No pet owner wants to think about their furry pal growing old and senile, but pets are enjoying longer and longer life spans, and cognitive dysfunction is a real possibility. Commonly termed “doggy dementia,” cognitive dysfunction often manifests as behavioral changes in senior pets similar to Alzheimer’s in people.

Cognitive dysfunction prevalence in pets

Aging pets are more likely to develop cognitive dysfunction, studies show. At least 14.2% of dogs have declining cognitive function by age 8, with up to 68% of dogs 15 to 16 years old displaying one or more cognitive dysfunction signs. 

While the condition is not as well understood in cats, studies have indicated that almost one-third of cats between the ages of 11 and 14 develop a behavior consistent with cognitive dysfunction, with the incidence increasing to more than 50% in cats 15 years and older.

Cognitive dysfunction signs in pets

Cognitive dysfunction is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning other potential causes must be ruled out before labeling your pet with cognitive dysfunction. Many signs attributed to declining mental acuity can be associated with other common conditions in senior pets, so a comprehensive health assessment is important for pets showing any of the following cognitive dysfunction signs:

  • Disorientation — Confusion and disorientation can occur as your pet’s cognitive function declines. Your pet may not remember your home layout, and get stuck in corners or on the wrong side of the door when they want to go outside. They may also fail to recognize familiar people and pets or stare blankly at walls.
  • Altered interaction — Your once outgoing, affectionate pet may become withdrawn or irritable and no longer seek out attention or interaction. However, moody, grumpy behavior can be a major sign not only of cognitive dysfunction but also severe pain, such as from arthritis.
  • Sleep-wake cycle changes — Changes in your pet’s sleeping patterns may mean your pet is uncomfortable, or suffering from cognitive decline. Your pet may wander the house at night, whining and howling, and sleep more during the day. 
  • House soiling — Although inappropriate elimination—whether urination or defecation—can signal underlying disease, such as kidney dysfunction, irritable bowel disease, or cancer, your pet may have cognitive dysfunction. They may forget their house-training and have accidents indoors or forget where the litter box is located.
  • Activity changes — Your pet may become less interested in playing or normal activities, and appear lethargic and depressed, or they may seem restless and pace, especially at night.
  • Learning difficulties — If your pet has cognitive dysfunction, they may prove that the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is true. Senior pets can have difficulty learning new skills and may fail to respond to previously known commands.
  • Stress and anxiety — Your pet may develop new phobias, as well as increased anxiety, and pace, pant, vocalize, or be irritable. 

Cognitive dysfunction management for pets

Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive, incurable condition, but you can bolster your furry pal’s declining cognitive function and boost their mental sharpness with these therapies:

  • Diet — A diet rich in nutrients that support neuron function and health can slow cognitive dysfunction development and progression. Certain prescription diets that are rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients essential for cognitive function can help support the aging brain.
  • Enrichment — Interactive toys and activities that encourage your pet to think are excellent ways to keep their mind young. Swap out your furry pal’s food dish for a food puzzle at mealtimes to reward your pet for their critical thinking.
  • Medication — One medication is currently approved in North America for canine cognitive dysfunction treatment, and additional medications may be warranted to address specific issues, such as osteoarthritis pain or anxiety.
  • Supplements — A multitude of supplements designed to support brain function and health can provide a much-needed boost, especially when used with other management techniques.
  • Environmental modifications — Many home modifications can support your senior pet as they age and help them enjoy a good quality of life. For example, install nightlights in dark areas for visibility, purchase firm orthopedic bedding to promote relaxation, and add resource stations (i.e., food, water, litter boxes) for easy access.

As your pet ages, you can support their mental and physical health in a multitude of ways and keep them feeling young for many years. Schedule an appointment with our Colony Veterinary Hospital team to discuss how you can best help your senior pet age gracefully.