Identifying and managing behavioral changes in older dogs and cats - DVM
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Identifying and managing behavioral changes in older dogs and cats

DVM Best Practices

Playing games For animals that have always played games, adapting the games to their changing physical needs but continuing to play them may be essential for mental well-being. In an unpublished study conducted by Dr. N.W. Milgram's group at the University of Toronto, the biggest improvement in cognitive function was seen for aged dogs who had both some biochemical intervention and environmental enrichment. As our pets slow down, we tend to ignore playing with them. This is wrong: it is exactly at this time that they need more creative games, possibly including food puzzles, that rely more on brains than on brawn.

Because pets also become compromised by arthritis or changes in visual and auditory acuity concomitantly with age-associated behavioral/cognitive changes, it is critical that we address the physical changes with the intent to ameliorate any decrement in behavioral function that they may cause. Dogs that used to enjoy running, may enjoy swimming, and pools that have therapeutic swimming programs for dogs are now more readily available. Dogs and cats with arthritis may be more willing to interact or go with the people on car trips if they do not have to jump into the car or go up or down stairs. Ramps are an easy and - depending on their design - mentally stimulating solution. Dogs and cats may more easily sit or lie down and offer a paw or "high fives" for their dinner if their dinner is easy to eat. Elevated dinner dishes can accomplish this. It should go without saying - but likely doesn't - that appropriate pain control for arthritic and other physically debilitating changes is an essential part of any pet's well-being.

The behavioral and environmental solutions for changes brought on by aging are limited only by the client's imagination and willingness to meet their pet's needs. When they have done this, aging can be a graceful segue from youth and middle-age. Such an approach allows the clients to keep their pets in a humane manner, which may make the inevitable loss of the pet kinder, more rational, and a lot easier to accept, than were the client to euthanize the pet for the behavioral signs that the client finds so disturbing.

Suggested Reading
  • Adams B, Chan A, Callahan H, Milgram NW. The canine as a model of human cognitive aging: recent developments. Prog Neuro-Pyschopharm Biol Psychiat 2000;24:675-692.
  • Chapman BL, Voith VL. Behavioral problems in old dogs: 26 cases (1984-1987). J Am Vet Med Assoc 1990;196;944-946.
  • Hellyer PW. Treatment of pain in dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;221:212-215.
  • Milgram NW, Head E, Cottman CW, Muggenburg B, Zicker SC. Age dependent cognitive dysfunction in canines: dietary intervention. In: Proceedings of the 3rd International Congress on Behavioural Medicine, edited by KL Overall, DS Mills, and SE Heath, UFAW, Wheathampstead, 2001: 53-57.
  • Seksel, K. Training your cat. Hyland House, Victoria, Australia, 2001.


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