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Behavior Changes in Aging Pets

Senior Moments—Understanding Behavior Changes in Aging Pets

As pets get older, they may develop new, undesirable behaviors.  Causes of these behaviors include changes in your household, new stressors, or the effects of disease and aging on virtually any organ of the body, including the brain.  In fact, even subtle behavior changes in eating, elimination habits, sleep habits, and activity levels might be the first signs of an emerging health problem.

Health Care For The Older Pet

Giving a little extra attention to your senior pet’s health care may help him or her to live a longer and healthier life.  It is critical that you identify and report any changes in the health or behavior of your pet to your veterinarian immediately, so that the earliest possible diagnosis can be made.  Your veterinarian will also work to detect any emerging problems during your pet’s annual or biannual examinations, and may recommend blood and urine screening tests, which can help detect abnormalities even before there are noticeable physical signs of disease.

The good news is that a wide range of therapeutic options is now available—from special diets that might 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 allows your veterinarian to treat these diseases before there are any 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 a pet eats, drinks, or sleeps and in his activity level and personality.  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 or 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 your pet’s 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 no effect 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 eight to nine 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:

  • Disorientation—Your pet might be disoriented if he gets lost in familiar places, gets stuck behind furniture, or shows 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—Your pet may experience restless, unsettled sleep or waking at nights.
  • Changes in social interactions—Your pet may become less interested in greeting or social play with familiar people or pets.  Some pets may become more irritable.
  • Apathy and depression—Your pet may have less interest in people, other animals, toys, eating, and grooming.
  • Anxiety—Signs of anxiety include fear of sounds, people, or environments; a desire not to be left alone as much; and an increase in irritable aggression.
  • Learning and memory—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.


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 The Older Pet

Fortunately, treatment for these problems is now available in the form of a prescription diet or a special drug that may improve the physical signs and perhaps 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, you may need to make some alterations in your pet’s environment.  For example, if your dog has renal failure or diabetes, he or she may need to make more frequent trips outdoors or need a doggie door.  Cats might need to have their letter boxes cleaned more frequently, need a larger litter box, or require a litter box that is more easily accessible if they begin to have failing sight, develop arthritis, or become weak.

Recent data suggests that keeping pets physically and mentally active may also improve cognitive function.  Exercise your pet daily, play games with him or her frequently, review simple obedience commands during his or her daily walks and play, and occasionally provide new toys.  And, of course, be sure to give your pet lots of love and attention during his or her golden years.

The authors, Wayne L. Hunthausen, DVM and Gary M. Landsberg, DVM Dipl. ACVB, are practicing veterinarians and pet behavior consultants.

AAHA          American Animal Hospital Association

PO Box 150899  Denver, CO 80215-0899     Visit their website at    Your Link for Healthy Pets

Aging—It’s More Than Just A Few Gray Hairs

With technical advances in veterinary medicine, better diets and regular visits to the veterinarian, our pets living longer than ever before.  The age at which your pet becomes a senior will vary.  In general, large dogs begin aging earlier than small dogs and cats.  Very large breed dogs are considered seniors as early as 6 years of age, while small and medium-sized dogs and most cats reach senior status about 7-9 years of age.  Animals age at much faster rate than humans do.  An elderly pet ages at least 4 human years every 12 months.  As a result, age-related illnesses progress at a much faster rate.

As dogs and cats get older, their organs and immune systems become less efficient and they become more susceptible to disease.  They face many of the same health problems that humans develop as they age – arthritis, diabetes, kidney and liver dysfunction, heart and lung problems, hormone imbalance, cataracts, oral disease, cancers and decreasing brain function.  They may experience behavioral changes such as decreased physical activity, less interaction with family members, confusion or disorientation, changes in sleeping patterns or loss of house-training.  Many of these health problems and behavioral changes can be prevented or treated, lengthening and enhancing the quality of your pet’s life.

Some of the aging changes that take place are subtle and hard to detect.  This is especially true with cats, who are good at hiding signs of illness.  Monitoring your senior pet’s condition and behavior and taking a preventive approach to senior health care can help your pet live a longer, healthier life and increase the amount and quality of the time you will get to spend with your companion.



