As pets age, they can develop progressive body system changes that can affect behavior, such as kidney or liver failure, endocrine disorders, pain, and any disease affecting the central nervous system or circulation. Senior pets also can experience “senior moments,” and demonstrate cognitive issues. While your furry pal can’t forget where they left their glasses, you may notice your pooch’s inability to remember your normal walking route around the neighborhood. Many pet owners chalk up decreased cognitive function to aging, and fail to report signs to their veterinarian, because they think they’re insignificant, or assume little can be done. 

The best way to combat cognitive dysfunction in your pet is to monitor them for signs of cognitive decline, and to take the steps necessary to boost their mental function. First, brush up on the signs that may indicate your pet’s mental power is waning. 

Signs of cognitive dysfunction in pets

Aging pets may exhibit a decline in cognitive function, such as memory, learning, perception, and awareness, that manifests as one or more signs. The categories created by these signs are often referred to by the acronym DISHA, and include the following:

  • Disorientation — Disorientation is noticeable when your pet is in a familiar environment and appears to forget where the water dish is, becomes stuck behind a couch, or waits by the wrong side for you to open the door. 
  • Interactions — If your pet, who typically enjoys being the center of attention, becomes withdrawn, and shows no interest in their favorite activities, cognitive dysfunction may be to blame. Cheerful, pleasant pets who suddenly begin to growl, hiss, or lash out at family and friends also may be suffering from cognitive dysfunction, although they may be experiencing painful osteoarthritis.
  • Sleep-wake cycle — One of the most common and easily identifiable signs of cognitive dysfunction, an altered sleep-wake cycle becomes apparent when your pet sleeps all day, and then is restless and paces all night.
  • House-soiling — Pets with cognitive dysfunction can lose their house-training habits, and fail to remember they should eliminate in a certain spot. However, urinary tract infections, kidney disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disorders can also create house-soiling problems.
  • Activity changes — Activity can increase, decrease, or become repetitive with cognitive dysfunction. An increase in pacing and restlessness is often paired with an altered sleep-wake cycle, making diagnosis simpler.

Anxiety, agitation, and changed responses to stimuli are also common cognitive dysfunction signs. Pets with declining mental function may also struggle to find their food or water dishes, or fail to recognize their favorite treats. 

Diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction in pets

To diagnose the cause of behavior changes in senior pets, a detailed history, physical exam, neurologic evaluation, and diagnostic tests are required. As with most behavioral conditions, potential medical issues that may be causing mental decline should be ruled out first. Brain tumors, diabetes, osteoarthritis, or organ disease can create behavioral disturbances, but can be diagnosed through testing. Once all medical causes have been ruled out, your pet is left with a cognitive dysfunction diagnosis. 

Management of cognitive dysfunction in pets

While cognitive dysfunction in pets cannot be cured, it can be managed well for years, particularly with early diagnosis and intervention. At the first sign of your pet slowing down mentally, focus on boosting environmental enrichment through physical and mental stimulation. As people with Alzheimer’s disease are encouraged to do daily crossword puzzles, encourage your mentally aging pet to solve a treat puzzle, or navigate an obstacle course for a reward. Regular exercise, learning new tricks, and novel toys are all great ways to keep your furry pal’s mind sharp. 

In addition to increasing environmental enrichment for pets with cognitive dysfunction, several pharmaceutical options are available to help slow brain aging, and improve the signs associated with mental function decline. During your pet’s appointment with your family veterinarian, they may discuss the following support products:

  • Selegiline — The only approved medication for cognitive dysfunction, selegiline increases dopamine levels in the brain, instilling neuroprotective properties, and breaking down into metabolites that stimulate central nervous system function.
  • Diets — A number of prescription and over-the-counter diets that have been shown to improve cognitive dysfunction signs in pets, and potentially slow mental decline, are available. Fatty acids, antioxidants, and medium-chain triglycerides appear effective in battling cognitive dysfunction.
  • Supplements — Natural supplements containing such ingredients as ginkgo biloba, resveratrol, phosphatidylserine, fatty acids, and antioxidants can help slow cognitive dysfunction progression, and alleviate troubling signs. 

Speak with your family veterinarian about the management plan that will best keep your beloved companion’s mind sharp well into their golden years. 

Has your senior pet experienced a senior moment, and gotten into a tight spot? If your furry pal has suffered an injury because of declining cognitive function, contact  the Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center for help, if your family veterinarian is unavailable.