Physical ailments aren’t the only concerns regarding elderly pets. Much like humans, pets become vulnerable to cognitive dysfunction as they age. Memories, thought processes, awareness, and some physical capabilities decline in sharpness.
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is gradually progressive and common in both dogs and cats. When pets enter their senior years (age 7+), their learning abilities may start to slow; however, most cases of CDS occur in pets aged 11 years and older.
Studies1 have shown that nearly one-third of cats aged 11-14 have at least one symptom of feline cognitive dysfunction (FDC) and 50% aged 15 and older have multiple symptoms. The prevalence of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is 28% in dogs aged 11-14 years and 68% in dogs aged 15 years and older2.
The standard measure used to describe CDS in dogs and cats is DISHA:
- Disorientation (within familiar environments)
- Interactions changes (with people and other household pets)
- Sleep/wake cycle changes
- House soiling
- Activity changes (lethargy, lack of interest in play)
Owners of elderly pets should look out for these and other specifics:
- Aimless activity in cats
- Excessive vocalization (especially at night in cats)
- Lack of grooming
- Staring off
- Becoming abnormally clingy OR abnormally standoffish
- Forgetting normal rules/routines
- Lack of appetite
Some indications of canine cognitive dysfunction may also present as physical disruptions. The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science recently published a study3 that aimed to clarify how physical age-related ailments relate to canine cognitive dysfunction. Part of the motivation for this study was the notion that physical changes related to CDS may be more noticeable during the onset of CDS than behavioral changes are.
Interestingly, the study found that many physical ailments related to CDS are also present in humans with dementia. In fact, all of the age-related and CDS-related physical disturbances in this study are similar to those present in human dementia.
These physical disturbances are:
- Vision loss
- Slow or abnormal gait
- Smell disturbance
- Swaying or falling
- Head tilt
Vision impairment and smell disturbance were the most common, occurring in more than 90% of participants.
Whether the signs are physical or behavioral, all symptoms of CDS must be evaluated by a veterinarian. The first step in diagnosing CDS is ruling out other disease that may cause similar symptoms.
CDS is incurable, but it may be possible to slow or delay its onset by keeping bodies and minds active. While pets experiencing CDS face challenges, we can help them navigate through this time and make life easier and less confusing for them by managing their environment and adapting to their needs.
The first way to help pets in decline is to be patient. This is a progressive disease and it will change. It can be frustrating to you, but it’s also frustrating to them. Be aware of your own anxiety and reactions.
Visit your veterinarian for wellness visits. Senior and elderly pets are at risk for physical as well as cognitive conditions. Your veterinarian can work with you to create a treatment/comfort plan and help adapt it as CDS progresses. Ask about medications, supplements, or dietary changes that may be right for your pet.
Keep food, water, and litter boxes in familiar and easily accessible places. Changing their locations can cause confusion. Consider adding litter boxes around your home to help with inappropriate elimination.
Add nightlights around the house to help with nighttime navigation.
Keep pets active. Age-appropriate activities such as slow walks, puzzle games and interactive toys, and low to the ground hunting keep bodies and minds active. Work on teaching basic tricks and commands or reinforcing old ones your pet already knows. Make sure games are winnable. Those that are too difficult or don’t result in satisfaction can frustrate and tire pets.
Keep routines. Pets may forget their routines or get confused when routines change. Keep feeding, bed, play, and walk times the same each day.
Keep microchip registration current in case your pet wanders off and gets lost. Keep yards secure. Don’t leave pets unattended/unsupervised in situations where it’s possible for them to wander. Always keep pets leashed while out.
Hang onto old items like bedding, toys, and scratchers. These comforting items feel and smell familiar and can help to reduce anxiety and confusion.
Cognitive dysfunction is a difficult part of old age for many pets. By looking out for and catching symptoms and signals early, it’s possible to slow the decline. Throughout the progression, communication with a veterinarian is imperative as is adjusting home environments in order keep pets as comfortable as possible.
1 Gunn-Moore DA. Cognitive dysfunction in cats: clinical assessment and management. Top Companion Anim Med. 2011 Feb;26(1):17-24. doi: 10.1053/j.tcam.2011.01.005. PMID: 21435622.
2 Neilson JC, Hart BL, Cliff KD, Ruehl WW. Prevalence of behavioral changes associated with age-related cognitive impairment in dogs. JAVMA 2001;218(11):1787-1791.
3 Ozawa, Makiko et al. “Physical signs of canine cognitive dysfunction.” The Journal of veterinary medical science vol. 81,12 (2019): 1829-1834. doi:10.1292/jvms.19-0458