Dementia in Dogs and Cats

There’s little that matches the excitement of bringing home a new puppy or kitten. The boundless energy of those mischievous balls of fluff can bring even the most patient pet owner to the edge of their sanity.

But this stage doesn’t last. In fact, because of advances in pet nutrition and care, pet-parents are now more likely to see Fido and Mittens well into their less-rambunctious senior years. As pets live longer, more pet owners are noticing something akin to a second puppy or kitten stage, where even a well-behaved pet may forget their training, have more “accidents,” or even show unwarranted aggression.

These behaviors may be more than just old age. Pets can suffer from cognitive decline and dementia. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), is becoming more prevalent in pets as they live longer lives. As in humans, animal dementia is thought to be connected to protein plaque buildup in the brain. And, again like humans, pets suffering from dementia may enjoy periods of normal brain function even as the disease progresses.

Symptoms

It’s important that other causes of behavior change, ones that are treatable, be ruled out before diagnosing a pet with CDS. Some things associated with dementia and cognitive decline, like accidents in the house, may be caused by other, more treatable conditions, like kidney problems or a bladder infection.

Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine says that a pet may be diagnosed with CDS if he or she displays one or more of the following symptoms and other causes have been ruled out:

  • Disorientation, changes in spatial awareness, wandering, inability to navigate around familiar objects
  • Decreased interest in social interactions such as petting or greeting; dependent or “clingy” behavior
  • Changes in sleep cycle including restlessness, frequent waking, or increased daytime sleeping
  • Accidents in the house caused by incontinence or not knowing when a potty break is needed
  • Changes in activity level including decreased exploration and interest in people and sounds; decreased appetite; increased anxiety including restlessness and agitation

Other medical and behavioral conditions that can cause the above symptoms in pets need to be ruled out before a veterinarian can give a definitive CDS diagnosis. CDS may occur concurrently with other issues and exacerbate symptoms.

Prevalence

A study from the University of California in Davis found that 28 percent of dogs 11 to 12 years old showed at least one sign of cognitive impairment, and the number grew to 68 percent for dogs 15 to 16 years old. Symptoms in dogs may start as early as 8 years old. Another study found that 28 percent of cats ages 11 to 14 had at least one sign of cognitive impairment, and the number grew to 50 percent in cats 15 and older. Cognitive impairment is not as common in cats and tends to have a later onset in cats than in dogs.

Treatment

As in humans, cognitive decline and dementia in animals is not fully understood. Animals in the wild may also experience cognitive decline, but they will likely not survive long with serious impairment in unprotected environments.

Though there is currently no known cure for dementia in humans or animals, there are treatments that can slow disease progression and help pets deal with symptoms. Introducing a pet to new exercises, new toys, and new tasks may help them improve learning and memory. A vet may recommend a special diet or supplements to promote brain health. In some cases, anti-anxiety drugs may be appropriate.

A pet that is experiencing cognitive decline or dementia may have many more years to give, but may need the same kind of support as when they were a puppy or kitten: extra patience, consistency, and perhaps some of those indoor potty pads. A veterinarian can help make a plan to help your pet get the most out of his or her golden years.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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