Age is a blessing and a curse. Although every pet owner hopes their four-legged friend will reach their golden years, this special era is often marred by age-related physical and mental decline. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is a common, yet often overlooked, dementia disorder that affects roughly 28% of 11- to 12-year-old dogs, 68% of 15- to 16-year-old dogs, and 36% of 11- to 21-year-old cats.

Although CDS cannot be prevented or cured, early recognition, diagnosis, and intervention can ensure your pet feels supported, loved, and cared for—no matter the other things they may forget.

Cognitive dysfunction and the aging pet mind

CDS is a degenerative neurobehavioral disorder similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The aging pet brain undergoes normal, expected age-related changes, such as shrinkage, decreased brain cells and neurotransmitters, and increased oxidative damage. In addition in pets with CDS, harmful plaque is deposited in the brain tissue and vessels, impairing function. Plaque number and size are directly correlated with CDS severity, although such changes cannot be detected through standard imaging. CDS-affected pets experience cognitive loss in memory, learning, awareness, and perception. 

Cognitive dysfunction risk factors for pets

Age is the greatest CDS risk factor for pets. Signs may appear in dogs as early as 7 to 9 years of age and in cats 11 to 12 years of age, but the condition is more common with age. No known breed or gender-related risk factors are known. Some experts hypothesize that poor nutrition and obesity can negatively influence pet brain health, but this is not proven. 

Cognitive dysfunction signs in pets

Unfortunately, because many signs mimic age-related behavior changes and physical health problems (e.g., vision loss, arthritis), many pet owners dismiss or overlook CDS. Unfortunately, the delayed diagnosis can lead to chronic pet stress and anxiety and may increase their risk for serious harm (e.g., a disoriented pet wanders away from home and is hit by a car).

CDS signs are generally grouped under the acronym DISHAA. Affected pets may exhibit one or more signs, including:

  • Disorientation — Pets may become lost in the home or yard or fail to recognize familiar people.
  • Interactions — Pets may become less social with human or pet family members. They may also behave uncharacteristically (e.g., aggression, irritability).
  • Sleep-wake cycle changes — Pets may become active at night (e.g., pacing, wandering) and sleep during the day.
  • House-soiling — Pets may appear to lose their house or litter box training and have accidents in front of the owner.
  • Activity level changes — Pets may become inexplicably hyperactive or lethargic.
  • Anxiety — Previously confident pets may become worried or anxious, or seek their owner’s constant attention and reassurance.

If your senior pet is experiencing sudden behavior or personality changes, schedule an appointment with your primary veterinarian. Do not correct or punish your pet, which can increase their stress and damage the pet-owner relationship.

Cognitive dysfunction diagnosis in pets

Because CDS is characterized by plaque deposits in the brain, only a post-mortem necropsy can confirm its presence. Therefore, CDS is considered a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that your veterinarian will first rule out other common causes for your senior pet’s behaviors (e.g., physical pain, sensory loss, hormone-related disorders, kidney failure) by performing a complete physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging. If your pet is deemed healthy, CDS will be considered the probable cause. 

Although CDS is progressive and incurable, many modifications and adaptations can be implemented that will improve and potentially extend your pet’s quality of life.

Helping your pet live with cognitive dysfunction syndrome

CDS can be a devastating diagnosis, but by knowing how to support your pet, you can stay focused on their current health—not their future decline. Tips for helping your pet cope with CDS include:

  • Maintaining a routine — Unpredictable schedules and environments can make CDS-affected pets nervous or frightened. Stick to a daily routine to help your pet feel safe and confident and minimize changes around the home (e.g., rearranging furniture).
  • Feeding a high-quality diet — Antioxidant and omega-3 fatty acid-rich pet foods may help preserve brain health and function by reducing free radicals and harmful inflammation.
  • Talking to your veterinarian about medication or supplements — Limited medications and supplements are available that support pet cognitive function and potentially slow age-related degeneration.
  • Engaging your pet’s mind and body — Regular, low-impact physical exercise and mental enrichment (e.g., puzzle toys, training, play) can increase your pet’s health, mood, and cognitive abilities by building new neural pathways and preventing depression.
  • Supervising your pet outdoors — Senile pets frequently become confused and wander away from their home or yard. Always keep them on a leash or in a fenced area.

Supporting your pet’s cognitive health during early life

Pets cannot all be protected from age-related decline, but it’s never too early to support and strengthen your pet’s cognitive health and function. This includes feeding a veterinarian-recommended diet, providing regular physical and mental exercise opportunities, and scheduling six-monthly wellness and preventive care visits with your veterinarian.

By the time your pet is a senior, you know them inside and out, and you can predict their reactions, behaviors, and expressions. So, if your beloved pet displays uncharacteristic changes, take note and contact your regular veterinarian. 

Behavior problems can occur at any age. If your veterinarian suspects your young, adult, or senior pet is experiencing a non health-related behavior issue, contact the Veterinary Behavior Solutions team to schedule a consultation.