  • Make regular veterinary visits – every 6 months is recommended
  • Tell your veterinarian about any physical or behavioral changes
  • Provide the appropriate diet for your pet’s age and activity level
  • Control your pet’s weight – avoid feeding snacks and table scraps
  • Provide easy access to clean, fresh water.
  • Provide moderate exercise – do not let your pet overexert itself
  • Prevent stress – keeping daily routine consistent and household changes minimal         
  • Help with grooming – keeps coat healthier and relaxes your pet
  • Be patient and provide extra emotional support


  • Provide proper feeding, medicating and exercising instructions
  • Perform geriatric exams, including tests that monitor organ function
  • Maintain dental health with regular exams and cleanings
  • Assist you with health care decisions for your aging pet

A pet is a member of the family.  With proper attention, care and nutrition, you can help increase the length and quality of your pet’s life.

Printed by SmartPractice


Do I need to care for my pet differently as he or she gets older?

We don’t like to admit it about ourselves, but as we age, our bodies start to “wear out.”  Pets are the same way—their physical condition and health change over time, too.  You can help your valued friend and companion live longer by working with your veterinary health-care team to maintain your pet’s health and quality of life.

In addition to more frequent wellness examinations, your pet needs special care as he or she gets older.  Your veterinarian will work with you to develop a complete examination schedule and senior health-maintenance program to provide optimal care for your pet.

    How does a senior health examination differ from my pet’s usual exam?

As your pet ages, more frequent and more extensive examinations will help your veterinarian detect changes in your pet’s physical condition.  Senior health-care programs frequently include blood pressure monitoring and laboratory tests on your pet’s blood and urine.

Your veterinarian may also recommend radiographs (X-rays), an ultrasound, or other diagnostic tests.  It is important to establish a set of “baseline values” for your pet with these diagnostic tests to make it easy for your veterinarian to monitor changes in your pet’s health over time.

Even if your pet seems perfectly healthy, frequent examinations are necessary for early detection of the changes and illnesses associated with aging.  These changes may occur slowly, and you may not notice the subtle signs that your veterinarian can detect during an exam.

Talk to your veterinarian right away if you notice signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, or sneezing.  Also look for any unusual changes in activity level and attitude, appetite, water intake, urination, bowel movements, or body weight.  Don’t just dismiss changes in your pet’s health or habits as “part of the aging process”—they may be signs of serious disease.

At what age is my pet considered “old”?

The aging process varies with species, breed, size, and lifestyle.  The chart below gives you general guidelines to determine when your pet has reached the “senior years.”

Senior Years for Pets

Cats                                                                      Most breeds                                                           7 years and older

Small dogs                                                           Less than 20 lbs                                                     7 years and older

Medium to Large dogs                                       21 – 50 pounds                                                       7 years and older

Large to Giant dogs                                           Over 50 pounds                                                      5 years and older


How can I help my pet maintain the appropriate weight?

As dogs reach middle age and their early senior years, they are apt to gain weight as their metabolism slows down and their activity decreases.  Balance the amount you feed and the type of diet with the activity level of your pet.  Dogs may need fewer calories as they get older, and they also may need a diet lower in fat and higher in fiber.

Cats don’t have the same weight gain and loss patterns as dogs.  Their energy requirements stay about the same throughout their adult lives.  If your cat loses weight, discuss it with your veterinarian.

Part of creating a senior health-care program unique to your pet is evaluating his or her nutritional needs.  There are diets designed specifically for senior pets—ask your veterinarian about an appropriate diet for your pet.

How often should I exercise my pet?

Regular, controlled exercise is important to maintain bone strength, muscle tone, and stamina.  Taking daily walks and playing with your pet are excellent ways to get some exercise and spend time together.  If your pet has difficulty standing up or walking, you may need to slow down, take shorter walks, or try alternative activities, such as swimming.

