Cognitive Dysfunction

Grey faced dogBy Katie Anderson

As our beloved pets grow older, it’s easy to notice the physical changes associated with aging, such as a graying muzzle or moving slower on walks. Mental and behavioral changes may begin more subtly and grow more noticeable over time. Pets, like elderly humans, may develop dementia (or cognitive dysfunction syndrome) due to age-related changes in their brains that affect how they think, learn, and remember. Dogs and cats with cognitive dysfunction syndrome may display one or more of these clinical signs:

  • Disorientation or confusion: wandering, becoming “lost” in familiar surroundings, becoming “trapped” in corners or behind furniture
  • Altered memory: changes in house training or learned behaviors
  • Altered social relationships: withdrawal, irritation, or aggression
  • Increased vocalization or wakefulness at night
  • Anxiety or compulsive disorders (separation anxiety, panting, licking, barking)

Many owners attribute these symptoms to “old age” and don’t mention their pet’s changed behavior to their veterinarian. But while there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction syndrome, there are a number of options available to slow mental decline and help your pet cope with his or her symptoms. These include:

1. Environmental changes

  • Ensure that your pet’s sleeping area and litter box are easily accessible
  • Maintain normal routines to reduce anxiety
  • Provide mental stimulation in the form of food puzzles, interactive toys, or by teaching simple, new tricks to your pet. Pets with hearing loss may benefit from learning new hand cues to accompany old tricks.
  • Provide physical stimulation by exercising your pet each day (as they are able)
  • Provide social interactions and encourage short play sessions

2. Medications

  • Selegiline (Anipryl) has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the brain and improve mental function in dogs
  • A tranquilizer or sedative may benefit pets suffering from wakefulness or anxiety

3. Diet

  • Several diets, such as ProPlan’s Bright Mind and Hill’s B/D formula, are specially formulated with antioxidants, vitamin E, and fatty acids to support brain health

4. Dietary Supplements

  • SAMe has also been shown to increase natural dopamine levels and improve mental function in dogs
  • Melatonin may help regulate a normal sleep/wake cycle
  • Fish oils, vitamin E, and selenium may all improve mental function and decrease inflammation

Before beginning to treat a pet for cognitive dysfunction syndrome, it’s important to visit a veterinarian to rule out any physical causes of behavioral changes.

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