Sharing a home with a senior pet is rewarding and special. Advances in veterinary medicine, combined with good nutrition and improved home care, mean pets are living longer and thriving into their grey muzzle years. However, as pets age, they are more susceptible to age-related changes such as arthritis and decreased organ function. Additionally, once dogs reach 9 years of age and cats reach 10 years, they may start to show signs of a medical condition called cognitive dysfunction. Seeing these changes in your pet can be heartbreaking and worrisome, but you can help them continue to enjoy a good quality of life. Here are our Billings Animal Family Hospital team’s answers to some common questions about cognitive dysfunction in pets. 

What is cognitive dysfunction in pets?

Cognitive dysfunction is a common age-related disease in senior pets that can be progressive and debilitating, similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s in humans. Senior pets’ brains may gradually degenerate, allowing the toxic substance beta-amyloid protein to accumulate, while decreased blood flow and dysfunctional neurons may decrease their overall brain function. Neurons carry information throughout your pet’s brain and nervous system, signalling to the body how to function and move, and when they do not function properly, your pet may exhibit unusual behaviors or actions. Cognitive dysfunction in pets cannot be prevented or cured, but treatments are available to slow the disease progression and relieve symptoms. 

What are the cognitive dysfunction signs in pets?

Cognitive dysfunction signs are not always obvious in the early disease stages. However, as the disease progresses, the signs become more easily recognizable and can include:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Increased barking or meowing, especially at night
  • Anxiety with loud sounds
  • Generalized anxiety, restlessness, or pacing 
  • Disorientation, or getting lost in familiar places
  • Soiling in the house, or outside the litter box
  • Less interaction with other housepets or their owners
  • Standing in corners or staring at walls
  • Changes in their sleep-wake cycle

Senior pets are also prone to age-related changes or illness that may mimic cognitive dysfunction. For example, pets with arthritic pain may be reluctant to play fetch or other games they once enjoyed, and pets with kidney disease or other metabolic disorders may start abnormal house soiling. Veterinary exams for senior pets annually, or sometimes more frequently, are important for early diagnosis and treatment of age-related illnesses.

The acronym DISHAA is a great tool to help you recognize and monitor cognitive dysfunction signs in your furry pal:

  • D = Disorientation
  • IInteraction
  • S = Sleep-wake cycle alterations
  • H = House-soiling
  • A = Activity level changes
  • A = Anxiety level changes

How can I help my pet with cognitive dysfunction?

Abnormal behavior changes in your pet may indicate that they have cognitive dysfunction, and you should take your pet for a veterinary examination as soon as you notice anything out of the ordinary. Your veterinarian will perform a nose-to-tail physical examination, and may recommend blood work and urine tests to rule out causes other than cognitive dysfunction. They may also use advanced imaging, such as X-rays or MRI, to look for abnormalities in the brain and other organs.

If your pet is diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction, several tools and treatments can be implemented to slow disease progression and alleviate symptoms. Vitamin E has been shown to support brain health and may be recommended. Our online pharmacy stocks a variety of therapeutic diets and dietary supplements that contain antioxidants and fatty acids that promote overall brain health. Ensure you avoid situations that may be stressful or cause anxiety for your pet, such as meeting new animals or visiting unfamiliar places. Exercise your senior pet physically with 10-minute walks, allowing plenty of sniffing opportunities, and exercise their brain with food puzzles or toys, such as a Kong. However, use caution when introducing new toys or routines, since too many changes at once can overwhelm pets with this cognitive dysfunction. 

Our Billings Animal Family Hospital team wants to care for your pet through all their life stages. If your senior pet is beginning to behave abnormally, or you have any questions about cognitive dysfunction, contact our office—we are here to help.