Animal Medical Center of Southern California

24/7 General + Emergency Care (310) 575-5656

2340 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, California

Animal Medical Center

As pets get older, they may develop new, undesirable behaviors.

Understanding Behavior Changes in Aging Pets.

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 virtually any organ of the body, including the brain. Changes in eating, elimination habits, sleep habits, 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. Based on AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) and AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) senior care guidelines, most dogs are considered middle-aged or mature at 7 to 8 years of age (perhaps 4 years for large breeds), and senior at 10 to 11 years of age (perhaps 6 years for large breeds); cats are middle-aged at 7 to 10 years and senior at 11 to 14 years.

Health Care for Older Pets

Giving a little extra attention to senior pets’ health care may help them live longer, healthier lives. It is critical to identify and report any changes in the health or behavior of senior pets to your veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian will also work to detect any emerging problems during health-care visits, through a physical examination and blood and urine screening tests, which can help detect abnormalities even before there are noticeable physical signs of disease. Since pets age much more quickly than humans, senior pets require more frequent health-care visits.

The good news is that a wide range of therapeutic options are now available—from special diets that can slow the decline of problems such as renal failure or brain aging, to drugs that control medical problems such as thyroid disease, diabetes, and arthritis. Early diagnosis and intervention allow your veterinarian to treat these diseases before there are serious complications, and perhaps even slow the progress of disease.

Medical Problems that Might Affect Behavior

The behavioral effects of disease and aging can be manifested in the way pets eat, drink, or sleep and in their activity level and personalities. For example, pets that are in pain from arthritis or dental disease 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, such as brain tumors and brain aging, can have a wide variety of effects on behavior, including personality changes and disorientation. Endocrine imbalances, disease, and deterioration of virtually any organ (e.g., heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, brain) can have a wide variety of effects on pets’ behavior.

Brain Aging

As the body ages, so does the brain. Changes in the brains of older dogs and cats are similar to changes in elderly people. Recent studies of dogs indicate that, as in humans, the effects of aging on the brain range 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. This can occur as early as 8 to 9 years of age in some dogs, while others retain healthy brain function throughout their lives. In cats, signs associated with brain aging generally emerge at a slightly older age.

There is a wide range of signs associated with brain aging, including the following.

  • Disorientation: pets might be disoriented if they get lost in familiar places, get stuck behind furniture, or show decreased responsiveness to sights and sounds
  • Activity changes: Pets may begin to sleep more and play less. As cognitive function declines, there may be an increase in activities such as restless pacing, licking, or repetitive barking
  • Sleep cycle alterations: Pets may experience restless, unsettled sleep, or waking at nights.
  • Changes in social interaction: Pets may become less interested in greeting or social play with familiar people or pets. Some pets may 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). House soiling may also be a sign of declining memory in both dogs and cats. Your veterinarian can determine the cause of these physical signs by completing a physical examination, a neurological examination, and diagnostic tests. Depending on the findings, more specialized testing, such as ultrasound or brain imaging, may also be needed.

Treating Behavior Problems in Older Pets

Fortunately, treatments for cognitive problems are now available. These include a prescription diet, natural supplements, and a drug, available through your veterinarian that have been shown to improve behavioral signs and might even slow the progress of cognitive dysfunction disease in dogs. Currently, there is no treatment for signs of brain aging in cats, but research continues in this area.

In addition to medical therapy and diet, there are other things you can do to help your pet. For example, recent data suggest 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 renal failure or diabetes, she may need to make more frequent trips outdoors or need a doggie door. Your cat might need to have his litter box cleaned more frequently, need a larger litter box, or require a little box that is more accessible if he has failing sight or arthritis. And, of course, be sure to give your pet lots of love and attention during his or her golden years.

Accreditations, Awards, and Certificates

Featured Doctor

Make an Appointment / Pet Portal

Manage your pet's health care, make an appointment, and view medication schedules. + Learn More

About Animal Medical Center

The Animal Medical Center of Southern California is devoted to providing the best medical, surgicalm and emergency critical care available in veterinary medicine. As important as our medical expertise is, we believe that excellent care combines state-of-the-art veterinary medicine and surgery with a focus on compassion and respect for your pet and for your family.

Pet Library: Canine Hip Dysplasia-Part 3

Surgical Treatment for the Mature Patient

+ Learn More