Close-Up Photo of Senior Dog | Taste of the Wild

It happens to the best of us. We misplace our car keys. We can’t remember the name of that famous actor – or what we ate for breakfast yesterday. So we chalk up these periodic memory gaps to natural aging. But can we do the same for our older pets?

Is it normal for your gray-muzzled dog to not recognize you when you walk in the door? Or for your silver-tinged feline to yowl and pace the moonlit hallway all night? It may be. But these could also be signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS.

What Is CDS?

Like Alzheimer’s disease in people, CDS usually affects older pets, and it is typified by a gradual cognitive decline as well as signs of memory and learning impairment. Although plaque lesions, similar to those associated with Alzheimer’s disease, have been found in the brains of pets with CDS, other brain changes may differ.

In a study, 28 percent of dogs between the ages of 11 and 12 displayed at least one sign of CDS. That percentage increased among older dogs, with 68 percent of those 15 to 16 years of age affected. Although cats can disguise the signs better than dogs, the onset can begin as early as 10 to 11 years of age, with as many as 50 percent of cats over the age of 15 affected.

What Are the Signs of CDS?

The signs in pets can be so subtle, many owners may not even notice. In dogs, look for:

  • Disorientation/confusion/mental dullness (staring into space, getting lost in corners)
  • Changes in interaction (being less social or seeking more attention)
  • Regression in housetraining
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycles (restlessness, pacing and whining at night)
  • Changes in anxiety or irritability
  • Increased or decreased activity

Signs in cats may include:

  • Loud vocalization (meowing), often at night
  • Accidents outside of the litter box without a medical or behavioral cause
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycles
  • Loss of appetite
  • Staring at walls, disinterest in play

How Is a Diagnosis Made?

CDS is typically a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning the veterinarian will test for other causes of confusion and memory loss, and if those can be ruled out, it is assumed the pet has CDS. Diagnosis starts with a thorough physical exam, including checking for signs of vision or hearing loss that could contribute to disorientation or confusion.

The veterinarian may recommend blood tests, a urinalysis and possibly other diagnostics to check for underlying medical causes, such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, kidney or liver disease or high blood pressure. Since pets with behavioral issues, such as separation anxiety or storm phobias, can also show signs that are similar to CDS, a behavior assessment will most likely be made.

If an underlying medical or behavioral problem can be identified, it’s possible that treatment could reduce or eliminate the signs. And early diagnosis of CDS may improve the likelihood that treatments may help.

RELATED POST: Every Cat Needs Routine Veterinary Care

How Is CDS Treated?

While there’s no cure for CDS, it may be possible to delay the progress of cognitive decline and help make your pet more comfortable. Your veterinarian can recommend what’s right for your pet, which may include:

  • Therapeutic diets or supplements to help support brain health: These foods tend to be rich in antioxidants, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Brain challenges: Provide food puzzles and interactive toys that can help stimulate the mind, or train your pet to learn a new trick.
  • Medication: Currently, there’s one medication for CDS that’s approved for use for dogs, but not for cats. Depending on your pet’s signs, your veterinarian may recommend other medications that may help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Regular exercise: If your pet is physically fit, provide regularly scheduled exercise or play to keep them moving and help encourage normal sleep-wake cycles.
  • No changes in routine: New people or pets in the household or schedule disruptions can be stressful for older pets.
  • Litter box management: Keep the litter boxes in their usual place and do not change the type of litter. Make sure there is a litter box on every floor and your cat has easy access to it.

If you think your pet may have CDS, see your veterinarian. He or she can help determine the right diagnosis and suggest ways to help your pet get the most out of their golden years.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.