Dementia in Senior Pets: Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)

by Dr. Sadie Fraleigh

Does my dog or cat have dementia? Because our pets are living longer, they are at risk to develop diseases associated with advanced age. Symptoms that may appear to pet owners as simple age-related changes in reality could be signs of medical issues, behavioral issues, or dementia.

What is Dementia? In veterinary medicine, dementia is commonly referred to as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). It is a chronic, progressive brain-aging condition. By age 12, approximately 30% of dogs will show some sign of cognitive decline and most dogs age 16 or older have signs of CDS. About 50% of cats 15 years or older have symptoms aligning with cognitive dysfunction.

What are Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)? Symptoms include disorientation, confusion, staring at a blank wall, or getting stuck behind furniture. Others include changes in bathroom habits, including urinary and fecal house soiling. Your senior pet may develop changes in sleep habits that range from no longer sleeping through the night, to pacing, to excessive vocalization. Other symptoms include changes to interaction among family members with less desire for social interaction or just the opposite with over-attachment. Some pets may develop anxiety or noise phobias. Other signs observed may include decreased activity.

How is CDS Diagnosed? Because cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a progressive condition, many pet owners assume these are normal age-related changes to their pet as they have developed over time. Just because these symptoms have become the “new normal” for the senior pet doesn’t mean it is part of the normal aging process. Contact your veterinarian if you are concerned about your senior pet’s behavior. To make a diagnosis of CDS, your veterinarian will rule-out other causes for the behavioral changes you may be experiencing with your senior pet at home. Your veterinarian will perform a medical evaluation, including a thorough physical examination. Additional areas of focus may include a neurologic exam, orthopedic exam, dental exam, overall pain assessment, basic vision/hearing assessment, routine blood work and urinalysis. Other testing may be warranted depending on the symptoms observed. Unfortunately, there is no one test to diagnose CDS. However, your veterinarian may provide you with a questionnaire to aid in the evaluation of your senior pet. Once other medical causes have been ruled-out or treated, the focus shifts to the behavioral issues associated with CDS.

Is there Treatment for CDS? Because CDS is a progressive disease, there is no cure, but there is hope for slowing the progression of this disease in your beloved senior pet. The mainstays of therapy for CDS include medications, supplements, environmental enrichment, and diet changes. Your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to reduce your senior pet’s anxiety. Supplements including melatonin can improve your pet’s nighttime sleeping habits. Diets containing antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids (Fish Oils) have proven beneficial for senior pets. Recent studies have shown dietary medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have improved cognitive function in aging dogs. Other studies with S-Adenosyl-l-methionine (SAMe), a liver supplement, have resulted in improvement in activity and awareness in senior dogs. Regular activity and routines are important for keeping senior pets alert and engaged with their surroundings. Environmental enrichment is also important for maintaining mental stimulation. Enrichment activities include playtime with toys, food toys, interacting with other dogs, and learning new tricks.

Partner with your veterinarian to address your pet’s dementia. Your veterinarian can prescribe medications, provide proper dosages for supplements, and give recommendations for diet changes. Early diagnosis can be important and developing a plan to slow the progression of dementia can be key to maintaining your senior pet’s quality of life.