Behavioral Changes



Dogs and cats that are full of vigor and energy go about life without any concerns outside of where is the next meal and where can I go to the bathroom!  As dogs and cats age some of their senses and cerebral abilities begin to deteriorate over time.  A lot of these changes are very gradual so that owners really do not notice them until they are far along.  Behavior problems in older pets are associated with:  hearing, seeing and personality changes.


One of the most difficult parts of animal diagnostics is that the patient can’t tell me what he is feeling, thinking or seeing.  That perspective is very important in human medicine.  A lot of what I have mentioned to clients is unproven speculation or reasonably good medical guesses.


Visual changes due to cataracts can effect a dogs life.  If there are stairs in the house or going down into a basement, the animal may be fearful of what is to come.  He knows the stairs are there but will often cry out or not go down them for fear of falling.  A change for the owner would be when hearing has declined when the animal no longer jumps for joy when the owner asks if it wants to go on a W-A-L-K!  That is normal behavior for the dog but an unexpected response for the owner.


Cats rarely have cataracts until they are 16 years of age or more so vision is not usually a problem from the get go.  Behavioral changes will often relate to the fact that cats love to jump and climb up on things.  A change in this behavior usually means that arthritis is setting in.




Behavior problems in older pets can also exhibit signs of senility as they age.  This is now called Alzheimer’s Disease in pets and people.  The disease in mammals is characterized by a buildup of amyloidAmyloid is a tissue destroying material that will totally change the anatomical structure wherever it invades. Abyssinian cats have problems with renal amyloids. Dogs with Alzheimer"s or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction will have amyloid buildup in the central nervous system..  One of the classical cases is the dog that waits by the door to be let out to go to the bathroom.  The animal goes out to do his business but once he gets to his favorite spot, forgets why he is there.  The dog wants to come in and once in, urinates and defecates inside the home.  The owner is not happy but it really is not the dogs fault.


Other behavior problems in older pets are seen.  Each animal is different and these behavioral changes can be demonstrated in a myriad variation of the same theme.  Dogs will howl like a wolf often having sleeping problems at the same time.  They get disoriented and often wander off onto a different street or may simply disappear.  They have lost their directional sense of where home is.  One of the more difficult changes to see are the personality changes.  Dogs or cats may change their relationship to family members and the animal appears to have changed itself!  Dogs that suddenly love to go for car rides or eat a piece of pizza or hamburger will turn their nose away from the food or will be petrified of going for a car ride.


Cats will often stop grooming themselves where once they were meticulous of where every hair on its body belonged.  Inside or outside, a lot of dogs will pace back and forth.  If outside along a fence, a path is beaten through the grass down to the dirt surface!  It is just that; the constant back and forth pacing without any reason.  At the same time, the dog may be pacing and panting with an anxious look on its face.  Sort of like a worry wart worrying about every small detail in life!

Behavior problems in older pets often revolve around hearing loss and personality changes.



The first thing to do when confronted with behavior problems in older pets is to consult with your veterinarian.  A complete medical exam with appropriate blood work needs to be done to rule out any physical basis for the complaint.  A dog may have a treatable medical condition.  Dogs that are pacing or having problems sleeping may have a lumbar problem associated with pain.  Regardless, physical changes have to be ruled out first.


If it is a behavioral issue there may be options in changing that animals behavior.  The veterinarian may treat the animal himself or refer it to a board certified veterinary behaviorist.  Treatment can be difficult.  One of the drugs usually used is Anipryl® (selegilene).  This drug increases the functional amount of dopamine which is used to relay messages between nerve cells.  In my opinion, treating dogs with this drug is hit and miss.  Sometimes it does not do a thing for the dog but in others it has changed the animal’s and owners life for the better.  I usually used the generic version.


Trying to make the best of the dogs environment is often the only thing that can be changed for the better.  Try to take the pet for walks and get to meet other people and dogs.  Stimulate the animal by getting a new kitten or puppy.  Buy it a new toy.  In other words, do things for the animal that stimulates a positive change in its life.  Behavior problems in older pets can not be cured but with medication or behavioral modification you will find that your once loving pet is still inside that four legged body!

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