Similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, cognitive dysfunction can significantly influence your pet’s quality of life as they enter their golden years. The condition affects a high percentage of dogs older than 15 and cats older than 16, but much younger pets can also exhibit signs. Our team at Countryside Veterinary Hospital would like to educate you on this concerning disease, to help ensure you recognize the signs if your pet is affected.

What is cognitive dysfunction and how are pets affected?

As pets age, beta-amyloid protein (i.e., a substance toxic to the brain) can accumulate. This buildup, in addition to other changes, including reduced cerebral blood flow and dysfunctional neurons, causes the brain to degenerate, which results in cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Pets affected by CDS exhibit senile behaviors and declining cognitive abilities, including:

  • Disorientation — Pets will become mentally confused, and may seem lost in familiar locations. Affected pets will frequently stare at nothing.
  • Abnormal interactions — Independent pets may seek attention more, while dependent pets may seek solitude.
  • Sleep cycle disturbances — Pets may sleep more during the day, and be more active at night.
  • House soiling — Dogs may relieve themselves in the house, and cats may eliminate outside their litter box.
  • Activity changes — Pets may seem more lethargic, and show less interest in eating, playing, and grooming.
  • Anxiety — Pets will become increasingly more anxious, and may vocalize more frequently.
  • Learning and memory difficulties — Pets may not recognize family members, and stop responding to well-known commands.

How is cognitive dysfunction in pets diagnosed?

Cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis of exclusion. Aging affects all body systems, and other conditions that may show similar signs must be ruled out before CDS is diagnosed. Our veterinary professionals at Countryside Veterinary Hospital will first ask for a detailed history of your pet’s behavioral changes, and will then perform a thorough medical evaluation, including physical, neurological, and orthopedic exams, pain assessment, and complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis testing. Other diagnostics, such as X-rays, ultrasound, or endocrine tests, may be indicated based on those findings. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cerebral fluid analysis may be used to rule out intracranial lesions, such as inflammation, infection, or cancer, that mimic CDS. If CDS is diagnosed, your pet’s condition will be staged using the following scale:

  • Stage 1 — Signs in stage 1 are mild, and usually include changes in sleep patterns and interactions with owners.
  • Stage 2 — Stage 2 signs are moderate, and usually include disruptions at night, house soiling, and needing specialized care.
  • Stage 3 — Signs in stage 3 are severe, and usually include failing to recognize family members, becoming increasingly anxious, vocalizing through the night, and completely losing house training. 

How is cognitive dysfunction in pets managed?

CDS is progressive and has no cure, but the condition can be managed to improve your pet’s quality of life. Steps include:

  • Identification — Pets affected by CDS frequently get lost. Ensure your pet wears a collar and current identification tags, and consider having them microchipped. Avoid leaving them unattended in public areas or places that are not fully secure.
  • Exercise — Pets need exercise to improve their brain health and mental wellbeing. Activity increases blood flow, sending more oxygen to the brain. Keep the intensity at a level appropriate for your pet.
  • Brain training — Mental stimulation can keep your pet’s mind engaged, and potentially slow CDS progression. Examples include:
    • Feeding your pet meals or treats in a food puzzle toy
    • Playing nose-work games, in which your pet must sniff out treats hidden in various ways
    • Teaching new, easy tricks
    • Stimulating them using new sights, sounds, and smells

  • Routine — Confusion and anxiety are commonly exhibited in pets affected by CDS, and lack of a regular routine can exacerbate these issues. Ensure your pet has a consistent schedule, and they know when they can expect to eat, exercise, and sleep. This may also prevent them from being overly active at night.
  • Environment — Ensure your pet’s food and water bowls are placed where they can easily be found and accessed. You may need to add more litter boxes around your home to make litter box usage more convenient for your aging cat. Your older dog may need puppy pads throughout the house to ensure they do not have an accident between walks. Avoid moving furniture, because this can disorient your pet. Ensure they have a comfortable place to rest with enough padding to comfort aging joints.
  • Nutrition — Diets rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and essential fatty acids can be helpful. Supplementing medium-chain triglycerides may also be recommended.
  • Medication — Certain medications have been shown to help with CDS management. Our veterinary professionals will tailor a specific plan for your pet.

If your pet is exhibiting early CDS signs, taking steps to appropriately manage their condition can potentially slow disease progression. Your ability to recognize these signs is paramount to implementing a management plan as early in the process as possible. If you are concerned your pet is affected by CDS, do not hesitate to contact our team at Countryside Veterinary Hospital, to schedule an appointment.