Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Aging Pets

Noting behavior changes can help you improve your geriatric pet’s quality of life and lengthen his lifespan

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

We expect physical changes in pets as they grow older. The muzzle goes gray, the joints get stiff, the eyes become cloudy. But senior and geriatric dogs and cats can also undergo behavior changes. Those changes can sometimes signal underlying physical problems or the onset of cognitive dysfunction.

Anxiety, aggression and changes in housetraining habits are some of the differences you may notice. In some circumstances, they can be surprising, scary or frustrating. The important thing to know is that they aren’t always a normal part of the aging process and should be checked out by your veterinarian. Here are some things you may notice as your pet gets older.

It’s not unusual for aging pets to become anxious about things that never seemed to bother them before. Or earlier in life, their anxiety may have been mild enough that it went unnoticed, but now it has increased in intensity.

Your geriatric dog may develop a fear of thunderstorms or fireworks or start to become anxious when you leave the house. Geriatric cats can become more sensitive to environmental changes than they were in their younger years. A new work schedule, a child or strangers in the home, or other changes can trigger anxious reactions in cats such as urine spraying, loud or frequent vocalizations, excessive or compulsive grooming behaviors or loss of appetite.

Changes in personality or activity level can be early signs of disease or painful conditions. A normally happy pet who suddenly becomes aggressive may be a victim of the aches and pains of old age. Osteoarthritis or disc disease can cause dogs or cats to growl, snap or scratch when touched in sensitive areas. Ear infections and dental disease can also be painful. A puppy or kitten who plays too roughly with an older animal may be on the receiving end of grouchy behavior, or cause pain or anxiety in the older animal. Pets who have lost hearing or eyesight may react aggressively when they are startled by an unexpected approach.

Talk to your veterinarian about what’s going on. Often, the solution is as simple as medication to relieve pain or treat disease. A Fear Free-certified veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, vet tech or dog trainer can help you learn to interact positively with pets who have lost hearing or sight or manage interactions between young and old pets.

Loss of housetraining isn’t unusual in senior pets, but it’s not necessarily because they have become lazy or forgetful. In some cases, they may simply need to have potty breaks more frequently to accommodate a bladder that is weaker and less stretchy, unable to hold as much urine as in the past. Older pets become constipated, meaning they may poop smaller amounts on a more frequent basis. Diabetes or kidney disease can cause pets to urinate more often or in larger amounts. Cats with arthritis may have difficulty climbing in or out of the litter box. Help them out by making the box easier to enter and exit.

These are just a few of the many reasons for behavior changes in our golden oldies. If you notice these types of changes in a pet’s behavior, it’s a good idea to schedule a full veterinary exam that includes a physical, as well as lab work that includes a complete blood count, a blood chemistry panel, thyroid levels, and urinalysis, and a neurological exam.

You may find that your pet has a condition that can be treated or managed with medication, dietary changes, aids such as ramps, steps or compression garments, behavior modification, or changes in the pet’s environment or schedule. Making some simple lifestyle changes can allow you to share many more months or years of happiness in your pet’s company.


Cat physics

for the win

Q: Is it true that cats always land on their feet? Has anyone actually studied that?

A: The physics of feline movement is a fascinating topic for any curious scientist or animal lover. Believe it or not, it’s something that has been studied for at least 150 years. Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, known as the father of modern physics, was interested in how cats righted themselves after a fall, and in 1894, French scientist Etienne Jules Marey used high-speed photography to document the sequence of movements made by the body of a falling cat. (The cat survived, stalking away with an “expression of offended dignity.”)

The way it works, apparently, is that the cat first rotates his head into position so he can see the ground. He then twists his body so that his feet are oriented toward the ground. Once the body is correctly positioned, the cat spreads his legs outward, flying-squirrel style, and relaxes his muscles. That helps to spread out the force of the impact.

Don’t try this experiment on your cat at home. Just because cats often -- not always -- land on their feet doesn’t mean they always walk away without injury. City veterinarians see cases of cats with “high-rise syndrome”: They survive falls from as high as 30 stories, but they suffer severe injuries, including broken legs, broken jaws and collapsed lungs. Interestingly, the most dangerous falls are from two to six stories, possibly because the cat doesn’t have enough time to set himself up for the best landing. Falls from higher than 30 stories are not survivable.

If you live in a high-rise building, or even if your cat simply enjoys sunning himself on your one-story balcony, protect him from falls with window screens or other barriers that will prevent him from taking a leap into the void. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Exotics rule

in cat world

-- For the third year in a row, the exotic -- a shorthaired variety of the Persian -- is the most popular cat breed registered by the Cat Fanciers Association. The cats are appreciated for their sweet, quiet, affectionate personalities, not to mention the ease of grooming compared to the longhaired Persian. Some have extremely flat faces, which can lead to breathing difficulties, so avoid kittens with an extreme appearance.

-- Have you ever wondered about the source of the word “veterinarian”? It comes to us from the Latin word “veterinae,” meaning “working animals,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and first appeared in print in 1646. While people have been treating animals for illness for centuries, it wasn’t until 1762 that the first veterinary college was founded, in Lyon, France. By 1848, horse doctors were called “vets,” according to Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal.

-- “Life is merrier with a toy fox terrier.” That’s the motto of people enamored of this smaller version of the smooth fox terrier. The TFT, as he’s known for short, is playful, funny and fearless as well as active and noisy. The breed was born in the United States, a popular working dog on farms, where he rid the home, barn and granary of rats and other small vermin. He combines terrier enthusiasm and hunting ability with the small size of toy dogs, making him suited to almost any home where he will get plenty of play -- fetch is a favorite -- and lap time. Keep this thin-skinned dog warm with a sweater or T-shirt, and don’t be surprised if he snuggles beneath the sheets or burrows inside your pillowcase. The smart and sassy TFT excels at dog sports, loves attention and generally gets along with other pets and older children. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.