The senior pet population is growing, thanks to veterinary advances and pet owners’ excellent care. While our pets living longer is a blessing, this also places them at higher risk for age-related conditions, such as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Our Peak City Veterinary Hospital team knows how much you value your senior pet, so we explain everything you need to know about CDS in pets.

Cognitive dysfunction prevalence in pets

CDS is widespread in senior pets, as demonstrated by the following studies:

  • Canine study — A study performed by the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of California, Davis, demonstrated that 28% of dogs aged 11 to 12 years and 68% of dogs aged 15 to 16 years exhibited one or more CDS signs.
  • Feline study — A similar study performed by two veterinary behaviorists found that 28% of cats aged 11 to 14 years and 50% of cats 15 years of age or older had at least one CDS sign.

Cognitive dysfunction basics in pets

A normal, healthy brain consumes about 20% of the body’s total oxygen, and cellular processes in the brain release compounds that can cause oxidative damage to surrounding structures. Normal protective functions typically counteract the destructive compounds, but they start to fail as pets age, and oxidative damage increases. The brains of CDS-affected senior pets have several anatomic and physiologic changes, including:

  • Reduced size — The overall brain mass is lower than in healthy pets.
  • Lower brain cell numbers — CDS results in lower brain cell (i.e., neuron) numbers.
  • Scarring — CDS can cause scar tissue to form in the brain and the brain’s protective tissues to calcify.
  • Amyloid plaques — The protein Beta amyloid accumulates and causes plaques in CDS patients’ brains.
  • Lower neurotransmitter levels — CDS patients have lower neurotransmitter levels (e.g., norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine).
  • Tangled protein filaments — Proteins that are usually part of cell transport mechanisms accumulate, resulting in brain cell death and tangled brain protein filaments.

Cognitive dysfunction signs in pets

Many pet owners dismiss CDS signs as normal aging issues, but cognitive decline is not considered a normal aging change. CDS signs include:

  • Disorientation — Affected pets may get lost in familiar locations or have difficulty navigating commonplace obstacles.
  • Interaction changes — Affected pets may interact with people or other pets less often, or become more dependent on their owner and exhibit clingy behavior.
  • Sleep cycle changes — Affected pets may sleep more during the day and be restless or vocalize at night. 
  • House soiling — Affected pets may forget to signal their need to go out, or eliminate outside the litter box.
  • Activity level changes — Affected pets may lose interest in play and may pace or behave with repetitive actions. 
  • Anxiety — Affected pets may become increasingly anxious, especially when exposed to new environments or situations.
  • Learning changes — Affected pets may forget previously known tricks or commands.

Cognitive dysfunction diagnosis in pets

No test exists for CDS, and diagnosis is made based on your pet’s signs and by excluding other conditions. Diagnostics our team may use include:

  • Questionnaire — We may ask you to complete a detailed questionnaire about the behavior and signs you have noticed in your pet.
  • Physical examination — Our team will evaluate your pet with a thorough nose-to-tail physical examination.
  • Blood work — Blood work can help our team rule out other conditions that may explain your pet’s signs.
  • Urinalysis — A urinalysis is another helpful tool for ruling out other potential health complications.
  • X-rays — In some cases, we may need to further assess your pet with X-rays.

Cognitive dysfunction management in pets

Unfortunately, CDS can’t be cured, but management techniques can help slow disease progression. Treatment is typically multifactorial and involves:

  • Nutritional support — Prescription diets are available that are high in antioxidants, fatty acids, and other nutrients that help support brain health.
  • Enrichment — Regular daily exercise, rotating toys, and introducing new activities will help stimulate your pet’s brain and keep them mentally engaged.
  • Supplements — Many supplements are available to help promote brain health, and our team will determine the best products for your pet.
  • Medication — A psychoactive drug that is approved for use in dogs with CDS, and other medications, such as anti-anxiety and neuroprotective drugs, may be beneficial.
  • Environmental support — Changes in your home can also help support your pet. Examples include:
    • Leaving on night lights
    • Placing litter boxes in several locations throughout the house
    • Placing puppy pads near doors to prevent accidents
    • Avoiding moving furniture, which may disorient your pet
    • Keeping a regular schedule

Cognitive dysfunction prevention in pets

CDS can’t be definitively prevented, but you can decrease your pet’s risk. Recommendations include:

  • Scheduling regular wellness checks — All pets should be evaluated by a veterinary professional at least once a year, and senior pets should be assessed at least every six months. These wellness checks help our team detect conditions, such as CDS, in the early stages when they are easier to manage.
  • Keeping your pet at a healthy weight — Calculate your pet’s daily calorie requirements and feed them the appropriate amount for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Ensuring your pet gets adequate exercise — All pets need daily exercise to stay mentally and physically fit.
  • Keeping your pet mentally sharp — Rotate your pet’s toys, use food puzzle feeders, and teach your pet new tricks to help keep them mentally sharp.

Contact our Peak City Veterinary Hospital team today to schedule your senior pet’s wellness examination, so we can ensure they are mentally and physically fit and enjoying a good quality of life.