By Dr. Becker and Diane Weinmann
Most pet parents are aware of the physical changes that can take place as their animal companion gets up in years, but did you know your aging pet’s behavior may also change?
Of course, any variation in your pet’s normal conduct should be discussed with your veterinarian, because dogs and cats often express underlying physical problems through a behavior change. For example, a painful hip or back can result in one or more of the behaviors listed below.
Changes in Your Pet’s Behavior As they Age
Unfortunately, along with an age-related reduction in hearing, eyesight and sense of smell, your pet may startle more easily, and in some pets this can result in unprovoked aggression.
The situation will require some sleuthing on your part, potentially with the help of your veterinarian, to understand the specific causes or triggers of the behavior so that a treatment or behavior modification protocol can be implemented. This may require the help of a veterinary behaviorist, and I encourage you to contact one sooner rather than later if your older pet is having episodes of unprovoked aggressive behavior. Aggression can be holistically handled in many ways. Essential oils, bach flower essences and animal communication can help to get to the root of the problem and restore your pet’s good nature.
Pets who are anxiety-prone as youngsters and adults (for example, those with noise phobias or separation anxiety) often become more so as they age. Signs of increasing anxiety in your pet can include:
- Heightened sensitivity and irritability
- Fear of and/or aggression toward strangers or unfamiliar pets
- Decreased tolerance for being restrained or even touched
- Needing to be with you constantly or demanding more attention and increased physical contact
- Destruction of doorways (typically the ones you leave by) and/or refusing to eat while you’re away
Positive reinforcement training may be helpful in curbing anxiety-related behavior in your pet, and it certainly can’t hurt as long as you don’t get too focused on results. It’s important to realize that just as you’ve dealt with some level of anxiety in your pet for years, you should expect and plan for amplification of those issues as she ages. Bach flower essences or essential oils can help with anxiety. Call Diane Weinmann to obtain a custom treatment bottle to provide peace of mind to your pet.
Sadly, some pets become destructive as they age – a situation that can be quite disturbing for family members. You might lose a cherished belonging or two at this stage of your pet’s life, or she might turn her destructive urges on herself.
Some older pets develop pica (eating non-food objects) for the first time. Others seem driven to lick, suck or chew their own body parts, those of family members, or household objects. Digging and scratching can also become a problem.
Once again, it’s important to talk with your veterinarian about any destructive tendencies your pet develops to rule out an underlying physical cause. Meanwhile, you’ll want to pet-proof your home and belongings, and insure your pet has plenty of appropriate toys to gnaw on, but only when you’re around to supervise. I have not received any animal communication calls due to this issue but if you happen to experience destructiveness with your pet, and the medical side of it has been ruled out, give me a call!
- Hypersensitivity, Fears, and Phobias
If your senior pet has deteriorating vision or hearing, even his own home can become a frightening place. Pets thrive on routine and consistency, and this goes double for aging companions who are having trouble navigating even familiar terrain.
It’s important at this stage of your pets’s life to keep his environment consistent. Don’t arbitrarily change the location of his food or water bowl, his crate, his bed, or his toys. Try to avoid rearranging the furniture in your home. Mealtimes and potty walks or litter box locations should be consistent from one day to the next, as well as exercise and play time. Pets adore routine!
If your pet is becoming more sensitive to normal household or neighborhood sounds, play background music or keep the TV on to mask noises.
- Inappropriate Elimination
If your older pet seems to have forgotten his housetraining, there are a number of potential causes, none of which involve deliberate disobedience. The first order of business is to make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying disease process. Once that’s done, you’ll need to investigate other possible causes for inappropriate elimination, including decreased mobility, needing to go more often, or less control over his bladder or bowels.
Initial steps you can take to resolve the problem include taking him outside more often to eliminate, and/or introducing/re-introducing him to a crate. It’s also important to recognize the difference between urine dribbling, over which your dog has no control no matter how often he goes outside, and urinating. Cats that eliminate outside the litter box may become more sensitive to the litter being used or may not be able to get to the litter box depending on the location due to physical issues that never existed when they were young. Numerous litter boxes may be appropriate on different floors and even several on one floor if the house is large. Again, once a medical reason has been eliminated from the equation contact an animal communicator to determine where the problem lies.
