It is not unusual for behavioral problems to develop in older pets. For years, these behaviors may have remained at a lower level, becoming more evident as age-related health changes, such as arthritis, develop. Other behavioral concerns may result directly from a physical illness. Just as people experience changes in their cognitive abilities as they age, so do dogs and cats. Some changes associated with aging may seem insignificant, but even a minor change in behavior could indicate an underlying medical condition or a decline in cognitive function. Early diagnosis and treatment can control or slow the progress of many disease conditions. Advise your veterinarian if there are any changes in your pet’s behavior.
What are some of the causes of behavior changes in senior pets?
Behavior problems in senior pets can be caused by a number of factors:
Changes in routine or home environment: Changes in the environment can trigger behavioral changes in pets of any age. Older pets are accustomed to their routine and may struggle to adapt to less predictable changes. Suddenly losing or gaining a family member, moving to a new home, or even adjusting to a person’s new work schedule can create anxiety or frustration.
Medical illnesses or degenerative disease: Changes in physical function can contribute to behavioral changes. As pets age, they may experience a change in their ability to see or hear. Pets may feel anxious if it becomes difficult for them to notice a person or pet approaching. They may startle more easily, or scan their environment more often. Some illnesses, such as arthritis and neurologic disease, cause pain that can lead to anxiety or frustration when they cannot easily access a favorite resting spot or retreat from a child approaching them. Medical conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease trigger an increase in thirst, which can contribute to house soiling. Increased water consumption creates a need to urinate more often. Diseases of the endocrine organs, such as the thyroid gland and pituitary gland, can contribute to behavioral changes such as anxiety. See the handout “Diagnosing a Behavior Problem – Is It Medical or Behavioral?” for more information.
Senility or cognitive dysfunction: The brain is susceptible to age-related degenerative processes that can affect behavior, personality, memory, and learning ability. Just as people with Alzheimer’s disease develop amyloid deposits in their brains, so do dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Cognitive changes related to brain aging can be seen in cats as well as dogs. See the handout “Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction” for more information.
How can I find out why my pet’s behavior has changed?
Regardless of their age, pets that exhibit behavioral changes should have a physical examination. Your veterinarian may also suggest laboratory testing to screen for underlying medical conditions. You may be referred to a specialist for advanced tests such as brain imaging. A veterinary behaviorist may be consulted to determine the behavioral diagnosis. It can take a team to perform a full assessment to identify and address the possible underlying medical and behavioral causes for a change in behavior.
My pet is quite old. Is there any point in doing these tests?
Once age-related medical and behavioral illnesses are identified, they can often be successfully treated or controlled. Your veterinary team will share both the diagnosis and the prognosis, enabling you to make informed decisions regarding the treatment steps. The goal is to help your pet be comfortable physically and behaviorally, so they can enjoy an excellent quality of life in their golden years.
What are some things to look out for?
As your pet ages, watch for changes in behavior that can reflect an underlying medical condition. A change in behavior can be the first sign of pain, illness or degenerative disease. Discuss the following behaviors with your veterinarian:
- Increased or decreased frequency (or amount) of urination
- Loss of urine control (dribbling urine, bed wetting)
- Changes in stool consistency or frequency
- Change in mobility, lameness, difficulty standing or lying down, reluctance to jump onto furniture (if allowed)
- Excessive panting or coughing
- Tremors or shaking
Inform your veterinarian if your pet experiences weight loss, weight gain, or changes in skin or haircoat. Check your pet regularly for lumps and bumps. Be aware of unusual odors, particularly around your pet’s mouth, ears, or anal area.
How do I know whether my aging pet’s behavior changes are just part of getting old?
There is a misconception that older pets don’t play or interact with people “because they are old”. It is important to understand the reason for a change in behavior, as there may be a solution. Fear, anxiety, and frustration can occur regardless of age, and can be treated. Older pets can suffer from cognitive changes that cause them to be less interactive. Pets suffering from age-related cognitive syndrome may appear disoriented or even forget some of their training, including housetraining.
Use the provided checklist to determine if your pet has changes you need to discuss with your veterinarian. If any of these signs arise, they could indicate an underlying medical condition or cognitive dysfunction.
Can behavior problems in an older pet be successfully treated?
Once the underlying cause for a behavioral concern has been accurately identified, treatment options can be determined. Medication, behavior modification, and changes in the environment can all be used to improve behavior in pets of any age. Medical and behavioral conditions need to be managed concurrently. Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist to help with the assessment and to coordinate the treatment of both medical and behavioral illnesses. Early detection and intervention can control the progress of many disease conditions, improving the quality of life for you and your pet. See the handout, “Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction” for further information.
Checklist: Behavior Changes in Senior Pets
Indicate which of these behaviors your pet exhibits. Also note the approximate date (year) that you first became aware of the behavior and/or how old your pet was at the time of onset.
- Goes to the wrong side of door to exit the house or room
- Has difficulty locating family members or food bowl
- Has difficulty navigating around obstacles
- Gets stuck in corners
Changes in Social Interactions
- Does not seek pets or contact with household people and pets
- Rests in secluded areas
- Solicits contact with household people (e.g., vocalizing for attention)
- Follows or clings to family members
- Exhibits excessive greeting behavior or no longer greets
- Demonstrates irritability or aggressive behavior towards family people or pets
Changes in Sleep Wake Cycle
- Sleeps more during the day
- Sleeps less during the night
- Paces or vocalizes during the night
Loss of Housetraining and Other Learned Behaviors
- Eliminates in inappropriate locations (places other than litter boxes or pee pads)
- Does not easily learn new cues or tasks
- No longer responds to name
- No longer responds to previously learned cues
- Does not recognize familiar people, places, pets
Altered Activity Level
- Paces, wanders, does not settle
- Is less active or more active than in past
- Shows reduced interest in play
- Engages in repetitive or unusual activities (e.g., licking, staring)
- Vocalizes frequently
- Exhibits new fears or anxieties
- Does not tolerate being left home alone