Advances in veterinary medicine and overall pet care mean your four-legged companions are living longer, healthier lives. At the same time, as pets approach their senior years, they often show age-related changes, such as slowing down, decreasing energy, changing behavior, or decreasing organ function. Cognitive dysfunction is a common syndrome in aging pets, and our Palmer Veterinary Clinic team explains how to recognize the signs and help your senior pet thrive into their golden years. 

Cognitive Dysfunction in pets

Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive and debilitating age-related disease in senior pets that is similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in people. The disease typically occurs in dogs who are older than 9 and cats who are at least 10 years old.  Additionally, one in three dogs who are 11 or older will develop some degree of cognitive dysfunction. The exact cause is unknown, but protein accumulation in the brain, aging brain cells, decreased blood flow, and mini-strokes likely play a role. Brain cells, or neurons, carry information throughout your pet’s brain and nervous system, signaling to the body how to function and move. When these cells no longer function properly, you may notice your pet exhibiting unusual behaviors or actions.

Cognitive dysfunction signs in pets

It can be difficult to recognize the disease early on, because your pet may have mild signs, or cognitive decline. However, as the disease progresses, the signs become more easily recognizable, including:

  • Increased barking or meowing, especially at night
  • Anxiety with loud sounds
  • Generalized anxiety, restlessness, or pacing 
  • Disorientation, or getting lost in familiar places
  • Soiling in the house or outside of the litter box
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Standing in corners or staring at walls
  • Changes in sleep/wake cycle
  • Lack of self-grooming
  • Decreased interaction with household members or pets
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased desire to play
  • Forgetting house training or previously trained behaviors 

Diagnosis and treatment of cognitive dysfunction in pets

Cognitive dysfunction signs can mimic other age-related diseases, such as arthritis or kidney disease, so bring your pet in for a veterinary exam to rule out other causes for their unusual behavior. Annual or more frequent examinations (even every 6 months) are critical for senior pets, and will aid in early detection and treatment of cognitive dysfunction. Our veterinarian will perform a nose-to-tail examination, and blood work and urine tests may be recommended, to rule out other causes of your pet’s abnormal behavior. Additionally, diagnostic imaging may be used to look for arthritis or other organ abnormalities that may contribute to symptoms. 

Cognitive dysfunction in pets cannot be prevented or cured, but treatments are available to slow the progression of the disease and relieve symptoms. Dietary supplements that contain antioxidants, Vitamin E, and fatty acids may be recommended to promote your pet’s overall brain health. Our hospital and online pharmacy has a variety of supplements and specialized diets to support your pet’s aging brain. Our veterinarian may also recommend anti-anxiety medications in advanced stages of the disease. 

Caring for your pet with cognitive dysfunction

Once your pet has been diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction, you can take steps to support their care at home and help slow the progression of the disease, including: 

  • Put up nightlights to help your senior pet navigate in the dark.
  • Place potty pads near the door in case your senior dog has an accident when you aren’t home.
  • Purchase an orthopedic pet bed to help your pet sleep more comfortably. 
  • Avoid situations that may cause your pet anxiety, such as an introduction to an unfamiliar place, person, or animal. 
  • Avoid rearranging furniture, or making other sudden changes in your home.
  • Ensure your pet is getting plenty of exercise and playtime, and allow plenty of time for sniffing during walks.
  • Exercise your pet’s brain with puzzle toys, such as a food-stuffed Kong. Environmental enrichment is very important to stimulate the brain—check out these ideas from Ohio State University’s behavioral medicine department.
  • Go slowly when introducing any new toys, or making changes in your pet’s routine.

Our Palmer Veterinary Clinic team understands how worrisome it can be, and how helpless you may feel, when your pet is diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction. Call our office if you have any questions about your pet’s brain health, or to schedule an appointment if they are showing cognitive dysfunction signs. We are here to help ensure your senior pet maintains their quality of life.