Cognitive dysfunction is a condition that pet owners often misread in their senior pets, as many of the signs are considered to be cats’ and dogs’ normal aging changes. In addition, cognitive dysfunction’s slow, insidious development can make a pet’s behavior abnormalities difficult to spot. Read our Flora Family Vet team’s guide to learn how to identify, manage, and possibly prevent your furry pal’s cognitive dysfunction and help boost your senior pet’s quality of life throughout their golden years.

What causes cognitive dysfunction in pets?

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is more commonly diagnosed in dogs, although cats can also suffer from this condition. Similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people, CDS causes pets to behave abnormally, which reflects their declining cognitive function.

A healthy brain’s neurons transmit information throughout the body, triggering various functions. As your pet ages, neurons and other cells within the brain waste away. As a result, the beta-amyloid protein accumulates, causing a toxic environment that increases neuron degeneration. As neurons stop functioning properly, the brain is unable to remember, process information, or tell the body what to do, resulting in an affected pet’s physical and behavioral changes.

What does cognitive dysfunction look like in pets?

CDS can seem to sneak up on your pet, and you may have difficulty differentiating between your furry pal’s normal aging processes and their declining cognitive function. Regardless of these changes’ underlying cause, our Flora Family Vet veterinarian should examine your pet if they exhibit the following CDS signs:

  • Disorientation — Confusion and disorientation can be difficult to detect in your senior pet, but these signs become evident when your furry pal becomes lost in a familiar place, waits for a door to open at the hinge side, stares into space, or has difficulty finding their food bowl.
  • Altered interactions — Your once-friendly and outgoing pet may begin avoiding interaction and becoming irritable when you or other pets initiate an exchange.
  • Abnormal sleep patterns — Pets with CDS often flip-flop their sleep-wake cycles, staying awake long into the night and sleeping more during the day. They may also vocalize excessively at night, crying and whining, and pacing restlessly.
  • House soiling — Urinating or defecating inappropriately when previously house- or litter-box trained is a common CDS sign. However, many other conditions can cause this behavior.
  • Activity changes — Senior pets often become less active because of arthritis pain, but CDS can also affect their activity level and patterns. Your pet may pace or perform repetitive behaviors, or they may show no interest in their once-favorite activities. 
  • Anxiety — Disorientation and confusion can trigger senior pets’ anxiety. A pet affected by CDS may cling to you, be restless and unable to settle, and display appetite changes.
  • Memory and learning changes — While old dogs can learn new tricks, pets affected by CDS may be unable to remember lifelong skills. If your pet fails to remember their name, does not understand cues they previously learned, or is unable to learn new tricks, their cognitive function is declining.

What conditions appear similar to cognitive dysfunction in pets?

Myriad conditions can cause signs similar to a pet’s CDS, making an accurate diagnosis key to providing them with appropriate and effective treatment. Depending on the signs your pet has been exhibiting, our Flora Family Vet team may conduct diagnostic tests to rule out:

  • Arthritis
  • Urinary tract disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Dental disease
  • Hearing loss (e.g., polyps, chronic ear infections)
  • Vision loss (e.g., lenticular sclerosis, cataracts)
  • Anxiety
  • Brain tumor

Can my pet’s cognitive dysfunction be treated?

Although CDS is a progressive condition, the disease can be slowed. In addition, this disorder’s onset can be delayed by putting preventive measures in place long before your four-legged friend exhibits signs. To help keep your pet’s mind sharp, follow these tips:

  • Feed their mind — Nutrition is incredibly important for keeping your pet’s brain healthy, as mental processes require a great deal of high-quality fuel. Feed your pet’s mind by ensuring their diet contains antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, medium-chain triglycerides, phosphatidylserine, and S-Adenosyl-l-methionine (SAMe). These nutrients have been proven to support brain health and function.
  • Play brain games — Just as you may do crossword puzzles to work your brain, consider adding some brain stimulation to your furry pal’s daily routine to help keep their mind sharp. Practice new and old tricks with your pet, feed them using a food puzzle rather than a bowl, and devise problems for your pet to solve.
  • Enrich their environment — Although you’d love to spend all day playing with your pet to boost their brain function, you can’t always be there to interact. Consider enriching your furry pal’s environment to enable them to entertain themselves. Encourage your pet to take part in mentally taxing and rewarding instinctive behaviors, such as climbing, scratching, digging, and sniffing, by providing them with interactive toys, climbing towers, or sandboxes, or challenging them with treasure hunts. 

Depending on your pet’s level of cognitive decline and the signs they show, our team may recommend pharmacologic intervention. Some medications can help manage your pet’s poor cognitive function and anxiety.

While physical aging changes can be difficult for your pet to navigate, cognitive changes can be more challenging. If your furry pal exhibits CDS signs, schedule an appointment with our Flora Family Vet team.