As pets get older, they may develop new, undesirable behaviors. This can be caused by changes in the household, stress, or the effects of disease and aging on the body, including the brain. Changes in eating, elimination habits, personality, and activity levels might be the first signs of an emerging health problem. In fact, behavioral changes may be the first or only sign of medical conditions such as pain, a decline in sensory or organ function, endocrine diseases, or brain aging. Most dogs are considered middle-aged at 7-8 years (around 4 years for large breeds) and senior at 10-11 years (around 6 years for large breeds) while cats are considered middle-age at 7-10 years and senior at 11-14 years. It is important to report any changes in the health or behavior of your senior pet to us immediately. We will work to detect any emerging problems during wellness exams, though a physical exam and potential blood and urine screening tests. These will help detect changes even before there are physical signs of disease. Since pets age much more quickly than we do, senior pets require more frequent wellness visits.
There are many examples of the behavioral changes you can see due to disease or aging. Pets that are in pain from dental disease or arthritis may be more irritable, more aggressive, more fearful, less active, or less hungry. Pets that begin to lose their hearing or sight may be less attentive, sleep more soundly, and startle when approached. Diseases that affect the nervous system can have a wide variety of effects on behavior including personality changes and disorientation.
Changes to the brain in older animals is similar to that in elderly people. The changes can be anywhere from nothing at all to dementia. This can occur as early as 8-9 years old in dogs and slightly older in cats. There is a wide range of signs associated with brain aging, including the following.
Disorientation: Some typical signs could be getting lost in familiar areas, getting stuck behind furniture, or showing decreased responsiveness to sights and sounds.
Activity changes: Your pet may begin to sleep more and play less. There may also be an increase in activities such as restless pacing, licking, and repetitive barking.
Sleep cycle alterations: Pets may experience restless, unsettled sleep, or waking in the night.
Changes in social interactions: Pets may become less interested in greeting or social play with familiar people or pets. Some may also become more irritable.
Apathy and depression: Pets may have less interest in people, other animals, toys, eating, and grooming.
Anxiety: Signs of anxiety include fear of sounds, people, or environments; clinging to family members; and an increase in irritable aggression.
Learning and memory problems: The ability to adapt to new environments and learn new tasks may be greatly impaired. Dogs may no longer respond to some of their previously learned commands, be less able to perform tasks learned in agility or obedience training, or be less able to function in the work for which they were trained (e.g., drug-sniffing dogs, seeing eye dogs). Housesoiling may also be a sign of declining memory in both dogs and cats.
We can determine the cause of these physical signs by completing a physical exam, a neurologic exam, and diagnostic tests. Depending on the findings, more specialized testing, such as an ultrasound or brain imaging, may also be needed.
There are some things you can do for your pet that can help. For example, recent data suggests that keeping pets physically and mentally active improves cognitive function. Exercise your pet daily, play games frequently, review simple obedience commands during daily walks and play, and occasionally provide new toys. The type of toy with a compartment for food or treats that makes your dog actively work for food is especially effective. If your dog has diabetes or renal failure more frequent trips outside or a doggie door would be helpful. Your cat may need to have the litterbox cleaned more frequently, need a larger litterbox, or require a litterbox that is more accessible if he has failing sign or arthritis.
Taken from Senior Moments handout from AAHA