How to Spot Cognitive Dysfunction in Ageing Pets (and What You Can Do to Help)

How to Spot Cognitive Dysfunction in Ageing Pets (and What You Can Do to Help)
Photo: JPRFPhotos, Shutterstock

Humans aren’t the only ones who suffer memory loss and impaired brain function as we age — it can also happen to our pets. In dogs, it’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS, and unfortunately, many of its symptoms are brushed off as “normal” ageing.

Of course, a significant loss of mental acuity is anything but normal. To get a better idea of how CDS presents and what treatment looks like, I interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Stelow, DVM, DACVB, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of California, Davis who runs their veterinary teaching hospital’s Behaviour Service program. This is almost everything you need to know to keep your pet healthy today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

Know the signs of cognitive dysfunction

You can’t help your pet if you don’t know what to look for, so the first step is knowing what CDS looks like. It usually presents with similar symptoms to age-related cognitive decline in humans; the classic signs are summarized by the acronym DISHAAL, which stands for:

  • Disorientation
  • Alterations in interactions with owners, other pets, and the environment
  • Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, sometimes with pacing or panting
  • House soiling
  • Changes in activity, either increase or decrease
  • Increased anxiety
  • Learning and memory changes, like failing to pick up new tricks and/or forgetting ones they once knew

The diagnostic criteria can vary from case to case, but in general, a middle-aged dog showing two or more of these symptoms indicates “a high index of suspicion,” Dr. Stelow explains. Some symptoms are obvious: If your dog doesn’t seem to recognise you anymore, suddenly starts sleeping during the day (and wanders around whining at night), and seems to have forgotten trained commands, they’re probably experiencing cognitive dysfunction.

But Dr. Stelow tells Lifehacker that sometimes, the signs aren’t always clear. “This [sounds] so random but it’s so not: If you ever see a dog go to a closed door and stand at the hinge side waiting for the door to open, assume it’s canine cognitive dysfunction,” she says. “They just go to the wrong side of the door and they’re insistent that that’s where the door’s gonna open … It doesn’t happen to all dogs with cognitive dysfunction, but dogs that do [this] invariably have [it].”

Cognitive dysfunction in cats looks a little different; namely, the list of symptoms is much shorter. A loss of house training and increased vocalisation — “So, a cat that walks around the house crying to nobody and about nothing,” as Dr. Stelow puts it — are usually the only signs cat owners will get. Either of these symptoms on their own could be reason enough for a checkup, but if your cat is doing both, it’s important to ask about a potential cognitive cause.

Monitor all the symptoms

You can’t prevent or reverse CDS, but as a pet owner, there are some things you can do to help. The first and most important is to know what all the symptoms look like, not just the ones that could make your life harder. “We tell veterinary students that the [symptoms] that bring owners screaming into you are the loss of house training … and change[s] in sleep/wake cycle … Those other things, sometimes they just shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s old age for you,’” says Dr. Stelow.

Don’t be too quick to write off weird behaviour as “just old age.” If you have a middle-aged or senior pet, don’t wait for them to start pooping on the carpet or keeping you up all night before taking them to the vet. Those could be their only symptoms, but the idea is to make sure you don’t miss other ones.

Try puzzle feeders, training, and sports for a mental workout

Physical exercise is important for pet health, but when it comes to CDS, Dr. Stelow says that mental exercise is just as big of a deal. Food puzzles and toys are some of the best tools we have for keeping our pets’ minds engaged: “Almost everybody should be feeding their pets out of food toys and puzzles anyway — it helps stave off stagnation in the brain,” she says.

In the same vein, Dr. Stelow recommends interactive training, even (and especially) for cats — but for fun, not obedience. Learning new skills keeps your pet’s brain occupied and is engaging for both of you. If you’re not sure where to start, try thinking of cute or otherwise desirable stuff your pet already does: “It’s easy to capture behaviours,” Dr. Stelow explains. “You don’t think about teaching cats to sit, but it’s a behaviour that they engage in.” High fives, handshakes, and coming when called are all great starter tricks for a cat.

Dogs can also learn new tricks, of course, but if you really want to challenge them, Dr. Stelow recommends getting involved in a sport. Your options are almost limitless: Agility, scent tracking, musical canine freestyle (aka dog dancing), dock jumping, dog surfing, disc dog, canicross (cross-country running with dogs), sled racing, and search and rescue, to name a few. Even lower-key dog sports require enormous mental effort, which is exactly what you want.

Training and sports are more than a mental workout — they also strengthen your relationship with your pet, which is hugely important to their mental and emotional well-being. They can’t get that connection from anyone else: You’re their best buddy.

Change (or supplement) their diet

Switching up your pet’s diet to one with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) may also help mitigate CDS symptoms. MCTs, which are usually extracted from coconut oil, have been used in brain health diets for years. The theory is that MCTs break down into ketones, which the brain can absorb and use as energy instead of, or in addition to, glucose. Basically, MCTs (and ketones) give the brain another energy source to fuel various brain-related activities, which may be helpful for people whose brain function is impaired for one reason or another.

The same is true for dogs, at least in theory. There’s limited research to suggest that dog food enriched with MCTs helps CDS symptoms. Dr. Stelow recommends Purina Bright Mind because it’s available over-the-counter and is “moderately rich” in MCTs. (Higher levels are geared towards epilepsy treatment and may be overkill for CDS.) There are several MCT-enriched pet diets on the market, though, so be sure to discuss with your vet.

Supplements may help your pet, too, particularly those with antioxidants. Dr. Stelow says that Denamarin and Senalife are most commonly used for brain support. They won’t turn back the clock, but they fall firmly in the “can’t hurt, might help” category.

Don’t wait

The cool thing about all of these interventions, from puzzle feeders to supplements, is that it’s never too late to start. “Once a dog or a cat hits middle age, it’s perfectly appropriate for an owner to say, ‘I’m going to change your diet to something that’s got MCTs in it, I’m going to put you on an antioxidant supplement,’” Dr. Stelow says. “But if you’re starting to see clinical signs, you kick them into high gear.” She also points out that pet owners often taper off training and high-intensity play when their companions hit middle age, right when both become extra important for cognitive health. So keep playing with your older pets: Challenge them with puzzle feeders, interactive toys, training, and even sports.

As helpful as special food and training can be, the most important intervention is to pay attention to your pet’s behaviour throughout their life. It’s the only way to tell what’s normal and what isn’t. Dr. Stelow put it best: “Old age is not a disease,” she says. “If you’re seeing clinical signs of a disease, don’t call it old age.”

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