From the time your pet was tiny, you have provided the best care possible, and your pet has lived a long, wonderful life by your side. However, they recently have started exhibiting some behaviors that concern you about their mental acuity. The team at Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services wants to educate you on how cognitive dysfunction affects pets, and ways to help slow disease progression.

What is cognitive dysfunction in pets?

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is a disorder affecting geriatric dogs and cats caused by degenerative changes in the brain, similar to those seen in human Alzheimer patients. The cause of the degeneration is unknown, but compromised cerebral blood flow and chronic free radical damage are believed to be contributing factors. Most cats and dogs older than 16 exhibit behaviors associated with CDS.

What are cognitive dysfunction signs in pets?

In the early disease stages, CDS signs may be subtle. Then, as the syndrome progresses, the signs need to be differentiated from other medical causes.

  • Disorientation Your pet may get lost in familiar locations, be unable to navigate over small obstacles, stare fixedly into space, or wander around aimlessly.
  • Changes in social interactions An affectionate pet may suddenly become disinterested in being petted and greeting family members, or a reserved pet may become clingy and need constant attention.
  • Sleep-wake cycle alterations Your pet may start to sleep restlessly, sleep more during the day, or vocalize more while sleeping.
  • House soiling Cats may stop using their litter box and may eliminate near food or sleeping areas. Dogs may start eliminating in the house.
  • Activity level changes Your pet may groom less, eat less, and become depressed, while also becoming more anxious. 

How is cognitive dysfunction diagnosed in pets?

CDS is diagnosed by ruling out other medical issues that could be causing your pet’s behavior. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam on your pet and will run tests on their blood and urine. Other systems that can cause behavior changes in your pet include the digestive (e.g., dental issues, decreased gastrointestinal motility, obesity); urinary (e.g., urinary tract disease, kidney disease); musculoskeletal (e.g., arthritis, decreased muscle mass); and neurologic system (e.g., loss of vision or hearing, brain tumor).

Once other causes have been ruled out, your pet should be evaluated using a validated rating scale. This will help determine your pet’s cognitive dysfunction stage. 

  • Stage 1  Mild signs that include changes in sleep patterns and slight changes in social interactions with owners
  • Stage 2 Moderate signs, including hyperactivity at night, sometimes forgetting house training, and starting to need special care
  • Stage 3 — Severe signs that include dramatic behavior problems (e.g., aimless wandering, night-long vocalizing, lack of responsiveness to family members, and complete loss of house training)

How is cognitive dysfunction treated in pets?

CDS is an incurable disease, but many therapies are available that can improve your pet’s quality of life and slow disease progression. Here are four treatment methods for pets with CDS.

  • Nutritional management Diets tailored for pets with CDS focus on decreasing damage caused by toxic free radicals. Antioxidants and elements, such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and essential fatty acids, have been shown to reduce oxidative damage and improve cognitive function.
  • Enrichment management — Your pet will need mental and physical stimulation to help slow disease progression. Exercise your pet at their appropriate level daily. Play your pet’s favorite game frequently. Positive reinforcement training and interactive toys, such as food puzzles, are helpful in stimulating their brain.
  • Environmental management — Older dogs may need more opportunities to go outside, and puppy pads may be useful as a safe place to eliminate. Provide extra litter boxes in multiple places for your older cat. Ensure the boxes have low sides, because your cat may have issues getting in and out if they are arthritic. Night lights may help older pets navigate their surroundings at night. Be aware that older pets may show less tolerance toward young children and other pets in the home.
  • Drug management  — Medications have been approved for the control of clinical signs in dogs, but not in cats. Your veterinarian may prescribe anxiety reducing medications for pets whose anxiety escalates as the disease progresses. Your family veterinarian is well equipped to plan a therapy regimen for your pet.

Pets diagnosed with CDS will need frequent veterinary exams to evaluate disease progression. If you notice any behavior changes between visits, notify your veterinarian. 

A geriatric pet can be challenging, but they still have a special presence in your life. CDS can be best managed when diagnosed early, so be vigilant for your older pet’s behavior changes. If your senior pet gets into trouble when your family veterinarian is unavailable, do not hesitate to contact Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services.