Behaviour: Problems of Older Pets

old dogIt is not unusual for behaviour problems to develop in older pets. Many of the problems have similar causes to those in younger pets. Changes in the household or changes in the environment can lead to problems regardless of age. For instance moving house, a change in work routine, a family member leaving the home, or new additions to the family such as a baby or a new spouse, can all have a dramatic impact on the pet's behaviour. 

Unfortunately our older pets are also likely to develop an increasing number of medical and degenerative problems as they age. Any of the organ systems can be affected and play a role in the development of a wide variety of behaviour problems. For example, diseases of the urinary system can lead to house-soiling. Diseases of the endocrine organs such as the thyroid gland and pituitary gland can lead to a variety of behavioural and personality changes. A decline in the senses (hearing and sight) and the onset of painful conditions, and those that affect mobility may cause the pet to be more irritable or more fearful of approach and handling. Ageing pets may also develop a range of behavioural changes associated with senility, which are similar to the changes seen in Alzheimer’s disease in people. 

How can I tell if my pet’s behaviour problem is age related?

Regardless of age, every behaviour case must begin with a complete veterinary physical examination and a clinical and behavioural history. In addition, blood tests and a urinalysis may be needed to rule out organ disease and endocrine imbalances. Sometimes a more in depth examination of a particular organ system may be indicated. Additional laboratory tests, radiographs, ultrasound, spinal tests or brain scans may all be appropriate depending on the initial findings and most of these will involve referral to a specialist at a University or referral practice.

My pet is quite old. Is there any point in doing these tests? What can be done?

Unfortunately many owners of elderly pets do not even discuss behaviour changes with their veterinary surgeon since they feel that they are a normal part of ageing and perhaps nothing can be done for their pet. This is far from the truth. Many problems have an underlying medical cause that can be treated or controlled with medication, diet or perhaps surgery. Hormonal changes associated with an under active or overactive thyroid gland, diabetes, diseases of the pituitary gland and testicular tumours can all lead to dramatic changes in the pet's behaviour and many of these problems can be treated or controlled. Problems associated with major organs such as the liver or kidneys can often be aided with nutritional supplementation or dietary changes. High blood pressure, cardiac disease and respiratory diseases may be treatable with medication, which may dramatically improve the quality and even length of the pet’s life and new medications are now available that are useful in the treatment of age related behavioural changes associated with senility. Reporting early changes in health and behaviour in older pets is very important since much of the treatment is aimed at slowing down the negative effects of ageing and improving quality of life for these animals, rather than affecting a cure for the progressive pathology associated with dementia.

What are some things to look out for?

Changes in behaviour, an increase or decrease in appetite or drinking, an increased frequency or amount of urination, loss of urine control (dribbling urine, bedwetting), changes in stool consistency or frequency, skin and hair coat changes, lumps and bumps, bad breath or bleeding gums, stiffness or soreness, excessive panting, coughing, changes in weight (increase or decrease), and tremors or shaking are some of the more common signs that you should mention to your veterinary surgeon if they develop in your pet.

What is cognitive dysfunction and how is it diagnosed?

A dog’s learning ability, concentration, memory and mental alertness tends to decline with age and this decline is termed cognitive dysfunction. This has also been shown to be true for cats. If your dog or cat has one or more of the following behaviour changes, and all potential physical or medical causes have been ruled out, it may be due to cognitive dysfunction:

a)  Confusion, disorientation, weakness

b)  Decreased reaction to stimuli (i.e. sounds, sights, odours)

c)  Decreased interaction with the owners (e.g. less affectionate and more detached)

d)  Increased irritability (with people and/or other dogs)

e)  Irregular sleep-wake cycles (sleeping more in the day, waking more at night)

f)  Increased vocalisation

g)  House-soiling or loss of other previously learned behaviours

h)  Decreased ability to recognise commands, people, places or other animals

i) Alteration in social behaviour (ending social interactions abruptly)

j)  Decreased interest in food

k)  Circling, repetitive and compulsive disorders

l)  Decreased tolerance to being left alone 

In one study of dogs that were 11-16 years of age, owners who were specifically questioned regarding signs of cognitive dysfunction reported that 62% of their pets exhibited at least one of the above signs. Of 152 feline patients over the age of 11 years, that were presented to a private American veterinary hospital, 43% exhibited signs consistent with cognitive dysfunction. The percentage of affected individuals was higher in cats over 15 years of age (48%)

Do pets get Alzheimer’s?

