With time, a pet’s brain physically shrinks in size. At the end of a pet’s life its brain may weigh 20 per cent less than it weighed when it was in its prime. It shrinks because cells die and are not replaced but also because the remaining brain cells lose connections with other brain cells. If an older pet is encouraged to have more social activity with other pets and people, if it’s encouraged to play games and to solve problems its brain can actually increase in weight. It’s not growing new brain cells but it’s making new connections or reconnections between those that remain. It actually repairs its circuitry.
Disorientation, forgetting previously learned behaviors such as house training, changes in the way it interacts with people or other pets, new fears and anxieties, decreased recognition of people, places, or pets and other signs of deteriorating memory and learning ability are all possible consequences of the aging brain. Many medical problems, including other forms of brain disease including epilepsy and tumours, can cause similar signs. Older pets with shrinking brains are less active, show less interest in the environment and have diminished interest in food. They also have decreased alertness, exhibit less social interaction, are slower to obey, and learn more slowly. Failing senses as well as decreased physical health may also cause these changes.
Pets develop rational fears, of us for example because each time we see them we either stab them in the back or prod parts that hurt or open their mouths wide and depress their tongues. Pets have sensible reasons to be unhappy or fearful in certain circumstances. A phobia is an irrational fear, an illogical apprehension of an object or a situation. The likelihood of phobias developing increases as a pet ages. Anxiety, which is part of the pet’s perfectly normal “fight or flight” response becomes irrational when it develops in perfectly normal circumstances. Elderly pets are also more likely to develop compulsive behaviours, to ritually perform a certain activity such as rhythmic vocalising or pacing, especially at night. (See Separation Anxiety in Dog Training
Older Pets Bite More
An older pet can become aggressive because it has a medical problem such as arthritis or dental disease that causes pain or because it startles easily as a consequence of a loss of hearing or vision or because it’s no longer as mobile as it once was and simply can’t get away from that bouncy pup that has such an irritating zest for life. Stresses, anxiety or panic associated with normal events such as moving home or your family acquiring a new human, canine or feline member might also make an older pet more irritable and more likely to be aggressive. In a multi-pet household, an older pet that was always the 'dominant' pet in the past may find her authority challenged by younger pets in the household. Since older pets don’t handle stress well, getting a new puppy or kitten when you have an older pet showing signs of aging may not be a good idea. It’s best to get a new puppy or kitten when the older pet is still mobile (can get away from it), relatively pain free, is not experiencing cognitive dysfunction, and has good hearing and vision. When aggression develops:
- Determine what’s contributing to the aggression and if you can, eliminate or reduce it. Pain can lower the threshold for aggressive behaviour, so have your pet thoroughly examined by us for signs of pain. Look for signs of arthritis, dental disease and ear infection.
- Treat any medical conditions that are contributing to aggression.
- Watch your pet for signs of stress (increased panting, trying to escape), and remove it from stressful situations that could cause aggression.
- If your pet has a sensory deficit, tell people to avoid approaching or touching it.
- If you think it might be aggressive, confine your pet to a safe, quiet area when visitors are in your home or garden.
Old Pets Vocalise More
Some older pets let you know they feel stressed by meowing, barking, whining, or howling more. They make more noise when they’re feeling anxious simply because you aren’t there but they want you to be. What they’re really doing is calling out either “I’m here.” or “Where are you?” Increased or pointless vocalising can also be associated with geriatric senility.
Old Pets Can Lose Their Housetraining
Some older pets that have been housetrained for years, may start having 'accidents'. Medical conditions that cause pain or make it difficult for the pet to get in the litter tray or go outside to eliminate can also contribute to messing indoors. Treating these medical conditions may eliminate the problem
- If arthritis or painful movement is involved you may want to build a ramp to the cat flap or to outside so your pet doesn’t need to manoeuvre. Cover shiny floor surfaces with non-slip rugs or other material. Medication to control pain, carpet runners on stairs for traction and control of obesity help. Intolerance to adverse weather may also cause the pet to choose to eliminate indoors.
- Rid your home of odours that trigger your pet’s willingness to mess indoors. Use an enzyme cleanser to clean areas in the house where your pet has urinated or defecated. If it needs to urinate or defecate more frequently than your own schedule allows, find someone who can let her out or take her out at appropriate intervals.
- Stick to a regular feeding schedule and be consistent both with supervision and confinement.
- Avoid punishment. It will make the problem worse or create other problems, such as social avoidance or fear aggression. A sharp noise given during the act to interrupt the behaviour is the only interactive correction that works.
Noises Can Be More Frightening
Some older pets become overly sensitive to certain noises. Cognitive dysfunction and the decreased ability of an older pet, particularly a dog to manage stress can contribute to noise phobia. It’s important to identify which noises your pet is afraid of. It may be noises we can hear, such as thunderstorms, but remember that pets hear sounds we can’t. With dogs:
- Treat noise phobias with desensitizing and counter conditioning by using one of the commercially produced sound CDs. We stock “Sounds Scary”.
