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Signs of cognitive decline in your senior dog or cat

Senior dog with cognitive decline resting head on old woman's leg

As much as we’d like to ignore them, certain signs of aging in our beloved pets are hard to overlook: a greying muzzle, an increased appetite for napping, and signs of joint stiffness [link to product page]. These changes are normal—and to some extent expected—once our pets reach their golden years. However, other signs of age-related cognitive decline are harder to track and define, yet they present with symptoms and behaviors that can be confusing and distressing to a pet parent.  

Cognitive decline in dogs and cats is a relatively common age-related neurodegenerative condition that closely mirrors Alzheimer’s disease in humans. In clinical terms, it’s sometimes referred to as canine or feline cognitive dysfunction (CCD/FCD) or more generally Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) and it can impact your pet’s behavior, such as their ability to perceive their environment and respond to stimuli; changes in awareness; and a decreased aptitude for learning and memory. So goes the saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  

Table of contents: 

When does cognitive decline begin? 

According to the AAHA, data suggests 14-22.5% of dogs over eight years will experience some level of doggie dementia. PetMD goes on to state that symptoms of dementia are found in one in three dogs over the age of 11, and that almost all dogs over 16 will display some signs of the condition.  

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is less widely researched in cats than among canines. One study of our feline friends suggests that 35% of cat owners reported signs of decline among cats aged 11 to 15, that number rises to over 50% among cats of 15 or older, according to VCA Hospitals.  

Signs of cognitive decline 

CDS is caused by age-related changes to the brain. As a degenerative condition, it is easy to overlook during its first stages as the disease progresses slowly, typically presenting with one or two indicators at first as your pet enters their senior years. The most common symptoms are captured by the acronym ‘DISHAA:’ 

  • Disorientation/confusion 
    Your dog may suddenly begin to seem confused, even in familiar spaces and situations: getting stuck in corners, waiting to be let out at the hinge side of doors, and failing to recognize familiar people. 
  • Interaction 
    Canine dementia can present as changes in social activity toward familiar people and fellow household pets, either becoming increasingly clingy or exhibiting irritability.  
  • Sleep Cycles 
    As your pet ages, it’s normal to observe them sleeping more during the daytime. However, CDS can make your pet begin to wake in the night and even begin to pace and vocalize in the small hours. Limited REM sleep is linked to dementia and impaired cognitive skills.  
  • Defecation 
    It can be hard to identify forgetfulness in non-human creatures—after all, it’s not like they need to remember grocery lists or school pick-ups. However, you will almost certainly notice if your pet forgets to go outside or into their litter box to use the bathroom. Sudden house soiling is an indicator of cognitive decline.  
  • Activity  
    If your typically active, zoomy dog or playful cat starts to show signs of lethargy and decreased interest and engagement, this can be an early sign of decline. Restlessness and an inability to settle are also indicators of CDS. 
  • Anxiety 
    Anxiety in pets is a complex condition that can impact the quality of life for both pet and pet parents. Anxiety can present in many different forms, but it will likely be the significant change in behavior that is most apparent to a pet parent.  Look out for changes in appetite, excessive licking, a sudden inability to self-groom, pacing, vocalization, and signs of distress.  

If your pet exhibits these changes and behaviors in their golden years, the first step toward diagnosis is to consult your veterinarian. The AAHA guidelines advise, “Cognitive dysfunction may be a diagnosis of exclusion.” This means that your vet will undertake a physical examination and even blood and urine tests to rule out any medical or degenerative illness that causes pain, discomfort, or mobility issues, such as arthritis. If all other medical conditions are ruled out but the behavior changes persist, your vet may diagnose CDS. 

Treatment  

Unfortunately, there is no cure for CDS and the condition will slowly worsen, however, you can help to manage and slow your pet’s decline through a mix of holistic methods and medication. After all, pets with CDS can live long and full lives. 

  • Therapy  
    Lifestyle changes can help alleviate your pet’s distress. Taking steps to maintain a routine and adapt your environment to reduce uncertainty can help your pet feel more secure. Place pads or litter trays near exits or staircases to help your pet avoid accidents. Limit your pet’s environment to just one floor to reduce the risk of confusion and disorientation. Add night lights to help your dog navigate during periods of wakefulness at night. In addition, antioxidant-rich diets that are rich in fatty acids can help support brain health. 
     
     
  • Enrichment 
    The brain is like a muscle, so encouraging your dog to engage through play and stimulation can strengthen their mental faculties and lead to greater cognitive resilience in the long run. Try using toys, games, and regular interaction and exercise to keep your pet happy and healthy. 
     
     
  • Medication 
    Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to help slow CDS, such as selegiline or propentofylline. Talk to your vet about your options. They may prescribe medications to address specific CDS-related issues such as anxiety.  
     
     
  • Supplements 
    Ask your veterinarian what supplements they recommend for cognitive decline. Certain supplements can help improve your dog’s quality of life. When dogs are unable to sleep and pace and pant and whine at night it can be extremely disruptive to the household and cause a great deal of stress in everyone. Some supplements are extremely effective in calming your dog and promoting sound sleep. A good night’s sleep is essential for overall wellbeing and can help you and your dog adapt to his cognitive decline and help him maintain a good quality of life in his old age. 
     

Sources:

https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/dog-dementia/

https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/health-info/cognitive-dysfunction-syndrome#

https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/2023-aaha-senior-care-guidelines-for-dogs-and-cats/managing-cognitive-dysfunction-and-behavioral-anxiety/

https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/neurological/c_dg_cognitive_dysfunction_syndrome

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37187924/

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