Many of the same pathological changes and lesions within the central nervous system that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease in people have now been recognised in dogs and cats. When multiple behaviour problems develop and these changes progress to the point where the dog or cat is no longer a "functional" pet, the condition may be consistent with senility or dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.

Can geriatric behaviour problems be treated?

In many cases the answer is yes. Of course this will depend on the underlying cause of the behaviour problems and the key therefore is to report any behavioural changes in your pet and contact your veterinary surgeon as soon as new problems arise. 

medicationNew medications are available that can successfully treat some forms of cognitive dysfunction in dogs and cats, although none are yet licensed for this use in cats.

Selegiline helps to normalise the brain dopamine levels, helps to protect against nerve cell deterioration. It is licensed in dogs in some countries for the treatment of behavioural problems of an emotional origin including those listed above that are related to old age and, although used in an off label fashion, Selegiline has also been used with good results in cats. 

Propentofylline is also advocated for use in cases of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. In addition to its affect on blood flow to the brain this drug also helps to maintain cellular function and protect against central nervous system damage.

Nicergoline increases blood supply to the brain and also protects the brain cells from certain types of damage due to a lack of sufficient oxygen. It is licensed for the treatment of certain specific age-related effects in the older dog and may also be used to treat some behavioural problems in the older dog associated with senility e.g. loss of house-training.

Nutritional manipulation through the use of special diets or dietary supplements has been shown to be beneficial both in the treatment and the prevention of canine and feline cognitive dysfunction. In particular research has looked at the effects of dietary manipulation on canine short-term memory and has assessed this with reference to particular learning and memory tasks. This is particularly significant since loss of short- term memory is known to be one of the first indications of similar conditions in humans. Researchers have found that cognitive performance can be improved with a diet supplemented with a broad spectrum of antioxidants, which are believed to prevent the development of the age-related neuropathology. In addition antioxidants are believed to promote recovery in neurons that are exhibiting signs of neuropathology and therefore commercially available diets or nutritional supplements enhanced with these agents are believed to constitute an important part of the treatment plan for behavioural disorders in the older pet.

"Researchers have found that cognitive performance can be improved with a diet supplemented with a broad spectrum of antioxidants, which are believed to prevent the development of the age-related neuropathology."

Many of the behaviour problems associated with cognitive dysfunction respond well to a combination of medication and nutritional therapy and overall these dogs may become more attentive, playful and affectionate. However, retraining and changes to the environment may also be needed. For example, geriatric dogs that have begun to eliminate indoors will need to be retrained much like a puppy that has begun to eliminate indoors.

Dogs that develop behaviour problems due to underlying medical conditions may also need alterations in their schedule or environment. If the condition is treatable and can be controlled or resolved with medical intervention (e.g. Cushing’s disease, infections, painful conditions) it may still be important to retrain the dog, in order to deal with any learned component to the behaviour. For example, the house-soiling pet may have less control due to its medical problems but develop substrate or location preferences that persist after the medical condition has been resolved. In cases where medical conditions cannot be controlled, then the pet’s schedule (more frequent trips outdoors), or environment (installing a dog door) may require attention. With conditions that affect a cat’s mobility, adjustments may be needed to the pet’s environment for example litter tray location may need to be altered (e.g. tray more accessible) or the type of litter tray changed (e.g. a lower sided tray). 

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