“What kind of behavioral changes should I expect from my senior dog/cat?” This is a question I rarely hear, but it is one I believe should be asked more. When animals age, they go through the same struggles as we humans—the difference is, they can’t communicate their discomfort.
If your older dog/cat starts growling at things it never had a problem with before, this is a sign that it most likely is experiencing some kind of discomfort. As animals age, they can have arthritis, joint discomfort, patella problems, and hip dysplasia, among other potential problems. Even being petted may no longer be pleasurable if it causes pain—your pet may voice its discomfort with a growl, or it might just shy away to avoid being touched.
Hearing loss is also very common in older animals. This can cause your dog to be startled more easily, which, in turn, can cause the dog to start showing anxiety and become more defensive, growling, barking, and even showing aggression. To help keep your hearing-challenged dog or cat calm, make sure it can see you coming when you approach it so isn’t surprised.
Does your pet seem unaware of things going on around it? Dementia is something your older pet can suffer from, just like people.
The loss of eyesight can create similar anxiety which, again, can lead to aggression. Talking to your pet as you approach it will let it know that you are near. Keeping pathways clear and clutter-free will help make your vision-impaired pet’s life more manageable. And be sure to block off dangerous entryways, stairways, and pool access. (Editor’s note: visit handicappedpets.Com/blind-dog-hoop-harness for instructions on how to make a Blind Dog Hoop Harness.) When you walk your vision-impaired dog, steer it gently away from hazards.
As your pet gets older, you may see it start to have accidents in the house. Incontinence is common in aging dogs and cats. When your pet can’t control its bladder, it may start to withdraw and show anxious behavior.
Another behavior change you might notice is aggression toward other household pets. For example, an older dog who is experiencing insecurity or pain might start snapping at the other animals in the house. Other pets in the household might even start showing aggression toward your senior pet, because they sense the weakness. They may want to make a play for position in the pack, or they may feel that the older dog is weakening the pack dynamic. Keep an eye on how your pets—particularly dogs—interact with each other and, if you see problems developing, consider calling a trainer to help.
Physical symptoms might decrease an older pet’s activity level. Depending on its limitations, your pet may still be able to play with you, and play will keep your pet’s joints flexible and its brain sharp. Help your pet warm up by taking a slow walk to loosen stiff muscles and joints before starting an activity. The games you play with your older dog might need to be adjusted, for example, by shortening the distance that your dog needs to fetch its ball. A dog with mobility problems might need several short walks rather than one long one. Consider taking your usual jog down to a brisk walk.
A less active pet can also have a smaller appetite. Be sure to watch your pet to make sure it is consuming enough calories. The opposite can also be true—a less active pet might need fewer calories and be more likely to gain weight.
Does your pet seem unaware of things going on around them? Dementia is something your older pet can suffer from, just like people. Your dog may act confused, wander aimlessly, and bark or howl for no reason.
To help your pet cope with the symptoms, be aware of its environment:
■ Try to keep its environment the same; for example, don’t rearrange furniture
■ Keep pathways clear, so you dog doesn’t get trapped or run into things
■ Introduce new people, toys, and foods slowly
■ Stick to a regular schedule for feeding and walking
I had a Lab/Setter mix named Buddy and, when he was 14, I noticed he was spending more time staring into space. Then one day I went to feed him, and he didn’t go for his food. He didn’t even sniff at it. For awhile, he went in and out of recognizing food until eventually he was ignoring it altogether and essentially starving himself. That’s when I knew it was time to say goodbye to my sweet Buddy.
A dog who will not eat may also have dental problems. Dogs who chew on tennis balls their whole lives can wear their teeth down so far that the nerve is exposed. They can also crack their teeth on bones or other hard items. Digestive issues may also be the cause of your dog’s diminished appetite.
If your pet is considered a senior and you see changes in its behavior, take it in to see the vet and see if it has an agerelated problem. Senior cats can suffer from the same problems that dogs do. The difference is that cats tend to hide and withdraw more so than dogs. The more we know about the symptoms and behavior of aging, the better understanding we will have to help us make the right decisions for our pets.
Valerie Masi, owner of Best Paw Forward, can be reached at 760-885-9450 or visit www.bestpawforwarddogtraining.com.