Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cognitive Dysfunction in Pets, by Dr. Cheryl Maguire

Old Dog's Eyes (Are Sleeping Now)
Photo (c) Pavel Horak
(Click to see original on Flickr)
I must admit that I have a soft spot for senior pets. Nothing is more comfortable or dependable than the relationships we have with the dogs and cats who have shared our lives for years. But as our pets age, we may start to notice things that are concerning to us. At night, our dogs may pace and pant and our cats may howl. Our pets may sleep longer than usual, seem disoriented or disinterested or hide. These behaviors may trouble us but then we may think, “Isn’t this part of the normal aging process?” The answer to that is yes and no.

Like humans, as pets age their senses become diminished and the body slows down as a normal part of the degenerative process but we do not have to sit back idly and accept the changes. Instead, we can help our pets have a better quality of life even as they advance into their golden years. I am going to briefly discuss Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome as well as touch on some of the many things that can be done to alleviate it.

Cognitive Dysfunction is a syndrome that affects both cats and dogs as they age. The symptoms will vary in degree and form but usually include disorientation, disruption of sleeping patterns, problems with house soiling and changes in appetite and interest in life. Most importantly, other disease processes must first be ruled out and, if needed, treated by your veterinarian since many conditions common in geriatric pets overlap with Cognitive Dysfunction.

Once Cognitive Dysfunction has been identified in your pet and other conditions have been ruled out there are several approaches that can be taken to ameliorate the symptoms. To get the best results you should use several of these suggestions together. But, the first thing is to review what medications your pet is currently receiving with your veterinarian. Some medications such as sedatives, anxiety medications and steroids can actually exacerbate the symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction. Other medications like non-Steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs can help alleviate them.

Asses your pet’s diet and the quantity of food they are consuming. Research has shown that animals and humans that consume a calorie restricted diet experience fewer problems with senility and Alzheimer’s Disease. On the other hand, a pet that is too thin and not as interested in food as they were in the past may benefit from appetite stimulants. There is at least one commercially made food on the market that is made specifically for older dogs showing symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction. In general your pet should be fed a low carbohydrate food that contains good quality protein source.

There are many categories of supplements that can be added to the pet’s diet to improve the symptoms seen with Cognitive Dysfunction. Fish oil supplements containing at least 300mg of DHA, CoEnzymeQ10, Gingko, SAMe, as well as vitamin and nutraceutical products made specifically for Cognitive Dysfunction can be administered along with diet changes. Melatonin can be given at night to help with sleep disturbances.

One of the most important aspects of helping senior pets with Cognitive Dysfunction is stimulating their senses and providing daily exercise. Include your senior pet in daily activities as much as they will tolerate. Groom them gently, talk to them, take them on short walks even if it is just around the house or yard. Feed them interesting small meals and allow them to interact with other pets in the home. Bring them out of the closet and out from under the bed or if necessary, bring the family members to them. But, keep these seniors involved with their families and mentally stimulated.

The best way to help your senior pet that is exhibiting symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction is to visit your veterinarian and discuss the options for your pet’s individual situation. The most successful strategy is to implement as many of the different options available as possible. You should start to see an improvement in your senior pet within two weeks of implementing any of these methods. Some pets respond even sooner. In the very least do not give up hope and accept the negative effects of the aging process without giving some of the options discussed a try.


  1. Carole Hopkins, Pawsitively PetsittingDecember 21, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    Excellent article! Having many years experience as a vet tech, I have seen many of these changes in senior pets. And we can be understanding and help them through their aging. Thanks for the great article! I will share it with my clients with aging pets!

    1. Thank you, Carole!
      ~Dr. Cheryl

    2. Thank you Carole - we hope our articles of helpful to you and your clients.

      ~ Dr. Mary Gardner

  2. Very informative! I care for lots of senior pets, and I will place this article in my monthly Newsletter to my clients. Thank you again for the excellent information.

    Nancy Anthony
    Snuggles and Hugs Pet Care


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