- Nighttime Restlessness
Some older pets develop an inability to sleep through the night. I know I have that issue and I am only middle-aged! Age-related issues that can cause this change in your pet’s behavior include loss of vision or hearing that affects sleep quality, the need to relieve himself more often (that’s my issue), or an increased response to noises that never bothered him before.
All pets, including senior and geriatric pets, need age- and condition-appropriate exercise each day. If your pet gets some exercise already, try increasing the time he spends playing or taking walks. If he doesn’t get much exercise, start safely increasing his daily activity level. The goal is to tire him out physically so he’ll be more likely to sleep at night. With cats, play with them using a new toy will usually stimulate movement.
If your dog needs midnight trips outside to relieve himself but is otherwise healthy (as confirmed by your vet), he may be taking in too much water before bed. Try removing his water bowl after dinner, and insure he gets an opportunity to relieve himself right before you retire for the night.
Let your pet sleep in your bedroom. Sleeping near his humans should help ease any anxiety that is contributing to his nighttime restlessness. If you allow your pet on your bed with you, you may want to supply a ramp or stairs for them to safely get on and off the bed.
These are behaviors your pet may perform over and over, for no apparent reason. They can include constant licking (usually of a particular body part like a paw), which can result in hot spots. Other O-C behaviors include repetitive tail chasing, spinning, jumping, pacing, “air biting,” and staring blankly into space.
If a thorough workup by your veterinarian shows no medical cause for your pets’s obsessive behavior, she may be doing it to relieve feelings of anxiety or conflict. One way to try to break the cycle is to simply stop her as soon as she begins the behavior, by speaking calmly to her and petting or massaging her.
If the obsessive behavior is potentially dangerous or harmful and you don’t feel you can manage it on your own, talk with your holistic veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist or an animal communicator.
Excessive vocalizing is more common in older cats than dogs, but if your dog is growing more “talkative,” it can be unsettling because as her guardian, you want desperately to understand what she needs from you.
An increase in vocalizing can be caused by the disorientation that comes with a decline in cognitive function. It can also mean your pet isn’t hearing or seeing things as well as she once did, or that she’s in pain.
If your veterinarian has ruled out an underlying medical condition, try training your pet to respond to a gentle verbal cue such as “Quiet” or “Shhh”, and reward her lavishly for her efforts. However, keep in mind it’s possible she doesn’t realize she’s making noise, in which case she’s not likely to learn a verbal command to be quiet. If that’s the case, you’ll just need to distract her when she vocalizes by speaking quietly and reassuringly to her. Another option would be to call me, Diane Weinmann to communicate with your pet to discover what the issue my be.
Suggestions to Enhance Your Older Pet’s Quality of Life
- Address subtle changes when you first notice them, talk to your holistic vet or Diane Weinmann about homeopathic remedies, bach flower essences, essential oils, herbs or nutraceuticals that may be appropriate for your pets’s symptoms.
- Treat-release and puzzle toys provide fun and mental stimulation.
- Walks instead of jogs. Tug games instead of chase games. New toys for cats.
- Ramps so they can still get into the car or up on the bed or their favorite chair.
- Adequate social interaction with other pets and people, but take care not to over stimulate your pet – short periods of exercise and playtime in controlled situations are best for older animals.
- If your pet has problems hearing or seeing, use odor cues like essential oil diffusers or other aromatherapy products to help him find his way around.
- Guide your pet with clear cues and easy-to-follow instructions, especially if they are showing signs of mental decline.
- When you talk to your pet, keep your voice quiet, calm and kind. No shouting.
- Keep your pet at a healthy size – overweight animals are at significant increased risk for disease as they age.
- Provide extra warmth on cold days. Soft pillows and beds, blankets to snuggle in plus to wear outside along with rain gear if appropriate. Arthritis acts up in the damp and cold weather. Allow pets to bask in sun as it warms their aging bones.
- Maintain your pets’s dental health.
- Feed an anti-inflammatory, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, which is the foundation of good health and a long life for pets of any age. Contact your vet to obtain ideas on which brands would work best for your pet. Also you can contact someone certified in canine nutrition like Diane Weinmann.
- Lots of good old fashioned quality time together, talking, cuddling, brushing them or just letting them sit on your lap or next to you will help your pet feel cherished and loved as they can no longer do the physical things that they used to. It helps them feel like they are still valuable so tell them your troubles and you will be surprised how better you both will feel.