Dog Sensory Issues: Signs, Causes, and Diagnosis

Dog Sensory Issues: Signs, Causes, and Diagnosis

Dog sensory issues are neurological disorders that impact the quality of life. Sensory issues affect a dog's ability to perceive and respond to its environment through its senses.

Signs of sensory issues in dogs include changes in behavior, such as increased anxiety, disorientation, or a sudden lack of dog senses response to stimuli. The issues stem from aging, leading to diminished hearing, sight, and smell senses. Other causes include infections, injuries, or genetic predispositions. 

Diagnosing sensory issues in dogs involves a thorough veterinary examination of aging dog symptoms, including physical assessments and neurological tests, to identify the underlying causes and develop an appropriate treatment plan. 

What are Dog Sensory Issues?

Dog sensory issues are a range of neurological disorders affecting a dog's brain and nervous system. The resulting sensory decline manifests as vision problems, lack of coordination, and eating difficulties. “Sensory neuronopathy in dogs is characterized by degeneration and loss of primary sensory axons, leading to ataxia, impaired position sense, and difficulty in eating,” according to the study by Wouda, W., Vandevelde, M., Oettli, P., Nes, J., & Hoerlein, B. titled “Sensory neuronopathy in dogs: a study of four cases,” 1983. Neurological disorder in dogs are more common in older canines, such as hearing loss.

Can Dogs Lose Their Sense of Smell?

Yes, dogs can lose their sense of smell, particularly as they age, which is a common sensory decline observed in senior dogs. “Dogs over the age of 17 years show prominent atrophic changes in the olfactory epithelium, indicating potential loss of their sense of smell,” according to the study by Hirai, T., Kojima, S., Shimada, A., Umemura, T., Sakai, M., & Itakurat, C. titled “Age‐related changes in the olfactory system of dogs,” 1996.

Neurological disorders, like Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, lead to a dog's declining sense of smell. The disorders affect the brain's ability to process olfactory information, resulting in a diminished sense of smell. The decline in olfactory ability is due to aging-related changes in the nasal passages and sensory cells, which cause dog nasal problems

What are the Causes of Dog Sensory Issues?

The causes of dog sensory issues are listed below.

  • Breed Predisposition: Certain dog breeds are more likely to develop specific sensory issues due to their genetic makeup. Dalmatians are more prone to congenital deafness, and Siberian Huskies are at higher risk for certain eye problems.
  • Congenital Defects: Abnormalities present at birth affect a dog's sensory organs. Examples include congenital deafness, where the inner ear does not develop properly, and congenital blindness due to underdeveloped eyes.
  • Age-Related Changes: Dogs’ sensory abilities naturally decline. Common age-related changes include cataracts, which cloud the eye lens and impair vision, and presbycusis, the gradual loss of hearing.
  • Sensory Organ Infections and Diseases: Various infections and diseases affect sensory organs, leading to vision and hearing loss. Ear infections damage the ear structures, while eye infections or diseases like glaucoma impair sight.
  • Neurological Diseases: Neurological diseases affect the nervous system and disrupt sensory processing. Conditions like IVDD or canine distemper cause widespread damage to the nervous system, leading to sensory deficits.
  • Physical Injury: Trauma to the head or sensory organs results in damage that impairs sensory functions. A blow to the head causes blindness or deafness if the brain or sensory organs are affected.
  • Chemical Exposure: Exposure to toxic chemicals harms sensory organs. Certain substances cause chemical burns or irritation, affect the skin's sense of touch, or damage the eyes and ears.
  • Tumors and Cancer: Growths or tumors in sensory organs or the brain impair sensory functions. Brain tumors disrupt the processing of sensory information, while tumors in the eyes or ears directly affect sight and hearing.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes leads to complications such as diabetic neuropathy, which affects nerve function and impairs a dog's sense of touch.
  • Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is a condition where an underactive thyroid gland leads to changes in the skin and coat, affecting the sense of touch. Hypothyroidism contributes to other health issues that impact sensory functions.
  • Loud Noises: Chronic exposure to loud noises leads to noise-induced hearing loss, damaging the structures within the ear and impairing a dog's ability to hear.
  • Pollutants: Environmental pollutants, such as smoke, chemicals, and dust, irritate sensory organs like the eyes, ears, and skin, leading to sensory issues such as impaired vision, hearing, and touch.
  • Medications and Treatments: Certain medications have side effects that impact sensory functions. Some antibiotics and other drugs are ototoxic, causing hearing loss, while other medications affect vision or touch.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Chronic stress and anxiety affect a dog's overall sensory processing, manifesting as hyperesthesia. The dog becomes overly sensitive to stimuli, leading to heightened responses to touch, sound, or other sensory inputs. 

