When you think about cognitive dysfunction, you may believe the condition is related to the adage about old dogs being unable to learn new tricks. However, your pet is more likely to forget what they’ve learned. Similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people, pets’ cognitive dysfunction affects their brain, leading to various behavioral changes. To learn how to spot cognitive dysfunction in your pet, read our Pioneer Animal Hospital team’s guide to this progressive condition, and intervene early in the disease process to preserve your furry pal’s brainpower for as long as possible.

Learning about cognitive dysfunction in your pet

The brain’s gradual, degenerative, age-related changes cause cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). As your pet ages, neurons within their brain degenerate, and without fully functioning neurons, your furry pal’s brain cannot transmit information within the body, and a communication breakdown occurs. When your pet’s brain and body aren’t communicating well, your pet will exhibit physical and behavioral changes associated with cognitive dysfunction. While this condition is unavoidable, you can help support your pet’s cognitive function and slow the degenerative process.

Spotting cognitive dysfunction in your pet

closeup of gray and white cat relaxing

Detecting cognitive dysfunction in your pet can be challenging, especially because this disease begins slowly and subtly before progressing to more serious and noticeable behaviors. As your pet enters their senior years, monitor their behavior for cognitive dysfunction signs such as:

  • Disorientation — Pets can appear to act confused and forgetful. They may get stuck in corners, go to the hinge side of the door, stare into space, or become lost in familiar places.
  • Interaction changes — Pets can experience a 180-degree turn in their behavior. They may suddenly become clingy, or would much rather hide and shun interaction. Your pet may also fail to recognize familiar people, even household members.
  • Sleep pattern changes — Pets can revert to newborn sleeping patterns, mixing up their days and nights. Your pet may spend much of their day sleeping, while wandering aimlessly or vocalizing during the night.
  • House soiling — Typically, older pets have been house-trained for years, and only have accidents when they are ill. However, with cognitive dysfunction, your pet may forget their house-training skills and suddenly begin urinating and defecating indoors or in unusual spots.
  • Activity changes — Not only can your pet with cognitive dysfunction have a decreased interest in playing or taking part in their favorite activities, they may become lethargic and depressed, spending much of their time sleeping.
  • Anxiety — An aging pet doesn’t understand what is happening to them, only that something out of their control is occurring. This can spur anxiety, generate new phobias, or lead to irritability and aggression.
  • Learning changes — Pets affected with cognitive dysfunction struggle to learn new skills and remember old commands. They may forget their name, or a cue word’s meaning.

Diagnosing cognitive dysfunction in your pet

Because cognitive dysfunction is a behavioral condition, no specific diagnostic test exists to determine if your pet is affected. A cognitive dysfunction diagnosis is one of exclusion, and your veterinarian will likely perform various tests to rule out other conditions that can cause similar problems, such as pain, seizure disorders, systemic illness, or organ failure. Your veterinarian may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to rule out that your pet has a brain tumor. Only after eliminating other potential diagnoses will your veterinarian diagnose your pet with cognitive dysfunction.  

Managing cognitive dysfunction in your pet

While cognitive dysfunction is a progressive condition that has no cure, it can be successfully managed to slow your pet’s mental decline. Therapies to support your pet’s brain health include:

  • Diet — While certain over-the-counter (OTC) diets can provide brain health benefits, prescription diets pack a much more powerful punch. These specialized diets are rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and various other nutrients designed to boost and support your pet’s cognitive function and overall health.
  • Enrichment — A pet with cognitive dysfunction needs mental challenges to remain sharp. Strive for daily training sessions to brush up on old skills and teach new ones. Yes, old pets can learn new tricks! So, play games that encourage your pet’s natural instincts, such as initiating an activity during which your senior cat has to stalk, pounce, and kill their prey. Consider taking your dog on a long walk during which you allow them to sniff as much as they want.
  • Supplements — A variety of ingredients and supplements are available to support brain health and improve cognitive function. However, before adding any supplement to your pet’s regimen, check with Dr. Wood
  • Medications — While one medication is approved for pets’ cognitive dysfunction, other prescription medications may help manage additional issues, such as anxiety or inappetence.

As your pet grows older, they undergo many physical and mental changes, some of which are normal for seniors. However, if you suspect your aging pet’s physical and behavioral changes are not normal, schedule an appointment with our Pioneer Animal Hospital team.