Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in Senior Pets Similar to Alzheimer’s

Dec 5, 2016 / Behavior

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This is Part 2 of Behavior Changes in Senior Pets. (Read Part 1: Is Your Pet Just ‘Getting Old’?)

In Part 1, we reviewed how physical illness can be mistaken for a dog or cat simply “getting old.” Now, what if you take your dog or cat for an evaluation and everything checks out fine but your beloved companion just isn’t himself? Perhaps he’s waking in the middle of the night and pacing around the house or has started soiling indoors despite years of impeccable house training? These can be signs of a common condition affecting senior pets called cognitive dysfunction syndrome. 

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is caused by degenerative changes in the brain, changes very similar to those seen in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. The most common signs of cognitive dysfunction in dogs and cats are summarized with the acronym DISHA which stands for disorientation, changes in social interactions, sleep-wake cycle alterations, housesoiling, and activity level changes. In our practice, the most common behavior changes we see in senior pets include separation anxiety, loss of house training/litter box training, disorientation, changes in interactions with people or other animals in the house, and changes in sleep-wake habits. Not all dogs and cats with cognitive dysfunction syndrome will have all of these signs, and in the early stages of the disease they may have only mild impairments. 

While there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction syndrome, there are many therapies available to improve the quality of life of affected dogs and cats that slow the progression of this disease. Therapies to maintain brain health include activities that are mentally stimulating, such as play, positive reinforcement training, regular exercise, and interactive toys/food puzzles.

It may be tempting to introduce all of these activities at once, but change can be overwhelming for a pet with cognitive dysfunction. Make changes gradually and introduce activities that are within the physical and mental capabilities of your dog or cat. For example, while there are many food puzzle toys available for dogs and cats, offer toys that are fairly simple to manipulate (such as a Kong) unless your dog or cat is already a food puzzle pro. Rather than starting a new intense exercise routine, take your dog out for a leisurely 10-minute walk with plenty of opportunities to sniff around.

In addition to providing your pet with extra mental stimulation, there are dietary therapies, nutraceutical supplements, and medications available to provide additional support. Contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist for a comprehensive treatment plan to meet your pet’s specific needs.

Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, DACVB