What are the Signs of Dog Sensory Issues?

The signs of dog sensory issues are listed below. 

  • Increased Anxiety or Fearfulness: A dog becomes anxious or fearful in new environments or situations where they feel vulnerable due to impaired senses.
  • Aggression: Unexplained aggression or irritability is a response to discomfort or confusion caused by sensory deficits.
  • Restlessness: A dog becomes restless, pacing, or having difficulty settling down due to confusion or disorientation.
  • Changes in Social Behavior: The dog becomes more withdrawn, avoiding interaction with people or other animals.
  • Getting Lost in Familiar Places: A dog seems disoriented or gets lost in areas they are usually familiar with, indicating sensory issues affecting their ability to navigate.
  • Circling or Pacing: Repetitive behaviors like circling or pacing indicate confusion or difficulty processing sensory information.
  • Reduced Interest in Play: A noticeable decline in interest in playing with toys or engaging in activities they previously enjoyed.
  • Difficulty Playing: Struggling with toys, missing throws, or appearing uncoordinated during playtime.
  • Startling Easily: Being easily startled by sudden movements or noises, indicating heightened sensitivity or compensatory behaviors.
  • Ignoring Commands or Cues: Unresponsive to familiar commands or cues due to hearing loss or cognitive impairment.
  • Changes in Gait: Altered walking patterns or stumbling indicate issues with sensory perception, particularly touch and proprioception.
  • Head Tilting or Shaking: Frequent head tilting or shaking are signs of ear discomfort or balance issues.
  • Unusual Eye Movements: Abnormal eye movements or a change in how the dog uses their eyes to track objects.
  • Excessive Grooming or Scratching: Increased grooming, scratching, or licking, possibly due to sensory discomfort or altered sensation.
  • Avoidance of Touch: Avoidance of being petted or touched in certain areas, indicating pain or hypersensitivity.
  • Changes in Appetite: A decrease in appetite or altered eating habits are related to a dog losing sense of smell symptoms.
  • Difficulty Locating Food or Water: Finding food or water bowls implies vision problems or disorientation.
  • Excessive Barking: Increased barking is a response to confusion or an attempt to communicate distress.
  • Unusual Vocal Sounds: Making unusual sounds or vocalizations for the dog.

How are Dog Sensory Issues Diagnosed?

Dog sensory issues are diagnosed through clinical evaluations by veterinarians, who use tests to identify the underlying causes and determine appropriate treatments. 

A dog presenting symptoms that indicate sensory issues, such as excessive licking or sensitivity to certain stimuli, undergoes a thorough examination. The examination involves assessing the dog's behavior, sensory responses, and overall health history.

One common test is the neurological examination, which evaluates the dog's coordination, reflexes, and nerve function. Veterinarians utilize imaging scans like MRI or CT scans to get a detailed look at the dog's brain and spinal cord. These diagnostic tools allow veterinarians to pinpoint the specific sensory deficits or abnormalities affecting the dog and tailor treatment plans accordingly.

How can I help my dog with sensory overload?

You can help your dog with sensory overload by preventing overstimulation and consulting a veterinarian to determine suitable treatments and medications to alleviate their symptoms.

Create a calm and safe environment to prevent overstimulation. Overstimulation leads to excessive sensory input, causing a state of heightened arousal and stress. Establish a routine that includes regular exercise, mental stimulation, and moments of relaxation. Providing a designated safe space for overstimulated dogs to retreat when feeling overwhelmed is beneficial.

Can sensory issues go away?

Yes, sensory issues in dogs can go away with appropriate treatment. The extent of recovery depends on the underlying cause and the treatments’ effectiveness.

Early intervention, consistent therapy, and a supportive environment enhance a dog's chances of recovering from sensory issues. Patience is vital as progress is gradual and setbacks occur. 

Understanding each dog’s individual needs and triggers allows for tailoring a personalized treatment plan. Positive reinforcement, desensitization techniques, and environmental modifications contribute to rehabilitation.

