It is not unusual for behavior problems to develop in older pets and often there may be multiple concurrent problems. It is also important to note that some of the changes associated with aging may not seem significant, but even a minor change in behavior might be indicative of underlying medical problems or a decline in cognitive dysfunction. Since early diagnosis and treatment can control or slow the progress of many disease conditions, be certain to advise your veterinarian if there is any change in your pet’s behavior.
What are some of the causes of behavior changes in senior pets?
Many of the problems have similar causes to those in younger pets. Changes in the household, changes in the environment and new stressors can lead to problems regardless of age. For instance moving, a change in work schedule, a family member leaving the home, or new additions to the family such as a spouse or baby, can have a dramatic impact on the pet’s behavior. In addition, it is likely most older pets will be more resistant or less able to adapt to change.
Older pets are also likely to develop an increasing number of medical and degenerative problems as they age. Any of the organ systems can be affected and play a role in the development of a wide variety of behavior problems. For example, diseases of the urinary system and kidneys can lead to house-soiling. Diseases of the endocrine organs such as the thyroid gland and pituitary gland can lead to a variety of behavioral and personality changes. A decline in the senses (hearing and sight), painful conditions, and those that affect mobility may cause the pet to be more irritable or more fearful of approach and handling.
As with other organs, the brain is susceptible to age related degenerative processes that can affect the pet’s behavior, personality, memory, and learning ability. When these changes occur, the pet may show varying degrees of cognitive decline and in pets that are more severely affected, this might be referred to as cognitive dysfunction or senility. Many of these changes are similar to what occurs in aging humans. In fact, the amyloid deposits that are found in the brain of dogs with cognitive dysfunction are similar to what is seen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in people.
Regardless of age, every behavior case should begin with a complete veterinary physical examination and a clinical and behavioral history. In addition, blood tests and a urinalysis may be needed to rule out organ disease and endocrine imbalances, especially in the older pet. Sometimes a more in-depth examination of a particular organ system may be indicated. Additional laboratory tests, radiographs, ultrasound, spinal tests, brain scans, or perhaps a referral to a specialist may all be appropriate. A decision on which tests are needed would be based on the pet’s age, previous health problems, any ongoing drug or dietary therapy and an evaluation of all of its medical and behavioral signs and the findings of the physical exam.
My pet is quite old. Is there any point in doing these tests? What can be done?
Unfortunately many pet owners do not even discuss behavior changes with their veterinarians since they feel that the changes are a normal part of aging and perhaps nothing can be done for their dog or cat. This is far from the truth. Many problems have an underlying medical cause that can be treated or controlled with drugs, diet or perhaps surgery. Hormonal changes associated with an underactive or overactive thyroid gland, diabetes, diseases of the pituitary gland, and testicular tumors can all lead to dramatic changes in the pet’s behavior and many of these problems can be treated or controlled. Degenerative organ systems can often be aided with nutritional supplementation or dietary changes. High blood pressure, cardiac disease and respiratory disease may be treatable with medication, which may dramatically improve the quality and even length of the pet’s life. Drugs and dietary therapy are also available that are useful in the treatment of age related cognitive dysfunction.
What are some things to look out for?
Changes in behavior (see cognitive dysfunction below), an increase or decrease in appetite or drinking, an increased frequency or amount of urination, loss of urine control (dribbling urine, bedwetting), changes in stool consistency or frequency, skin and hair coat changes, lumps and bumps, mouth odor or bleeding gums, stiffness or soreness, excessive panting, coughing, changes in weight (increase or decrease), and tremors or shaking are some of the more common signs that should be reported, should they develop in your pet.
What is cognitive dysfunction and how is it diagnosed?
It is generally believed that, as in people, a dog or cat’s cognitive function tends to decline with age. If your dog has one or more of the signs below and all potential physical or medical causes have been ruled out, it may be due to cognitive dysfunction. Of course, it is also possible that cognitive dysfunction can arise concurrently with other medical problems, so that it might be difficult to determine the exact cause of each sign. Over the past few years the signs commonly attributed to cognitive dysfunctions have been described by the acronym DISH (Disorientation, alterations in Interactions with family members, Sleep-wake cycle and activity level changes or House soiling). However this may not be a sufficiently complete list to describe all of the categories in which a decline in cognitive function might be seen. These might include disorientation (such as getting lost in familiar areas such as the home or yard). Social interactions might be altered between the pet and owner. Anxiety might be increased or changes in activity levels and sleep patterns.
Do pets get Alzheimer’s?
Many of the same changes and lesions associated with Alzheimer’s disease in people have also been recognized in dogs and cats. Should multiple behavior problems develop and these changes progress to the point where the dog or cat is no longer a “functional” pet, the condition may be consistent with senility or dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.
Can geriatric behavior problems be treated?
In many cases the answer is yes. Of course, if there are medical problems contributing to the behavior changes, the problem may not be treatable. The key therefore is to report changes and bring in your pet for assessment as soon as new problems arise.
Dogs that develop behavior problems due to underlying medical conditions may need alterations in their schedule or environment in order to deal with these problems. If the condition is treatable and can be controlled or resolved (e.g. Cushing’s disease, infections, painful conditions) then, as discussed, you must be prepared to retrain the dog, since the new habit may persist. For example, the house-soiling pet may have less duration of control due to its medical problems. If these conditions cannot be controlled, then the pet’s schedule (more frequent trips outdoors), or environment (installing a dog door, paper training) may have to be modified. With conditions that affect a cat’s mobility, adjustments may be needed to the pet’s environment, litter box placement, or type of litter box, (e.g. a lower sided box).
In both human and animal medicine the diagnosis and treatment of age related cognitive decline is a growing area of concern, but old age and its associated cognitive symptoms are quite manageable with appropriate medication and/or behavior medication.
Give us a call if you have any questions or concerns about issues related to older pets.