Your veterinarian can recommend appropriate forms of exercise for your pet based on his or her lifestyle, weight, and overall health.  An arthritic pet may require medication to relieve pain, which will allow him or her to exercise.

How important is dental care for my senior pet?

Dental care is more important than ever!  Tooth loss and gum disease become more common as pets age, so it’s important not to neglect routine dental care.  Seventy percent of older cats and 80 percent of older dogs have gum disease, which causes bad breath and health problems.

Your veterinarian will perform dental exams and let you know when to schedule cleaning and dental treatment for your pet.  The veterinary health care team will teach you about home dental care so that you can help maintain your pet’s oral health.

What other changes might I see in my pet as he or she ages?

As your pet ages, his or her body starts to “wear out.”  He or she may develop certain disease such as heart disease, kidney failure, and cancer, which are more common in older pets than in younger ones.  In addition, older dogs may develop hypothyroidism, while older cats may develop hyperthyroidism.  Other changes may include:

  • Cataracts in dogs
  • Hearing and vision loss
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Dental disease
  • Loss of hair, dull coat, or graying of hair around the muzzle
  • Brittle nails
  • Arthritis, especially in large dogs and dogs and cats that have had joint injuries
  • Constipation in cats
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sensitivity to temperature changes
  • Tumors
  • Coughing and exercise intolerance, caused by decreased heart failure or decreased lung capacity
  • Increased water consumption and urination
  • Breast cancer in females
  • Prostate disease in male dogs
  • Behavioral changes, such as increased aggression, development of noise phobias, changes in urination and defecation patterns, increased vocalization, and changes in sleep patterns
  • Confusion and disorientation in dogs (known as “canine cognitive dysfunction”)

The goal of a complete senior health-maintenance program is to preserve the health and quality of life of your older pet.  Talk to your veterinarian about age-related health problems and the preventive steps you can take to ensure a long and healthy life for your old friend.

AAHA = American Animal Hospital Association    For more information about pet health care, ask our veterinary health-care team or visit their website at                                                                                                                        


Pets Age Faster Than People

  • Determine your pet’s “real age

  • How to keep your pet healthy

  • Important information for cat owners

Does your pet act its age?

Pets age seven times faster, on average, than people.  Most dogs and cats reach adulthood by age two.  By age four, many pets are entering middle age.  And by age seven, most dogs, particularly larger breeds, are entering their senior year.

Problems progress faster in pets.

  • Because dogs and cats age so rapidly, major health changes can occur in a short amount of time.

  • The risk of dental disease, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, arthritis and cancer all increase with age.

  • Many of these diseases and conditions can worsen within a matter of weeks.

  • Even pets that appear normal can have an underlying problem that may only be detected during an examination by your veterinarian.

Twice a year for life!

Because dogs and cats age so rapidly, they should receive a wellness exam from a veterinarian twice a year.

  • Twice-a-year wellness exams can help your veterinarian diagnose, treat or, ideally, prevent health problems before they become life-threatening.

  • Twice-a-year wellness exams provide an opportunity to discuss nutrition, behavior and other concerns with your veterinarian.

  • Twice-a-year wellness exams can help your pet live a longer, healthier and happier life.

Help your best friend feel better at every age.  Schedule your pet’s six-month wellness exam today.

An IMPORTANT MESSAGE for cat owners.

There are more than 90 million cats in the U.S., or about 20 percent more cats than dogs.  However, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cats are brought to the veterinarian only about half as often as dogs.  Some veterinarians believe cats hide illness better than dogs, and many times owners may not realize there is a problem.

  • Behavioral changes can be early signs of illness in both cats and dogs.  These changes are often less obvious in cats.

  • Cat owners may not notice subtle changes in appetite, elimination or other behavior until an illness is advanced.

  • The risk of cancer, periodontal disease, obesity, kidney disease, thyroid disease and diabetes increases with in age cats.

In addition to bringing your cat to the veterinarian twice a year for a wellness exam, pay close attention to changes in your pet’s weight, food and water consumption, elimination, grooming and other behavior.  Your ability to perceive and respond to subtle changes can make a big difference in the life and health of your cat.