How does Aging Affect a Dog's Senses?

Aging affects a dog's senses by leading to sensory decline and cognitive dysfunction. The decline is common in senior dogs. “Aging affects dogs' senses, with younger dogs (9 years) able to locate food more quickly and with more success than aged groups (9 years), and dogs with severe cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) exhibiting poorer performance,” according to the study by González‐Martínez, Á., Rosado, B., Pesini, P., García-Belenguer, S., Palacio, J., Villegas, A., Suárez, M., Santamarina, G., & Sarasa, M. titled “Effect of age and severity of cognitive dysfunction on two simple tasks in pet dogs,” 2013.

Pet owners asking, “How do I know if my dog is getting old?” must check for graying fur around the muzzle, decreased energy levels, slower movements, changes in weight, and declines in vision and hearing. A senior dog won't eat food if experiencing sensory issues. Aging dog symptoms include a gradual deterioration in the ability to see, hear, and smell with the same acuity as in younger years. Senior dogs have dim eyesight, leading to difficulty distinguishing objects or navigating familiar surroundings. 

Do dogs eat less as they age?

Yes, dogs eat less as they age. Reduced appetite is attributed to decreased activity levels, slower metabolism, and health issues such as dental or gastrointestinal problems. “Aging leads to changes in appetite-regulating peptides, affecting their suppressing and stimulatory effects on food intake,” according to the study by Akimoto, S., & Miyasaka, K. titled “Age‐associated changes of appetite‐regulating peptides,” 2010.

Aging dogs experience a diminished sense of taste and smell, making food less appealing. Pet owners asking, “Do Dobermans lose their sense of smell?” must know that Dobermans do not lose their sense of smell more than other breeds. A decline in olfactory function in Dobermans or other dogs is related to aging, nasal infections, or neurological issues.

Is there a way to fix sensory issues?

Yes, there are ways to fix sensory issues in dogs, depending on the underlying cause. “Following a consistent protocol, ensuring a quiet, distraction-free environment, and keeping the dog calm and relaxed can help manage and possibly improve sensory issues in dogs,” according to the study by Cunningham, R., Park, R., Kňazovický, D., Lascelles, B., & Gruen, M. titled “Assessment of Sensory Thresholds in Dogs using Mechanical and Hot Thermal Quantitative Sensory Testing,” 2021.

Treatment options include medical interventions, environmental modifications, and supportive care. Surgery restores sight if a dog has vision problems due to cataracts. Medication and regular ear cleaning manage hearing loss caused by chronic ear infections. 

Dogs with age-related sensory decline benefit from adaptations like maintaining a consistent environment, using visual or tactile cues, and engaging in gentle, stimulating activities. 

Do Dobermans Lose Their Sense of Smell?

Yes, Dobermans lose their sense of smell as they age due to sensory decline. Dobermans do not inherently lose their sense of smell more than any other dog breed. All dogs experience a decrease in their sense of smell due to aging, infections, neurological issues, or exposure to toxins. “Inflammation, alterations in blood flow and hydration, and systemic diseases may impact olfaction in detection canines, impacting their working efficiency,” according to the study by Jenkins, E., DeChant, M., & Perry, E. titled “When the Nose Doesn’t Know: Canine Olfactory Function Associated With Health, Management, and Potential Links to Microbiota,” 2018.

Other breeds prone to sensory issues include Dalmatians, susceptible to congenital deafness, and Siberian Huskies, which experience vision problems. Dobermans are not uniquely predisposed to losing their sense of smell. Other breeds are subject to the same causes of olfactory decline. A Doberman or any other dog that shows signs of a reduced sense of smell should be taken to a veterinarian for consultation.

Is Touch Sensitivity in Dogs One of the Sensory Issues?

Yes, touch sensitivity in dogs is one of the sensory issues they experience. Dogs develop a heightened sensitivity to touch due to neurological disorders, skin conditions, or anxiety. “Dogs born in commercial breeding establishments and sold through pet stores are more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems in adulthood, including increased aggression, fear, and sensitivity to touch,” according to the study by Mcmillan, F. titled “Behavioral and psychological outcomes for dogs sold as puppies through pet stores and/or born in commercial breeding establishments: Current knowledge and putative causes,” 2017. 

Touch Sensitive dogs exhibit signs such as flinching when touched, yelping in response to gentle petting, or even showing aggression when touched in certain areas.