Cognitive dysfunction syndrome: The Alzheimer’s of aging pets

Pet owners are having the opportunity to have their companions live longer lives with advances in medicine and more preventive-care monitoring. With longer lives come some health conditions that sometimes lead to owner frustration and confusion. Think about the time you took your 14-year-old dog for one of their walks and, just after you come back in the house and release their leash, they find the carpet as a perfect indoor toilet. Didn’t they just go outside? Don’t they remember their walk? Are they experiencing short-term memory loss? What about your 15-year-old cat that thinks howling at the moon should be an all-night event? Their food bowl is full, their litter box is clean, but they just seem to think after-hours conversations are the new thing. They seem to have forgotten that when it is dark outside, it is time to sleep.

Many of us are aware that aging not only affects the body but also the mind. In our four-legged companions, the aging mind can lead to restless nights, late-night howling, confusion and loss of house training. In humans, Alzheimer’s disease is known as a neurodegenerative disease characterized by initial decline in episodic memory, which progresses to multiple cognitive losses, making it difficult to function socially. In animals, research of the aging canine and feline species has revealed that our companions go through similar brain changes where there is a decrease in brain size and loss of neurons that control brain function. Understanding that animals can have cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) can help you understand your pet’s aging process.

Based on American Animal Hospital Association and American Association of Feline Practitioners’ senior-care guidelines, most dogs are considered middle-aged or mature at 7-8 years of age, unless they are a giant breed, like a Great Dane, which at 4 would be considered middle-aged. Senior age is considered at about 10-11, or 6 for the giant breed. In cats, middle age is at 7-10, with senior status recognized at 11-14. Typical early signs of CDS are usually noted as a change in behavior. It has been summarized as DISHA, which refers to disorientation; alterations in interactions with owners, other pets and the environment; sleep-wake cycle disturbances; housesoiling; and change in activity. They also can go through similar agitation and anxiety as seen in human Alzheimer patients.

It is important to make sure your pet’s aging changes are not related to medical conditions that they may be living with. Arthritic conditions can make pets more irritable, less active, less hungry or fearful. Animals living with kidney disease, Cushing’s disease or diabetes may seem more restless, as they have a greater need to drink throughout the day and have more frequent trips to the bathroom. It is essential to have your companion’s internal health status checked for other diseases before CDS should be considered. Some animals can have concurrent disease with CDS, which makes diagnosis more difficult.

As in humans, stress can alter balance and trigger physiologic, behavioral, endocrine and immune effects. Prolonged stress can affect the well-being of pets and alter their appetite, sleep and elimination patterns. Environmental enrichment, like interactive play, food-manipulation toys and pheromone therapy, like Feliway for cats, have been shown to decrease stress. Recognizing that your pet may need to go on more frequent walks or have their litter box changed more frequently can help those aging pets with diabetes or renal disease.

Fortunately, veterinarians are aware of CDS and can provide you with a questionnaire that will help determine if early intervention is indicated. As in people, early medical care with this disorder allows for a better long-term quality of life. For our companions, medical therapies can include a prescription diet, natural supplements or a prescription medication that can help improve the behavioral changes seen with aging.

As in humans, keeping one’s mind active is also highly beneficial for our companions. Exercising at regular times, stimulating obedience activity on walks to keep their attention and providing a few new toys, especially for our feline friends, will help keep them connected to you. Celebrate your pet’s golden years and seek veterinary advice if you are concerned that your pet is experiencing cognitive dysfunction.

Claudia Casavecchia, DVM, is owner of Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, visit or call 215-627-5955.

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