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Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (Dementia) in Dogs and Cats

Has your elderly pet seemed more confused recently? Become restless at night, yet slept more in the day? Lost a degree of housetraining? These signs could indicate Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. Read on to learn more….

Do dogs and cats get dementia?

Partly due to advances in veterinary care and pet nutrition, our companion dogs and cats are living longer, which in itself is wonderful! Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in behavioural changes associated with ageing. While we can’t truly say whether our pets can get dementia, older pets do show behavioural signs and changes very similar to those of dementia in humans. In our pets, we call this Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

What is Canine / Feline Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome?

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) is the term given to a group of signs which our pets may show as they age. It causes problems with the memory and can cause confusion, stress and anxiety. This syndrome in dogs is also called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) and in cats Feline Cognitive Dysfunction.

What causes Cognitive Dysfunction in pets?

CDS can be caused by a variety of problems including:

– A build-up of proteins in the brain

– Damage due to poor or reduced blood supply – similar to strokes in humans.

– Bleeding in or around the brain

– Growths (usually tumours) within the brain.

No matter what the cause (and often the exact cause isn’t found), the signs tend to be the same.

What are the signs of Cognitive Dysfunction in cats and dogs?

Let’s look at some of the changes we may see in CDS:

Loss of learnt behaviours – usually seen as a loss of house-training / inappropriate toileting. Perhaps your cat has started going to the toilet in bizarre places, sometimes right next to the litter tray. Or your dog asks to go out, only to come inside and toilet in the house.

Confusion or disorientation – seeming lost in their own home. Dogs may get stuck in corners or behind furniture, or stand at the wrong door; cats may forget where the cat flap is.

Memory loss – forgetting commands or even people who they were once familiar with.

Changes in appetite or thirst – your pet may eat less, or more because they have forgotten they have already eaten.

Altered sleep patterns – often sleeping more during the day but increasingly active or unsettled at night.

Changes in activity – being lethargic or withdrawn OR agitated and unsettled, perhaps with periodic pacing.

Different behaviours – maybe more vocal than usual with long periods when they bark/howl /meow for no apparent reason (and often at night). They may show “repetitive” behaviours such as excessive licking/grooming, often in the same area causing hair loss and bald patches.

Other diseases:

Many of the signs listed above aren’t specific to CDS and could be associated with other diseases common in older pets, such as diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease and changes in thyroid function (hyperthyroidism in cats or hypothyroidism in dogs).

Before assuming these symptoms are a result of CDS, a check-up with your vet (and possible blood testing) is recommended to rule out other diseases.

Can Cognitive Dysfunction in pets be treated?

Watching a beloved golden oldie begin to decline can be very painful. Cognitive dysfunction can’t be cured, but several options exist to help reduce its impact and improve quality of life, both for your pet and thus for you. The first approach to explore is a nutritional one:

What supplements can help dementia in pets?

A brain-boosting supplement such as Aktivait, which is available for both cats and dogs, can be added to the usual diet and is designed to support and aid brain function.

There are also supplements to reduce anxiety, which is a significant aspect of CDS for some pets. Products such as Zylkene and Yucalm (available for dogs and cats) contain natural ingredients and have effective calming properties.

What can I feed my dog for dementia?

There are specific “brain foods” for dogs, available in a dry, kibble format, such as Purina Neurocare or Hill’s B/D Ageing & Alertness Care. These are specially formulated to contain high levels of antioxidants and selected omega-3 fatty acids, built into a balanced and age-appropriate diet.

Medication for Cognitive Dysfunction

As dementia progresses beyond the early stages, prescription medication may be warranted. While there are no licensed drugs specifically used to treat CDS in cats, there are several options available for dogs. Your veterinary surgeon may prescribe drugs with the goal of relieving anxiety or depression or designed to increase blood flow, and therefore oxygen supply, to the brain.

How can I help my pet with dementia?

Other than medications, there are lots of things you can do to help your pet feel more secure:

Try not to move furniture, as changes in the home will confuse your pet and may increase some unwanted behaviours. Night lights and the radio on in the background can help to settle some pets.

Provide a daily routine so your pet knows when to expect food and exercise.

Try to encourage play by providing new toys and take your dog for walks in new places. Mental stimulation can help to slow disease progression by keeping the brain active.

Don’t get angry with your pet for having accidents in the house, hard as this can be – in the long run, it will make the behaviours worse. Quietly place them out of the way first, so that they do not see you cleaning up.

Explain to friends/family what is going on so that they aren’t surprised or upset by any unusual behaviour; this will help to keep social interactions as positive as possible.

You can try gently to retrain behaviours they may have forgotten, such as where to toilet. Be patient, as this may take longer than the first time around. It may not prove possible to do and you may have to come up with alternative solutions to protect your home, offering puppy pads or waterproof liners at convenient sites or around litter trays.

Pheromone plug-ins and sprays such as Feliway (Classic or the new Optimum) for cats,  Adaptil for dogs or Pet Remedy  (for both) can help to calm pets that are feeling anxious or stressed.

The long-term outlook and how we can help

Every pet with dementia displays different signs and declines at a different rate. The main thing to establish and regularly reassess is whether your pet still has a good quality of life.

Sometimes this can be difficult for owners and family members to assess and a chat with an objective outsider may be useful. At Vet on the Net, our experienced and compassionate vets are available now for consultation, to discuss your pet’s individual circumstances and help to ensure they enjoy life in their senior years.