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Family Pet Hospital

Behavior Changes in Older Animals

Close Up Image of a Brown Dog's Paws

The changes that you can expect are very similar in both dogs and cats and we are going to look at some of the most common ones here.

Noise Phobias

Dogs are more likely to be affected by noise phobia than cats. You may think that noise phobias are surprising as many older pets lose their hearing as they age, but much of the time the phobia is caused by your pets’ inability to remove themselves from the noise. It is also sometimes a result of the stress that the noise creates. Trying to pinpoint the disturbing noise and either removing or relocating the source or your pet is the best course of action. If this is not possible there are a number of therapies that you can try including counter-conditioning or desensitization. Your veterinarian or animal behavior expert will be able to guide you toward the treatment that is most suitable for your pet.

Separation Anxiety

One of the most common behavior problems seen in older dogs is separation anxiety. Cats are generally not affected by this issue. If your dog is suffering from this problem he will typically become very anxious, stressed and tense whenever he sees you preparing to leave the house. During their time alone they will usually exhibit a number of undesirable behaviors including releasing their bowels/bladder indoors, howling, barking, or even becoming destructive. When you return; your pet will greet you with excessive exuberance. Sometimes separation anxiety is aggravated by hearing and vision loss as this can often make pets more anxious and older animals struggle to adapt to any changes in your routine. Dealing with separation anxiety can be difficult; after all, you still need to be able to leave your pet to go about your daily life. However, there are some steps that you can take to try and reassure your pet. These include:

  • Try and leave the house as subtly as possible. Making a big deal about it will make the behavior worse.

  • If you are out of the house for extended periods during the day, see if you can have a neighbor or relative pop in. They can let your dog out which will minimize bathroom accidents, particularly as older dogs need to empty their bowels and bladder more often. It will also break up the day for your animal and give them a short interjection of company. If you don’t have someone you know that can do this for you, then there may be a dog-walking business operating in your neighborhood that could take on the job.

  • Whenever you leave the house, try and associate the action with something good such as a treat or some praise. This gives a positive message to your pet.

  • Ensure that your pets’ environment is suitable. You know your dog best and understand where he will be most comfortable, whether that be by a window, under the stairs or even outdoors


Another common change in behavior is your pet beginning to urinate or defecate in undesirable locations. This problem affects both dogs and cats, who may start emptying their bowels or bladder indoors at any time of day or night. This issue can be a medical one. There are an extensive number of conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, and liver/kidney disease that can cause a loss of toilet control. It can also be caused by stress or anxiety, or conditions such as arthritis may make it difficult for your pet to get to the desired toileting location in time. Your veterinarian will be able to do an examination to check out the route of the problem and suggest an appropriate treatment. If the cause is found to be a non-medical one, you may need to consider steps such as increasing the number of litter trays you have in your house, ‘accident-proofing’, and making access to the outside easier for your pet.


Just as our tolerance levels tend to decrease as we get older, so do those of our pets. Much of the time, any aggression shown by our senior pets is a sign of pain that they are unable to communicate. Medical conditions such as arthritis, colitis, and dental disease can cause significant discomfort and we may accidentally touch our pets in a way that worsens this pain, making them act aggressively towards us. Treating medical conditions that are the cause of pet aggression is vital and your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the best way forward. If you are unable to determine the cause of aggressive behavior then you should remove your pet away from family members and any other animals that you have, and consult with your veterinarian or an animal behavior expert as soon as possible.

Increased Vocalization

Affecting both cats and dogs, many older pets become much more vocal in order to get attention from their owners. In dogs, this is usually linked to separation and anxiety, and in both animals is common if your pet has limited mobility or is feeling unwell. Largely attention-seeking behavior should be ignored as much as possible, but you may wish to consider a technique known as a remote correction. This is a distraction technique such as tossing a can full of beads or similar in the direction towards your pet (not at your pet!) in order to shock them out of the behavior.

Dog/Cat Cognitive Dysfunction

CCD or FCD is a condition that is similar to the cognitive degeneration diseases that we see in humans, including Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Symptoms are similar in both dogs and cats and can include:

  • Decreased activity

  • Decreased attention span / staring into space

  • Changes in sleep patterns

  • Inability to recognize owners/environments

  • Confusion and disorientation

  • Loss of ability to control bladder and bowels

If you suspect that your pet has cognitive dysfunction then you should consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible. While there is no cure, there is a licensed treatment for dogs known as Selegiline that may be able to help alleviate some of the symptoms. Although not licensed for use in felines, some veterinarians have seen an improvement in the symptoms of cats and may consider prescribing this drug for your feline friend too.

Behavior changes in older smaller animals

Much of the behavior discussed here are also applicable to smaller household pets. If you have any concerns about the behavior of any of your pets, please consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible.