Cognitive Decline in Pets

Dr. Hannah Godfrey

As parents to our cats and dogs, we want them to live long and healthy lives so that we get their companionship and love for as long as possible. After all, your pet remains your fur-baby no matter what age they are! As your pet ages, the wear and tear of life takes its toll, and their organs may stop working as well as they used to. 

Like in humans, one of the organs that can start to decline during older age is the brain. So, what is cognitive decline? How do you spot the signs of cognitive decline in your pet? And if your cat or dog is affected, what can you do to help?

What is cognitive decline in pets?

Cognitive decline is the term used for age-related loss of brain function. Although brain function can be affected by other illnesses and health conditions; however, cognitive decline can occur without underlying health issues. The condition is sometimes referred to as age-related Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) and is similar to dementia in humans. As pets get older, they are more likely to show signs of cognitive decline, which worsen over time as they continue to age. 

What are the symptoms of cognitive decline?

You might assume that dogs and cats have the same symptoms if they suffer from cognitive decline. However, although the symptoms are similar, there are some differences.

What are the symptoms of cognitive decline in dogs?

Symptoms will vary between individual dogs, with more symptoms likely to appear over time. Early signs of cognitive decline can be very subtle. They could include the occasional vacant stare or your dog momentarily seeming a bit lost or confused in a familiar environment. As time goes on, you might notice some of these common symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive barking
  • Excessive panting
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Restlessness or aimless wandering
  • Lack of enjoyment from activities they used to like
  • Vacant staring
  • Getting lost on usual walks
  • Getting stuck behind furniture or in corners
  • Reduced grooming habits
  • Excessive or inappropriate licking
  • Toileting in the house or incontinence
  • Seeming to have forgotten previous training
  • Reduced ability to be trained
  • Loss of daily routine
  • Eating less
  • Sight loss
  • Hearing loss

What are the symptoms of cognitive decline in cats?

Just like in dogs, not every cat will show all of the possible symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, and symptoms are likely to worsen as your cat gets older. However, if your cat’s brain function is deteriorating, you might notice some of the following signs:

  • Reduced enjoyment from social interaction, playing, and petting
  • Clingy behavior
  • Lethargy
  • Vacant staring
  • Withdrawing or hiding
  • Wandering aimlessly
  • Reluctance to jump or explore
  • Loud and excessive vocalization
  • Confusion
  • Aggression
  • Eating less
  • Passing poop near the litter box, in their bed, or other places
  • Scruffy or matted appearance due to reduced grooming habits
  • Getting stuck around the house where they wouldn’t normally
  • Lack of recognition of people or places
  • Hearing loss
  • Sight loss
  • Waking at strange hours

Can dogs and cats get dementia?

Cognitive decline is deterioration in brain function, which is also known as dementia. Just like in humans, it can cause your furry friend to struggle with their memory, behavior, and routine, as well as affecting senses like hearing and vision. Many pet parents understandably chalk up the signs of cognitive decline to their pet getting old and assume nothing can be done. However, rather than being something to accept, cognitive decline can cause your pet anxiety and distress and can seriously affect their quality of life. But can anything be done to treat your pet’s dementia?

How is cognitive decline diagnosed in pets?

Because there is such a wide range of symptoms regarding age-related cognitive decline, the condition must be diagnosed properly. Many of the symptoms can also be caused by other health conditions, like hearing and sight loss. To get your pet the correct treatment, it’s worth taking them to a veterinarian for an examination. Keeping a diary of their behavior and any symptoms can help provide a complete picture to your veterinarian.

Sadly, there’s no definitive test for cognitive decline, and the diagnosis relies on ruling out other causes of the reduced brain function. Depending on what symptoms your pet is showing, your veterinarian might suggest some blood tests. They might also use special instruments to look in their eyes and ears. If no underlying health condition accounts for your pet’s symptoms, a diagnosis of cognitive decline is made.

Is there any treatment for cognitive decline?

Although the most critical part of helping your elderly dog or cat cope with cognitive decline is adapting their environment and lifestyle, medicine does play a role. However, it’s best to manage your expectations since treatments will not cure your pet’s dementia, it will only relieve some of their symptoms. The extent to which medication improves dementia symptoms will vary greatly from pet to pet.

The most frequently used medication for cognitive decline is Selegiline, a drug used in humans to treat Parkinson’s disease. It is thought to work by slowing the breakdown of the chemical signals in the brain. Although only licensed for use in dogs, it has also been used off-license in cats with good effect.

Because dementia is in part related to brain cell death, the brain changes are not reversible. Still, the remaining functional brain tissue can be supported. Good nutrition and supplements containing omega-3, Vitamins C and E, Selenium, and various antioxidants can all help to improve the remaining brain function. 

How can I help my pet with cognitive decline?

Aside from medical treatment, supplements, and good nutrition, there are other things you can do to help your pet with cognitive decline. Adaptations to their environment and lifestyle and efforts to reinforce their routine can make a real difference to their quality of life.

How can I help my dog with cognitive decline?

Don’t give up

If your dog is suffering from dementia, it can be difficult to accept their new lack of mental capacity. It can seem that they have forgotten their training and can no longer remember where their food bowl is, let alone fathom their puzzle feeder. However, continuing to challenge your canine companion’s brain function by repeating training techniques, playing games, and going on exciting walks, will help slow down their brain’s decline. You can also use meals and exercise to reinforce their daily routine. This will help them get back into the rhythm of sleeping at night and being more active physically and mentally during the day.

Prevent accidents and injuries

It’s really common for dogs with cognitive decline to get stuck or injure themselves, even around the house. Consider rearranging furniture to make the rooms more accessible and remove any awkward-to-reach nooks and crannies. Keep sharp or pointed objects and anything breakable well out of reach, just as you would for a curious and clumsy toddler! 

If you used to walk your dog off a lead, it’s worth remembering that they are more likely to get lost, disorientated, or confused, so changing their exercise to an on-lead walk might be sensible. You can increase the length of the walk if they’re up to it so that they don’t miss out on the fun!

Keep them comfortable

Any older dog will benefit from some TLC, not just one with dementia! But some extra little touches will keep your old boy or girl comfortable in their golden years. Firstly, give them somewhere safe to retreat to if they feel overwhelmed. You can supply their area with a thick dog mattress, soft toys, or even your t-shirt if they would find it reassuring! 

Giving your dog a base in the home will make them feel more secure, prevent anxiety, and help them orientate themselves better. It’s also essential to make sure they don’t forget where their food and water are, so providing extra feed and water stations can be helpful.

How can I help my cat with cognitive decline?

The same principles apply when it comes to helping your feline friend with cognitive decline. It’s essential, though, to tailor the advice to your cat. For example, spending more time interacting with your cat, either through playing or cuddling, can be really useful to keep their brain ticking over. However, some cats find human company stressful, so the drastic change in your behavior could cause them anxiety. 

If your cat doesn’t much enjoy human company but used to enjoy playing with toys, using puzzle feeders, hunting, or general adventuring, it’s worth enriching their environment with puzzle feeders, hunting toys, and other games. On the other hand, you might have noticed that they’re not so agile when it comes to climbing and jumping these days. If so, it’s worth considering keeping them indoors and changing their cat tree to something less challenging.

Just like with dogs, comfort is key! Make sure you provide your kitty with a comfortable bed, somewhere safe to hide, and plenty of food and water. Bear in mind that they might be a little clumsy, so keeping their food, water, and bed on the ground will stop them from needing to jump.

Can I prevent my pet from getting dementia?

You can’t prevent cognitive decline altogether since wear and tear will affect all organs as pets get older, and the brain is no different. However, doing what you can to support your pet’s brain function while they are young and healthy will help to stave off cognitive decline symptoms for as long as possible. The best way to do this is by ensuring that your pet has a nutritionally complete diet with plenty of omega-3, vitamins, and minerals.

In addition, supplements are not only beneficial once your pet shows signs of cognitive decline; they can also help prevent it for as long as possible. There are various brain supplements available. Most will contain a combination of ingredients, including omega-3, Selenium, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and the antioxidant “SAMe.”

There are many different prescription diets that are formulated to help memory and learning in older dogs.  Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.

So, can dogs and cats live with cognitive decline?

It can be daunting if your furry family member is diagnosed with dementia. As a pet parent, you’ll rightly be concerned about your loved one’s quality of life and wonder whether it might be kinder to consider saying goodbye. However, with the correct management, many dogs and cats with cognitive decline can live out their golden years without suffering. 

Severe cases of dementia can indeed lead to poor quality of life, despite everyone’s best efforts. But, it’s worth making some adjustments to your pet’s home and lifestyle before assuming the worst. Your veterinarian will be able to support you along the way with advice and treatment so that you’re free to enjoy time with your loyal companion.