We expect physical changes in pets as they grow older. The muzzle goes gray, the joints get stiff, the eyes become cloudy. But senior and geriatric dogs and cats can also undergo behavior changes. Those changes can sometimes signal underlying physical problems or the onset of cognitive dysfunction.
Anxiety, aggression and changes in house training habits are some of the differences you may notice. In some circumstances, they can be surprising, scary or frustrating. The important thing to know is that they aren’t always a normal part of the aging process and should be checked out by your veterinarian. Here are some things you may notice as your pet gets older.
It’s not unusual for aging pets to become anxious about things that never seemed to bother them before. Or earlier in life, their anxiety may have been mild enough that it went unnoticed, but now it has increased in intensity.
Your geriatric dog may develop a fear of thunderstorms or fireworks or start to become anxious when you leave the house. Geriatric cats can become more sensitive to environmental changes than they were in their younger years. A new work schedule, a child or strangers in the home, or other changes can trigger anxious reactions in cats such as urine spraying, loud or frequent vocalizations, excessive or compulsive grooming behaviors or loss of appetite.
Changes in personality or activity level can be early signs of disease or painful conditions. A normally happy pet who suddenly becomes aggressive may be a victim of the aches and pains of old age. Osteoarthritis or disc disease can cause dogs or cats to growl, snap or scratch when touched in sensitive areas. Ear infections and dental disease can also be painful. A puppy or kitten who plays too roughly with an older animal may be on the receiving end of grouchy behavior, or cause pain or anxiety in the older animal. Pets who have lost hearing or eyesight may react aggressively when they are startled by an unexpected approach.
Talk to your veterinarian about what’s going on. Often, the solution is as simple as medication to relieve pain or treat disease. A Fear Free-certified veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, vet tech or dog trainer can help you learn to interact positively with pets who have lost hearing or sight or manage interactions between young and old pets.
Loss of house training isn’t unusual in senior pets, but it’s not necessarily because they have become lazy or forgetful. In some cases, they may simply need to have potty breaks more frequently to accommodate a bladder that is weaker and less stretchy, unable to hold as much urine as in the past. Older pets become constipated, meaning they may poop smaller amounts on a more frequent basis. Diabetes or kidney disease can cause pets to urinate more often or in larger amounts. Cats with arthritis may have difficulty climbing in or out of the litter box. Help them out by making the box easier to enter and exit.
These are just a few of the many reasons for behavior changes in our golden oldies. If you notice these types of changes in a pet’s behavior, it’s a good idea to schedule a full veterinary exam that includes a physical, as well as lab work that includes a complete blood count, a blood chemistry panel, thyroid levels, and urinalysis, and a neurological exam.
You may find that your pet has a condition that can be treated or managed with medication, dietary changes, aids such as ramps, steps or compression garments, behavior modification, or changes in the pet’s environment or schedule. Making some simple lifestyle changes can allow you to share many more months or years of happiness in your pet’s company.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, affiliated with Vetstreet.com.