“Cats are notorious for hiding signs of illness until they’re almost at a crisis stage.” Gary D. Norsworthy, DVM, DABVP Owner, Alamo Feline Health Center San Antonio, TX


Wellness Exam Checklist

The most important health screenings for dogs and cats

Adult dogs (1-6 years)                                                                                                     Adult cats (1-6 years)

Immunizstions                                                                                                                  Immunizstions

Parasite check                                                                                                                   Parasite check

Heartworm check                                                                                                             Heartworm check

Dental health                                                                                                                     Dental health

Blood panel (CBC)                                                                                                            Blood panel (CBC)

Chemistry panel                                                                                                                Chemistry panel

Urinalysis                                                                                                                           Urinalysis

Additional exams for senior dogs (7+years)                                                             Additional exams for senior cats (7+years)

Osteoarthritis check                                                                                                          Osteoarthritis check

Chest radiograph                                                                                                               Chest radiograph

Thyroid check                                                                                                                     Thyroid check

                                                                                                                                              Blood pressure check

Printed by the American Veterinary Medical Association and National Pet Wellness

AVMA                                                                                               National Pet Wellness


The Patton Veterinary Hospital

Celebrate Seniors!  Living longer, living better—starting at 7

Together, we can help your pet enjoy a lifetime of good health.

The health of your pet can change rapidly as he or she ages, and changes can go unnoticed.  Early intervention leads to a lifetime of good health.

Beginning at around age 7, your pet enters his or her senior years.  Often, pets begin to develop diseases common to their senior human counterparts, such as diabetes, heart disease, endocrine disease and cancer.  These diseases can go unnoticed in their early stages; therefore, preventive health care is very important.

Early detection can help in disease prevention and can minimize suffering.  If left undetected, many diseases can put your pet’s health at risk.  The best approach to caring for your senior pet includes preventive diagnostics such as:

  1. Establishing baseline bloodwork

  1. Identifying existing health problems

  1. Monitoring progress during treatment

Together, we can help your pet.  You know your pet better than anyone else and can alert us to any changes in your pet before they become serious.  We can help you understand the common medical conditions that you senior pet faces, and discuss a regular monitoring plan.

How to keep your older pet healthy and happy.

Work closely with us to evaluate your pet’s general health and to monitor the physical effects aging has had on his or her mind and body.

Schedule routine check-ups.


Speak up for your pet.  Tell us about any changes you’ve observed, including:

  1. Weight, appetite or elimination
  2. Behavior
  3. Skin and coat
  4. Mobility

Ask us about nutrition and exercise and the role they play in your pet’s health.

Know your pet’s condition.  Ask us about testing options that can identify health risks before they become evident, including:

  1. Routine blood testing
  2. Urinalysis
  3. Hormone testing
  4. Electrocardiograph (ECG)
  5. X-rays

Ask for annual screenings for life-threatening diseases, including:

  1. FIV (the feline version of HIV), FeLV (feline leukemia)
  2. Feline and canine heartworm infection
  3. Tick-borne diseases such as canine Lyme disease and E. canis


Ask us about the latest advances in veterinary pharmaceuticals that could impact the health of your pet.

Watch for these signs.

Keep track and then report them to us immediately, before they become serious.

  1. Just not acting like himself/herself
  2. Interacting less often with family
  3. Responding less often or less enthusiastically
  4. Showing changes in behavior/activity level
  5. Having difficulty climbing stairs
  6. Having difficulty jumping
  7. Exhibiting increased stiffness or limping
  8. Drinking more often
  9. Urinating more often
  10. Changing eating patterns
  11. Noticeably gaining or losing weight
  12. Losing housetraining habits
  13. Changing sleeping patterns
  14. Becoming confused or disoriented
  15. Changing hair coat, skin, or new lumps or bumps
  16. Scratching more often
  17. Exhibiting bad breath/red or swollen gums
  18. Showing tremors or shaking
  19. Any other problems your pet may be showing that you haven’t noticed before.

Common Medical Conditions in Senior Pets

Chart coming soon.