Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, and increased owner education, our pets are living longer than ever. The average lifespan for an indoor cat is now 15 years. Large and giant breed dogs that used to live to around 8 are now seeing their teenage years and some small and toy breeds can live to 20 years or more. We have ever increasing options for diagnostics, a dizzying array of drugs available and technology that once sounded like science fiction.
As your pet ages, you will probably notice physical changes, like a decreased ability to jump or more time spent sleeping. But did you know that aging also brings behavioral and cognitive changes? Here’s what to look for:
Problems with spatial orientation–Disorientation or confusion in what used to be familiar surroundings is a common sign of orientation issues. Does your dog get stuck in corners, stare blankly at walls or get lost in your own yard or home? Does your dog not seem to recognize people or pets that should be familiar? Does he walk into walls or doors or go to the wrong side of a closed door? These are all signs that your pet is having a hard time understanding where he is and how to navigate.
What you can do: Keep things familiar. Avoid rearranging furniture or moving your pet’s bed, dishes or toys to a different area of the house. Keep dogs leashed on walks and don’t leave your dog unattended in an unfenced yard. Cats showing signs of spatial disorientation should be kept indoors at all times. Caution friends and family members to move slowly around your pet, to avoid startling him or inadvertently causing a bite incident. Be patient and allow your pet the extra time he needs to take in his surroundings and process them.
Problems with social interaction–The senior pet may have less tolerance for being physically touched and might only prefer to be petted upon his initiation. The opposite is also true, pets that have always been standoffish or not “lap cats” may suddenly be clingy, following you around the house and insisting on attention. Other social changes to look for are avoidance or aggression towards family members or other pets and less playfulness. Older pets are frequently intolerant of the exuberance and physicality of kittens and puppies.
What you can do: If you are considering adding another pet to your household, avoid very young animals. Senior and geriatric pets will be happier with an adult animal that has moved past the energetic stages of puppy and kittenhood. If your pet suddenly does not want to be touched, starts to hide or displays aggression towards a family member or pet, schedule an appointment for a physical exam. Such behavior can be a symptom of pain or illness. Finally, give your pet the space, or the attention, that he craves.
Changes in sleep-Most pets will sleep more during the day as they age. Your pet may be restless at night or awake more often and you may notice a change in sleep cycles.
What you can do: Wandering around the house at night can be dangerous for a pet with decreased eyesight. Install night lights in hallways or near stairwells to help your pet navigate. Be sure to walk dogs right before turning in, as a decreased ability to hold the bladder may result in a middle of the night trip outside. If your pet is restless and seems unable to get comfortable, this could be a sign of pain. Schedule an exam to determine if he needs medication for arthritis or other pain, or to tweak his medication schedule if he is already taking them. If your pet is waking you frequently during the night, consider barring him from your bedroom. Extra playtime and walks later in the day will help him sleep longer as well.
Problems with anxiety and separation-Does your pet seem more fearful than usual? Has he developed phobias related to noise (such as thunderstorms) or anxiety when confronted with new people, new places or changes in his environment? How does he behave when he is home alone? Is he vocal or destructive?
What you can do: Keep things as consistent as possible. Senior pets are slower to adapt to changes and decreased vision and hearing can help fears to develop where none were previously. If you pet is showing signs of separation anxiety, such as vocalization or destruction inside the house or pacing, schedule an appointment for a exam. There are behavioral and pharmaceutical therapies that can help.
Problems with housetraining or memory-Has your cat stopped using his litterbox? Is your dog having accidents in the house? Does he indicate to you when he needs to go outside? Does your dog seem less responsive to his name or seem to forget how to do tricks or commands?
What you can do: House soiling, especially if the issue is new, is always cause for an exam. Cats may have a hard time maneuvering inside a cramped box or may have difficulty climbing stairs to get to the box. Dogs may need to go outside more frequently, even if they have not indicated so. Bloodwork can show organ disease that leads to changes in bathroom behavior. The senior pet is not as quick cognitively as he used to be, so give him plenty of time to remember things or to focus.
Problems with activity-All pets will slow down a little as they age. Sleeping more, running less and being generally calmer are all normal and expected changes. Does your dog suddenly seems apathetic towards toys or walks or social interaction? Has he developed new obsessive or repetitive behaviors, such as licking or circling?
What you can do: Provide your pet with plenty of mental stimulation and age appropriate exercise. Do you always take the same route on walks? Try a slightly different route. Has your cat had the same toys forever? Swap them for new and fresh toys. Compulsive behaviors are cause for physical exam to rule out disease.
Age related behavioral and cognitive changes can usually be managed with diet, environment, medication or some combination of these things. Caring for a senior or geriatric pet can be challenging, so if you have questions or concerns about your pet and changes that you have noticed, call the office! We are always happy to help and together we can make your pet’s golden years comfortable and pleasant.