- Once the sound is identified, play the recording of that sound at a very low volume level and reward your dog if no fear is displayed.
- Gradually (over weeks or more likely months) increase the volume and give appropriate rewards.
Old Pets Wander At Night
Some older pets become restless at night, stay awake, pacing through the house, whining, absently barking or loudly meowing. We should examine it for signs of pain. Many medical conditions can contribute to restlessness. Only after we’ve eliminated medical causes should you think of this as a behavioural problem. Remote corrections such as infra-red buzzers that are triggered when your pet walks past them may be needed. From my experience it may be necessary to confine your pet away from where people are sleeping during the night.
How To Make Life Easier For An Older Cat
- Work out with us the best plan for routine health check-ups
- Provide at least two indoor litter trays in convenient (for your cat) locations.
- Cover slippery floors with cat track rugs.
- Feed smaller but more frequent meals, for example four times daily.
- Keep the claws cut. They commonly grow round and into the pads.
- Provide at least two resting beds in comfortable locations. Use insulating fleece for bedding. It retains body heat.
- Play with your golden oldie for a few minutes at least twice daily. A feather on a string is a practical toy.
- Don’t get another pet ‘for the cat’. If your cat is distressed by the death of a feline companion it doesn’t necessarily want another cat in the house.
- The elderly, feline or human, are less comfortable with change than when they (or we) were younger. Stick to routines.
- When going on holiday, unless your cat is fully acquainted with a cattery, arrange for your elderly cat to stay at home either with a professional house-sitter or with a reliable friend who visits twice daily.
- If it’s a warm and sunny day, take your cat outside. Let it lie on your lap and absorb the sun’s rays. That’s pure heaven, for both of you.
Deterioration Can Be Delayed
While ageing is inevitable there is ample evidence that with modifications to the diet, weight management, changes in exercise routines, maintenance of good health and routine mental stimulation, the active years of an ageing pet can be dramatically prolonged. Some older pets gain weight simply because they continue to consume the level of calories they’ve always consumed only now are spending fewer of them keeping well-exercised. Once medical causes have been controlled or eliminated keep your pet’s weight at a level appropriate for her bone structure. This reduces strain on old joints, the most common site of age-related pain. The ability of the intestines to digest food diminishes so feeding higher quality, more digestible protein is a simple way to guarantee continuing optimum nourishment. Weight must be carefully managed so controlling a pet’s calorie intake can make the difference between vitality and discomfort. If your old pet has become picky with her food, almost without doubt there’s a medical problem. It may be as simple as gum disease, tooth pain or diminished taste or smell but it is just as likely to be caused by even more serious medical conditions. Please contact us. In the meantime, warming food to body temperature releases aromas, improves flavour and makes it more palatable.
Provide Routine Appropriate Exercise
Exercise is as beneficial for your older pet as it is for us but it should be constant and routine. With dogs, avoid sudden increased activity. If your dog walks for half an hour a day and you plan to go for a four hour hike on the weekend, leave your golden oldie at home. Walking and occasional trotting is best for helping aging joints and weakening muscles. Avoid vigourous exercise. Leave ball-catching to youthful canines, unless it’s a simple toss straight to the mouth. Contrary to what you might read, walking up stairs is very good exercise for dogs and is safe for all but overweight pets who are prone to tearing knee ligaments. Keep up the grooming. While some older pets groom less because they’re either too fat to do so or have mouth pain caused by gum and tooth disease, others groom less just because they forget. Your intervening and grooming your pet not only keeps the skin and coat in fine condition it also enhances skin circulation and massages the muscles. If you don’t need to groom daily, give your pet a gentle all-over massage. Improved circulation keeps muscles in their best condition.
Dietary Supplements May Improve Brain Function
As pets age, they may experience a loss of mental sharpness, a condition that a pharmaceutical company dubbed “canine cognitive dysfunction”. It’s very similar to geriatric dementia in humans. Signs of loss of mental sharpness include altered interactions with people, decreased activity, "accidents" in the house, disorientation, change in sleep patterns, and loss of learned behaviours. Many of these changes can be caused by other medical conditions that need treatment. For example, changes in a pet’s sleep-wake cycle, with waking up and being restless at night, may be the result of age-related brain changes but equally it may be caused by a urinary tract disorder.
In one study, older pets given a commercial product (Aktivait) containing l-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q, vitamins E and C, phosphotidylserine, selenium and omega 3 fish oils showed significant improvements in their signs of disorientation, social interaction and house-soiling. Cat Aktivait , without alpha lipoic acid which is toxic to cats is also available from us.