Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), commonly known as doggy dementia, can affect both cats and dogs. Although not considered a normal aging change, this condition typically appears in older pets, and increases in severity and occurrence with advanced age. CDS can be troubling to watch, as your pet becomes confused and anxious, but methods are available that help support their cognitive function, and keep their mind sharp. 

Recognizing cognitive dysfunction signs and beginning treatment quickly is essential for slowing the decline of your pet’s cognitive issues. Take a look at the following examples of cognitive dysfunction that are often confused with normal aging changes in pets. 

Elvira’s elimination issues

Elvira the 14-year-old cat was notoriously finicky about her litter box, which she refused to use with the faintest odor or wet spot. However, this older kitty had begun shunning her freshly cleaned litter box, instead eliminating wherever she saw fit. Sometimes the duvet or the bedroom rug made an ideal bathroom. Other times, Elvira urinated where she was sleeping. Thinking their elderly cat had a urinary tract infection, Elvira’s owners took her to their veterinarian for a urinalysis. But, the urinalysis came back completely clean, with no signs of infection, inflammation, diabetes, or kidney issues. So, what was causing Elvira to avoid her litter box?

Sully’s shift in sleeping patterns

Sully the shaggy mutt had recently turned 13, and seemed to be spending most of his time sleeping. During the day, Sully was difficult to rouse, and seemed happiest snoozing the daylight hours away. However, when he should have been settling down for the night, Sully’s demeanor flipped. He became restless and agitated, pacing the hallways instead of sleeping. Worried about this sudden shift, Sully’s owner scheduled an appointment with their regular veterinarian, to see what may have triggered the change.

Angus’ increased anxiety

Angus the elderly black Labrador had always been a friendly dog who loved attention from anyone, but who was also content to do his own thing. However, Angus had recently become a Velcro dog, attached to his owner whenever possible, and would become anxious when his owner left the room. Each day, the poor dog would whine and howl after his owner left for work, and sometimes would have accidents inside the home. Unsure why Angus was suddenly so anxious, his owner scheduled a veterinary appointment, to determine the underlying cause.

These three pets were ultimately diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction, but the signs they displayed are often confused with other conditions. An accurate diagnosis, based on the exclusion of other issues, is essential for effective management and preservation of cognitive function. 

Cognitive dysfunction signs in pets

A helpful acronym can be used as a guideline for a cognitive dysfunction diagnosis in pets. “DISHAA” can help you remember the common signs in pets with decreasing cognitive function:

  • Disorientation signals — Changes in spatial awareness, loss of ability to navigate around obstacles, and not recognizing familiar people
  • Interaction changes — Decreased interest in social interactions, and irritable and fearful behavior
  • Sleep and wake cycle changes — Restlessness, frequent waking during the night, increased sleep during daytime hours, and vocalization at night
  • House soiling, learning, and memory — Fewer signals to go outside, inappropriate elimination, and less likely to respond to previously learned commands
  • Activity level changes — Decreased exploration and response to stimuli, aimless pacing,  and repetitive behaviors
  • Anxiety — Increased separation anxiety, becoming more reactive to stimuli, and displaying excessive anxiety

Cognitive dysfunction treatment in pets

Cognitive dysfunction has no cure, and the condition will continue to progress. However, therapies such as environmental enrichment, dietary change, supplements, and medications can delay progression, and improve the current signs. 

  • Environmental enrichment — Exercise, novel and interactive toys, and learning new tasks can help keep your pet’s mind sharp, by engaging the brain’s learning and memory centers. 
  • Diet change — Certain prescription diets are packed full with ingredients designed to eliminate free radicals that cause oxidative damage, while enhancing cognitive function. 
  • Dietary supplements — Available for dogs and cats, dietary supplements have many of the same beneficial ingredients found in prescription diets. These supplements can support your pet’s cognitive function, boosting their memory and learning abilities. 
  • Medication — In pets with serious cognitive dysfunction, medication may be used to help alleviate the behavior signs associated with the disease. 

The best cognitive dysfunction treatment in pets is multimodal, incorporating multiple therapies. Once your pet reaches senior status, focus more heavily on encouraging cognitive activities that can help your furry pal keep a sharp mind.

Cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis reached by exclusion, since the associated signs can mimic many other diseases. Your primary care veterinarian may diagnose an endocrine or other condition as the culprit, and your pet may need a specialist referral. In that case, contact our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center team with any questions about referral to an internal medicine specialist.