Advances in veterinary medicine, improved nutrition, and better home care have resulted in pets living longer. The only downside to this situation is that older pets are more vulnerable to diseases, because their organs gradually function less efficiently, and their immune system declines. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is one of the most troubling age-related disorders that affects a high percentage of aging dogs and cats. One study found that 28 percent of 11- to 12-year-old dogs, and 68 percent of 15- to 16-year-old dogs, were affected. In cats, 55 percent of felines 11 to 15 years old, and more than 80 percent of 16- to 20-year-old cats were affected. Since CDS is such a serious problem, our team at Mill Creek Animal Hospital would like to educate you on the cause and signs of this disease in pets.

Cognitive dysfunction in pets

Cognitive dysfunction in pets is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Brain cells have a high percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids and lower levels of antioxidant activity, making them extremely susceptible to oxidative damage. Cellular metabolic processes produce toxic free radical byproducts that can result in neuronal death. Normally, antioxidants can combat these toxins, but these protective mechanisms decline as pets age. As more neurons die, cognitive decline occurs. 

Cognitive dysfunction signs in pets

The acronym DISHA-AL is commonly used to describe the signs that may indicate a pet is affected by CDS.

  • Disorientation — Your pet may get lost in familiar places, wander aimlessly, fixate on objects, or stare into space, and may not be able to navigate obstacles.
  • Interaction changes — Your pet may lose interest in petting and greeting familiar people and pets, or they may become more dependent and clingy.
  • Sleep-wake cycle alterations — Your pet may stay awake during the night and sleep more during the day. They may also vocalize more at night.
  • House soiling — Your dog may have accidents in the house, and your cat may start eliminating outside their litter box. 
  • Activity changes — Your pet may become more sedentary, and may groom and eat less.
  • Anxiety — Your pet may display higher anxiety, such as agitation, urgent vocalization, and being irritable.
  • Learning and memory issues — Your pet may not recognize you or family members, and may forget well-known demands and tricks.

Three stages in cognitive dysfunction have been identified:

  • Mild — You will notice slight changes in your pet’s sleeping patterns and social interactions.
  • Moderate — Your pet will exhibit hyperactivity at night, start to lose their house training, and begin to require special care.
  • Severe — You will notice dramatic behavior changes, including aimless wandering, vocalizing through the night, being unresponsive to family members, and significant house soiling.

Cognitive dysfunction treatment in pets

Your pet should receive regular wellness checks to catch CDS signs as soon as possible. No cure is available, but the condition can be managed to help slow progression. Management techniques include:

  • Providing cognitive enrichment  — Stimulate your pet’s mind by providing frequent physical and mental exercise. Social interactions, new toys, and teaching your pet new tricks are all good ways to help keep your pet mentally engaged. Food-puzzle toys are a great way for them to flex their brain cells.
  • Environmental management — Your pet’s environment may need modifications to help them adapt. Place food and water bowls in easily accessible areas. Provide litter boxes on every floor, so using a box is convenient. You may need to provide puppy pads in convenient locations, in case your dog cannot wait to go outside. Keep to a routine, since pets with CDS do not handle change well. 
  • Nutritional Intervention — Certain supplements can be added to your pet’s food that may help slow disease progression.
  • Antioxidants — Cognitive improvements have been documented in senior pets fed a therapeutic, antioxidant-rich diet containing ingredients such as flaxseed, vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin B12.
  • Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) — Fatty acids from MCT can provide up to 20 percent of the brain’s energy requirements. MCTs can also increase the ketone levels in the blood, which can be used as an alternate energy source for cerebral functioning.
  • Phosphatidylserine — This natural phospholipid facilitates neuronal processes. Supplementation may improve memory, learning, and social behavior in dogs and cats.
  • Apoaequorin — Intracellular calcium dysregulation is linked to increased age. Apoaequorin is a calcium-buffering protein with neuroprotective effects.
  • S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) — SAMe supplementation results in increased serotonin turnover, and increased dopamine and norepinephrine levels. A study showed that dogs given SAMe supplementation showed a significant improvement in activity and awareness at four and eight weeks, compared with placebo treated dogs. 
  • Medications — A medication is approved to help control clinical signs associated with CDS in dogs. Other medications, such as anti-anxiety agents and antidepressants, may also be useful. 

Cognitive dysfunction is a concerning issue, but if you catch the changes in your pet at an early stage, management practices can help slow disease progression. If you would like your pet evaluated for CDS, do not hesitate to contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Mill Creek Animal Hospital, to schedule an appointment.