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siamese cat
separation anxiety
problem behavior
random times
old faithful
good behavior
litter box
The Case Of The Anxious Pet
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The Case Of the Anxious Pet

Understanding why your pet’s behavior changes as he ages, and how to deal with it.

For 12 years, Timmy was a model dog. He fetched the newspaper, amused the children, and guarded his wards zealously. Then, all of sudden, Timmy began to behave strangely, He ignored his master’s commands, kept the whole household awake with his restless pacing's at night, and would pant for no reason at all. His master could find no explanation for the Alsatian’s unnatural behavior.

Elsewhere, Coconut, a large, scrupulously tidy, fanatically finicky Siamese cat had suddenly started treating the whole house as her litter box. Her grooming habits had deteriorated, and the white coat (which had got her label) was now a shade of cream. She had also developed an unnerving habit of screaming at random times.

Why were these old faithful behaving so strangely?

Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, our pets are living longer. While this is wonderful, of course, aging often brings new and difficult behaviors. Here are some examples.


Older animals are more sensitive to change. Could your pet’s new behavior problems be the result of something different in her environment? Many older dogs, for instance, develop separation anxiety after a move or the death of a companion.

Solution – These kinds of problems are very treatable with behavior modification and, sometimes, short-term use of antidepressants. Your veterinarian can supervise the treatment or refer you to an animal trainer.


In some cases, an animal’s new problem behavior may have little to do with aging. It can be that the owner hasn't been teaching good behavior and is only now noticing the consequences. For example, many dogs learn that if they don’t eat the food they’re served, their owner will offer treats or scraps. Over time, the dog trains the owner to feed what the dog prefers – not what’s best for the dog. Then the owner complains that Fido has become a finicky eater in his old age.

Solution – A vet or an animal trainer can help you establish new, better habits.


PROBLEM – Your cat can’t make it to the litter box.

Possible cause – She may be suffering from chronic renal failure.

Solution – Because the cat’s kidneys are no longer up to par, she produces more urine and needs to use the litter box more frequently. Be sure her litter box is always accessible. Get another litter box so she doesn’t have to travel as far when the urge hits.

PROBLEM – Your dog no longer responds to your commands.

Possible cause – He may be going deaf.

Solution – A dog that is hard of hearing can be taught his commands through hand signals.

PROBLEM – Your dog becomes irritable when asked to move.

Possible cause – Arthritis can make once simple moves painful. (This could also be a reason for a cat’s difficulty getting to a litter box located on another floor.)

Solution – New medications and therapies, from massage to acupuncture, may help relieve the discomfort.


If an older pet’s behavioral changes cannot be explained by a medical condition, change in lifestyle, or learning of bad habits, the cause may be a type of mental deterioration in animals that has recently been called “cognitive dysfunction.”

The mental abilities of dogs and cats – just like ours – can decline with age, partly because of changes in brain chemistry. Decreases in the neurohormones serotonin and dopamine are similar to the declines in people. These hormones are essential to efficient brain function. Also, Alzheimer’s – type plaques have been found in the brains of aging dogs and cats.

To diagnose cognitive dysfunction, veterinarians look for one or more of the following behavioral changes: decreased reaction to stimuli, confusion, disorientation, decreased interaction with owners, increased irritability, alterations in sleep cycles, increased vocalization (such as the screaming cat), and problems performing previously learned behavior, such as housebreaking.

Solution – Fortunately, there are medications that can help, as can behavior modification techniques – for example, to re teach housebreaking.

If you see behavior changes in your older animal, get him to your vet as soon as possible for a check-up: It can be quite difficult for an owner to diagnose the sources of the problem.


To help prevent behavior problems in your pet, follow these guidelines:

  • Schedule annual medical check-ups.
  • Keep him on a well-balanced nutritious diet.
  • Plan exercise any play with older pets to keep them young.
  • Try not to alter your pet’s routines. Changes can bring on stress responses, such as barking, meowing, destruction, or toileting in inappropriate areas. Feed and walk at the usual times.
  • Don’t physically punish your pet if you get frustrated. Use gentle ways to change behavior, such as food rewards. Consult your vet about the causes of misbehavior.
  • Don’t reward problem behavior. Although your pet may stop momentarily, you may be making the problem worse.
  • To reduce crankiness, provide a warm, comfortable, and safe place to sleep, well protected from active toddlers and young animals. A cushy sleeping spot will also help soothe the pain of arthritis.
  • If incontinence is a problem, make litter boxes easily accessible, and clean them more frequently; take dogs out more.
  • Consider your older pet’s reaction before you introduce new pets. Although many older dogs enjoy having puppies around, others do not. (Many older cats would prefer that all kittens disappear.) You certainly don’t want to cause misery in an attempt to rejuvenate your old friend.
  • Keep your pet clean. Grooming makes him feel better – and nicer to stroke.

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