Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) affects roughly 40 percent of dogs and cats over 12 years old. Like Alzheimer’s disease in humans, CDS is a progressive mental deterioration caused by plaque deposits and nerve cell death in the brain. Learn to recognize five common warning signs of this condition in senior pets with this guide from Millbrae Pet Hospital.

#1: Your senior pet is having accidents

Senior dogs may eliminate soon after returning inside, sometimes with their owner nearby. Cats may have accidents on the path to and from the litter box. Despite your frustration, be patient with your pet. Dogs and cats with CDS often forget to urinate or defecate in the proper area—the same way people often forget why they entered a room.

House soiling can indicate many medical problems. First, ask our veterinarian to examine your pet, to rule out other causes. If your pet’s physical exam, blood work, and urinalysis are normal, they may have CDS, or another behavior issue. 

Dogs with CDS should be monitored to ensure they eliminate on their regular schedule. If your pet’s accidents are consistently in the same location, potty pads may help. Senior cats benefit from additional litter boxes in more central locations. Low sides will help arthritic cats enter and exit without pain.

#2: Your senior pet seems disoriented

Pets with CDS are easily disoriented in familiar surroundings. Many aging pets also face vision changes and hearing loss, which can increase anxiety and confusion. Some common CDS examples include:

  • Waiting at the hinge-side of a door to be let in or out
  • Wandering aimlessly in the house, appearing lost
  • Getting trapped in a corner or behind furniture
  • Restlessness and pacing

Distinguishing between sensory loss and CDS can be a challenge. Our veterinarian will combine your pet’s history and behavior with physical examination findings to determine a diagnosis. Protect your senior pet and prevent injury by blocking access to stairs, spare rooms, and pools. Keep them leashed or in an enclosed area so they cannot wander away.

#3: Your senior pet sleeps all day and is awake all night

Pets with CDS often change their sleep-wake cycle, a phenomenon referred to as Sundowner’s syndrome in humans. The reason for this upset internal clock is not completely understood, but you can help your senior pet stay on schedule by:

  • Maintaining a predictable daily routine
  • Providing adequate exercise during daytime hours
  • Limiting activity or stimulation during evening hours
  • Confining them to a small area, pen, or crate at night

Our veterinarian may recommend melatonin or veterinary calming supplements to decrease your pet’s anxiety, and to regulate their sleep-wake cycle.

#4: Your senior pet’s personality has changed

By the time pets reach their senior years, their owners know them completely, and witnessing their personality changes can be startling. Pain, especially pain caused by degenerative joint disease or arthritis, is the main reason senior pets change their behavior. A physical examination and lab work will be necessary, to determine why your aging pet may be demonstrating unusual behaviors.

  • Energy — Pets with CDS may have higher or lower energy levels.
  • Socialization — Previously clingy pets may isolate themselves, while independent pets may seek attention.
  • Fear or aggression — Uncomfortable or disoriented pets who have never been aggressive may respond defensively to perceived threats.
  • Compulsion — Repetitive behaviors like pacing, circling, licking, and air-snapping can indicate cognitive dysfunction.

Pets with CDS or another medical condition cannot understand what is happening, and their fear and anxiety may increase, leading to other negative behavior changes.

#5: Your previously quiet pet has become vocal

Increased vocalizing is a common CDS sign, especially in cats. According to one study, 61 percent of cats with CDS vocalized “excessively.” Pets may vocalize to communicate pain, fear, or disorientation, or to seek attention. 

Reassure your senior pet frequently to minimize their fears. Simply being close may reduce their anxiety and need to vocalize. Environmental modifications to your home can also be beneficial in minimizing their fear and stress. Some simple methods include:

  • Adding non-slip rugs to slippery floors
  • Restricting access to seldom used areas and rooms
  • Lowering your cat’s litter box entry, so they do not have to jump in and out
  • Adding pet ramps to beds and furniture

Diagnosing cognitive dysfunction syndrome in pets

CDS can be definitively diagnosed only by brain tissue analysis after death. Veterinarians diagnose CDS by first analyzing your pet’s history and clinical signs, a physical examination, and lab work, and ruling out all other possible medical conditions. 

Managing your pet after diagnosis

A CDS diagnosis may rule out metabolic, neurologic, and endocrine diseases, but identifying the disorder does not lead to a cure. Unfortunately, CDS cannot be resolved, but our veterinarian can recommend a management plan. Therapeutic options for your pet’s signs include:

  • Medication — Selegiline may reduce signs by increasing dopamine and other neurotransmitter production. 
  • Supplements — Cognitive health supplements containing vitamin E, fatty acids, and antioxidants may slow disease progression.
  • Diet — Brain health diets that are high in medium-chain triglycerides, amino acids, and antioxidants can reduce free radical damage and promote cognitive health.

Watching your pet age can be emotional, but understanding your senior pet’s specific needs, and addressing their behavior changes as soon as possible, can help. Although Millbrae Pet Hospital cannot turn back the clock, we can help you provide your aging pet with the support and loving care they deserve. Senior pets should have wellness exams every six months, so contact us to schedule an appointment for your special pet.