter. Now he prefers the indoors almost and always lying near her. My sister-in-law rarely goes away overnight but when she does Midnight mopes around and won't eat or drink. Though he sleeps in my sister-in-law's bedroom, if she is gone he will generally stay downstairs. She may be going out of town next month and I was wondering if there is anything we can do for Midnight to keep him from being what seems like very a depressed dog.
Dogs are creatures of habit that form strong social bonds with the people around them. Include the fact that you have a 15 year-old dog who may be losing some mental sharpness, the combination may make adjusting to change even harder.
A significant number of older dogs develop brain changes that are similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people. As they age, dogs accumulate the beta-amyloid protein that is linked to the plaques that develop in people with Alzheimer’s disease. These plaques interfere with normal brain function and signs of senility can progress. Wandering around, excessive sleeping and other repetitive behaviors can be signs of this cognitive dysfunction. Many times interaction with other family members can be affected. So what you might be interpreting as moping may be some senility being worsened by your sister-in-law leaving.
The strong social bond and consistency that he has with her is probably a big part of his mental routine. His not eating and drinking might just be a manifestation of this disruption, but it should be watched closely to make sure it does not affect his health.
My suggestion would be to try and engage him as much as possible to try and keep him mentally stimulated while she is gone. If there are special treats he enjoys it would be a good time to bring them out as much as possible. Taking him on a walk or playing would be a good way to try and snap him out of his funk. As much mental stimulation as possible can help with the progression of senility long term as well. He may still have some spring in his step that can be drawn out.