What Medical Conditions Can Cause or Contribute to Behavior Problems in Pets?
The following medical conditions can be the cause behind a sudden onset of behavioral problems in a pet:
- A decline in the pet’s hearing, sight, or other senses (e.g., balance), organ dysfunction (e.g., liver or kidney disease), hormonal diseases, diseases affecting the nervous system, diseases of the urinary tract (infections, tumors, or stones), any disease or condition that might lead to pain or discomfort, and problems that affect the pet’s mobility, can all cause or contribute to behavior problems.
- Any condition that leads to an increase in pain or discomfort can lead to increased irritability, increased anxiety, fear of being handled or approached, and ultimately, increased aggressiveness. If these aggressive displays are successful at removing the “threat” (and they usually are) the behavior is reinforced. Medical conditions that affect the ears, anal sacs, teeth and gums, bones, joints, or back (disks) are some of the more common causes of pain and discomfort. If the pet’s mobility is affected, it may become increasingly aggressive, choosing to threaten and bite rather than retreat. A decrease in mobility could also affect urination and defecation by reducing the pet’s ability to utilize its elimination area.
- Pets with diminished sight or hearing may have a decreased ability to detect or identify the stimuli, and might begin to respond differently to commands, sounds, or sights. Sensory decline is more likely to be seen as a pet ages.
- Diseases of the internal organs, such as the kidneys or liver, can cause a number of behavior changes, primarily due to the toxic metabolites that accumulate in the bloodstream. Organ decline and dysfunction is more common in the older pet. Any medical condition that causes an increased frequency of urination or decreased urine control, such as kidney disease, a bladder infection, bladder stones, or neurological damage, might lead to an increase in house soiling. Similarly, those problems that affect the frequency of bowel movements or bowel control, such as colitis or constipation, might lead to house soiling with stools.
- Diseases of the nervous system (brain and spinal cord) can lead to a number of behavior and personality changes. Conditions such as epilepsy, brain tumors, infection, and immune and degenerative diseases can all directly affect a dog or cat’s nervous system, and therefore its behavior. In the older pet, aging changes can have a direct effect on the brain, leading to cognitive dysfunction and senility.
- The endocrine (hormone) system also plays a critical role in behavior. Over-activity or under-activity of any of the endocrine organs can lead to a number of behavior problems. The thyroid and parathyroid glands (in the neck), the pituitary gland (in the brain), the adrenal gland (by the kidneys), the pancreas, and the reproductive organs can all be affected by conditions or tumors that lead to an increase or decrease in hormone production. Endocrine disorders are more likely to arise as the pet ages.
- The aging process is associated with progressive and irreversible changes of the body systems. Although these changes are often considered individually, the elderly pet is seldom afflicted with a single disease, but rather with varying degrees of organ disease and dysfunction. Cognitive decline and senility have also been recognized in older dogs and cats.
What Tests Need to be Done to Determine if My Pet’s Behavior Problem is Due to a Medical Condition?
Clinical History and Physical Examination
The assessment begins with a clinical history and physical examination. Remember that the history you provide may be the only way to determine if there are behavioral or medical changes in your pet. Be certain to take note and mention any changes or problems that you may have noticed in your pet’s behavior, no matter how minor. Based on the signs that you report and the findings of the examination, laboratory tests and a more comprehensive examination, such as a neurological examination or sensory testing, may be required. For some of these tests your pet may need to be referred to a specialist.
Medical, Surgical, Dietary or Pharmacologic Treatment
Before beginning behavior therapy, any medical problems that have been diagnosed should be treated. A change in diet or a drug trial may be an important aspect of differentiating a medical from a behavioral cause (such as a food trial or steroid trial that might be used to rule out an underlying allergic cause). Surgery may be indicated when a tumor is diagnosed or when castration is indicated to reduce male sexually-influenced behaviors. Your veterinarian may commence medical and behavioral treatment for long-standing behavior problems. There are also a variety of behavioral drugs and supplements that might be useful or necessary, depending on the type, intensity, and severity of the behavioral disorder.