If you're seeing more senior dogs and cats in your practice these days, give yourself a pat on the back. Better medical treatment means pets are living longer. However, many of these older pets are affected by cognitive aging, and the resulting behavioral changes can be distressing to your clients.
Dr. Karen Overall, PhD, DACVB, author of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals (Elsevier, 1997), offers input on how you can work with senior pets and their owners. "Client distress potentially leads to euthanasia of the pet," she says. "We can now do better."
Help your clients keep track of behavior changes in their senior pets. Click here to download the PDF handout to give to clients.
Watch for these signs
According to Dr. Overall, the most common behavioral changes clients bring up are:
- Disorientation. The dog or cat seems to get lost in the house or confused outside.
- Changes in social interaction. Dogs and cats interact less with their canine and feline housemates, ignore toys, play less overall, and withdraw from their owners. If forced to interact, they can become completely withdrawn or even aggressive. "It's this profound alteration in interaction that most distresses clients," Dr. Overall says.
- Changes in the sleep-wake cycle. Aging dogs and cats may pace and vocalize during the night—cat owners especially will complain about repetitive, monotone meowing. The most disturbing part for clients is that they can't comfort their pets when they pace and vocalize.
- Changes in elimination behaviors. Clients often describe these changes as "a loss of housetraining." These pets seem to "forget" to eliminate in normal locations and then eliminate wherever they are when the need is urgent, or they have reduced inhibition and will eliminate wherever they are once they reach a certain threshold stimulus.
Pinpoint the problem
Some of these same signs can also indicate anxiety, which is not uncommon in older pets—so you need to know what you're dealing with, Dr. Overall says. It's also essential to assess and treat the pet for pain, which can affect behavior. Having a client fill out a questionnaire (see above) at every annual visit beginning when a pet reaches middle age can help you determine the root problem.
With cognition problems, both medication and behavioral interventions may prove useful, Dr. Overall says. Here are some ways clients can work with their pets' behavior:
- Teach the dog or cat to sit or lie down and relax.
- Pay attention to the pet during regular times of the day, which provides predictability and decreases anxiety.
- Provide regular cognitive stimulation, such as requiring the pet to sit for a treat or offering a treat toy that stimulates both physical and mental dexterity.
- Provide routine interaction that's relaxing, such as massage, gentle manipulation of joints, or gentle grooming.
- Continue to play games. "As our pets slow down, we tend to play with them less," Dr. Overall says. "This is wrong: It's exactly at this time that they need more creative games that rely more on brains than on brawn."