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Behavior Changes in Your Senior Pet

As pets get older, they may show signs of changing habits and behaviors. This may be due to a recent move, a new child or pet in the family, stress, or the effects of aging on the body's joints and organs, including the brain. For some, this change is perceived as happening very quickly. The truth is that, compared to humans who can live into their 80's or more, pets do age much more rapidly. Changes which may take place in humans over many years, may happen to the pet members of our family over a matter of a couple years or maybe even months.

Sometimes behavioral changes may be the first indication of an emerging health problem. Some pet owners call with concerns that may be vague. They may state that they have a feeling that 'something isn't right'. This concern and feeling is never dismissed as intuition plays an important role for any caregiver in tune with their pet. Never use your pet's older age as an excuse for a behavioral change or change in daily routines. Instead, give him or her the benefit of the doubt and make an appointment with the veterinarian so that medical issues can be ruled out or diagnosed. Keeping our senior pets comfortable and well is our first concern!

Behavior Changes Caused by Medical Problems

Our older pets do not tolerate discomfort and pain as well as when they were younger. Pain from arthritis or dental disease can effect a pet's sleep cycle, eating and drinking habits, mobility (not able to get up the stairs or onto the bed anymore) and even bathroom habits. They may be more fearful, irritable or aggressive.

Pets dealing with hearing loss and loss of sight may be less attentive, sleep more soundly, or startle when approached. Previously docile and tolerant pets may become much less tolerant of other pets and small children who make unpredictable noises and movements.

Heart disease, renal disease, endocrine imbalance and organ failure can not only make the pet more susceptible to infection, but also cause behaviors such as panting, collapse, frequent urination, inappropriate urination in the house, no appetite, increased appetite, and increase in thirst.

  Brain Aging

Our pets also suffer from brain aging which can have a wide variety of effects including personality changes and disorientation. A pet who previously slept through the night or kept themselves occupied while the family slept, may wander and vocalize.

The American Animal Hospital Association recently pointed out a study of dogs and cats that showed that brain aging in pets is similar to that of our own elderly relatives. These changes affected the pets' brains ranging from none at all to severe dementia. "Older pets may become less aware of their environments, develop signs of memory loss, and exhibit a decline in learning ability."

  • Activity: Sleep becomes more and play becomes less. Cats may sleep much more during the day, then pace at night and vocalize. Dogs may show repetitive behaviors such as licking, pacing and barking.
  • Anxiety: Signs of fear may be increased agitation around new people or multiple people. The pet may latch onto and tolerate only one particular member of the family. They may exhibit fears of sounds and movements previously well tolerated. They get disoriented and appear lost in familiar surroundings.
  • House Soiling: Though house soiling in dogs and cats can be a sign of memory loss, it can also be a sign of infection or hormone imbalance, both of which can be treated medically and should be ruled out or diagnosed by the doctor.
  • Depression: Pets may appear to be depressed by showing less interest in food, toys, play and grooming.
  • Sleep: Pets may no longer sleep through the night or become much more restless in their sleep.
  • Social Scene: Pets may no longer want to greet visitors or, conversely, they may show a new agression at the door and become protective. Other household pets may cause anxiety, sometimes just in their presence.


If a doctor has ruled out medical issues, unfortunately, there is no magic cure for age related behavior problems, but there are things we can do to make our beloved pet members of the family more comfortable. Specific diet changes and supplements may help. More importantly, you may have to make some changes in your home to accomodate these changes. Keeping pets physically and mentally active (within tolerable ranges) improves cognitive function.


  1. Keep cats active with favorite toys. Hide favorite treats so they can go on a hunting expedition every day.
  2. Cats may no longer be able to access food and water bowls placed high up off the floor, such as on the washing machine. If you rarely see your cat eat and have noticed weight changes, consider that he or she may no longer have the mobility to always jump up to the food dish. 
  3. Cats may require the litter box to be moved to a more accessible location if arthritis or failing eyesight inhibit their mobility.
  4. The sides may need to be lowered as well if they have a hard time getting up and over them.
  5. The older cat may also become much more intolerant of a soiled litterbox. You may find that cleaning it more often and not changing the brand of litter on them will make them use it more.

Multiple cat households should always have one more litter box than the number of cats, on different levels of the house.


  1. Keep your dog's activity level up to tolerable levels. Take walks every day (avoid the hot sun in summer and slippery surfaces in winter).
  2. Maintain a healthy weight. When putting your hand on your dog's side, you should be able to easily feel the ribs under your hand, but not between the ribs. For the senior dogs, getting them on a proper diet - maybe even a prescription diet - can make a huge difference in their health.
  3. Treats don't have to be outlawed! Store-bought treats are much too high in protein and calories for our aging dogs. If they are on a special dry diet, use a few pieces of the kibble as treats. Try putting a few pieces in a sealed bag in the freezer. Dogs love the cold crunchiness. Baby carrots are a wonderful treat - sweet, cold crunchy with needed fiber, no calories and low sugar.
  4. Review familiar commands with them in a calm setting using fun but healthy rewards. Do this on a daily basis around the same time every day, but not when they are apt to be tired or over stimulated by household commotion.
  5. Occasionally introduce new toys. Those with hidden compartments where they have to work to get the treat are fun and provide a good brain work-out for the dog.
  6. Be kind and understanding if your dog's kidneys are aging as he may have to go outside to urinate more often.

  These years don't have to be a solo event for you! If you have questions, call and speak to one of our highly trained staff members. Make sure to have annual senior wellness profiles done and don't ever hesitate to call and make an appointment with one of our doctors. Don't assume that every change you see is a sign of rapid progression of aging. Veterinary medicine has come such a long way in being able to treat the senior pet and provide many comfortable years. Most recommendations and/or prescriptions are not always costly and, in the long run, can be a cost saver.

Most important..... all your pet wants from you is love and comfort, kindness and understanding.   We are happy to be your partner so that you can continue to have peace of mind during your pet's golden years.