Pets now are living longer because of advances in veterinary medicine and better preventive care. This is wonderful news, but as your pet ages, they may experience cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), a condition that affects their memory, awareness, responsiveness, and ability to learn. Our Animal Hospital of Stoney Creek team knows how much you love your senior pet, and we offer information about this condition and recommend management strategies.

What causes cognitive dysfunction in pets?

The brain consumes about 20% of the body’s total oxygen and has a high percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low levels of internal antioxidant activity, and is therefore susceptible to oxidative injury. Normally, cellular metabolic processes produce compounds that can lead to oxidative damage, but antioxidants in the brain usually balance this activity. However, these protective mechanisms begin to fail as pets age, and oxidative damage is associated with CDS. Pets with CDS have several brain abnormalities, including:

  • Reduced overall brain size
  • Reduced number of brain cells
  • Brain tissue scarring and degeneration
  • Fibrosis in protective brain structures
  • Presence of beta-amyloid plaques
  • Reduced amounts of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine

Is cognitive dysfunction common in pets?

CDS cases are increasing, since pets are living longer. One study found that 28% of 11- to 12-year-old dogs and 68% of 15- to 16-year-old dogs had CDS. Almost one-third of cats 11 to 14 years of age develop at least one geriatric onset problem that appears related to CDS, and this increases to more than 50% of cats 15 years of age and older.

What are cognitive dysfunction signs in pets?

The acronym DISHAAL is frequently used to describe CDS signs:

  • Disorientation — Affected pets may stare blankly at walls, get trapped in corners or behind furniture, get lost in familiar places, or go to the wrong side of the door.
  • Interactions — Pets who have CDS may interact differently with their owners and other pets in the home. Examples include aggression, irritability, or a decreased interest in interaction.
  • Sleep cycle disturbances — Affected pets may sleep more during the day and vocalize at night.
  • House soiling — Affected dogs may not signal when they need to go out for elimination purposes or may eliminate immediately after being outside. Affected cats may stop using their litter box.
  • Activity changes — Pets who have CDS may exhibit decreased activity, increased resting time, and increased repetitive activity, such as walking in circles, pacing, or wandering aimlessly. 
  • Anxiety — Affected pets may become more anxious, especially in new locations and situations.
  • Learning and memory changes — Pets who have CDS may not only forget previously learned training but also find learning new tasks or tricks difficult.

How is cognitive dysfunction diagnosed in pets?

No specific test is available to detect CDS in pets. Diagnostic techniques include:

  • History — Our team asks questions about your pet’s behavior, including when you first noticed changes and if the behaviors have intensified.
  • Physical examination — We perform a thorough physical examination, including tests to evaluate your pet’s cognitive function.
  • Blood work — Our team may recommend blood work, such as a complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile, and a thyroid panel, to assess your pet’s overall health and rule out other conditions.

How is cognitive dysfunction treated in pets?

CDS in pets has no cure, but many management strategies can help improve your pet’s quality of life, including:

  • Environmental management — Changes to your home can help accommodate your aging pet’s needs. Specific recommendations include:
    • Ensure food and water bowls, litter boxes, and other resources are easily accessible.
    • Avoid rearranging furniture, which can be disorienting for pets with CDS.
    • Provide more litter boxes throughout your home.
    • Take your senior dog outside more frequently and consider an indoor elimination area.
    • If your pet routinely disturbs your sleep, increase their exercise during the day.
    • Ensure your senior pet can escape children and other household pets, so they can rest.
  • Cognitive enrichment — Cognitive enrichment may help improve brain function and slow disease progression. Examples include physical exercise, social interactions, feeding your pet with food puzzle toys, introducing new toys, and teaching your pet new commands and tricks.

  • Nutritional management — Dietary changes can promote healthy brain function. Potential recommendations include:
    • Antioxidants — Cognitive improvements have been documented in pets fed a therapeutic, antioxidant-rich diet containing ingredients such as flaxseed, spinach, alpha-lipoic acid, vitamins E, C, and B12, and beta-carotene.
    • Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — Brain cells use mostly glucose as an energy source, but aging reduces glucose metabolism. MCTs can provide an alternate energy source for brain cells, and long-term supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive function in senior pets.
    • Phosphatidylserine — Supplements containing phosphatidylserine may improve memory, learning, and social behavior in pets with CDS.
    • Apoaequorin — Calcium dysregulation is associated with increased age and may be linked to CDS. Apoaequorin is a calcium-buffered protein with neuroprotective effects that may improve cognitive function in pets.
    • S-adenosyl-l-methionine (SAMe) — SAMe may help improve activity levels and awareness in pets affected by CDS.
  • Medication — Medications may help improve your pet’s brain cell communication and protect their brain from further damage. 
  • Anxiolytics — For pets who are severely affected by anxiety associated with CDS, we may recommend anxiolytics to relieve their distress.

CDS can negatively impact your time with your senior pet, but management techniques can help improve their brain function and slow disease progression. If your pet is experiencing cognitive decline, contact our Animal Hospital of Stoney Creek team. We will devise an appropriate management strategy to keep them mentally alert and healthy for longer.