Lets face it, our pets age. Just like us, some maintain cognitive function and stay sharp as a razor, and others … not so much. Whether you call it dementia or cognitive dysfunction, the symptoms we see in our pets are similar to what is seen in humans with Alzheimer’s or senile dementia.
These pets can get lost in the house, become ornery, not want to do things they used to enjoy, lose house training and litter box habits, pace/vocalize or otherwise seem agitated or anxious (and often at night), just to name a few common symptoms.
Cognitive Dysfunction is relatively common in an aged pet population – though the symptoms are not “normal” signs of aging. When screening and intervention occurs earlier in the process of this syndrome, we can often improve longevity and quality of life for the pet (and often their human companion), though we cannot cure it.
It is important to realize that these symptoms can be seen with many other diseases or chronic pain (such as from arthritis). Ruling out other treatable or manageable conditions is helpful and increases our chances of keeping our aged pets comfortable.
Adequate pain management is by far the most common issue we have to address before determining if additional therapies for cognitive dysfunction are needed. Our fur family is just so good at being stoic that sometimes we don’t adequately recognize subtle signs of pain until it becomes so bad and starts to alter their behavior.
Some other diseases that can cause similar symptoms are other primary neurologic diseases (brain tumors, inflammation around the brain, etc…), kidney disease, hypertension, altered thyroid function and altered adrenal gland function. Blood testing and a comprehensive physical exam are important screening tools for some of these underlying diseases.
Once any and all underlying problems are adequately addressed, management of cognitive dysfunction generally involves dietary management (there are some newer diets that specifically help address the altered brain nutrient needs), increased antioxidant supplements, melatonin and anti-anxiety medications such as selegiline or Prozac.
Reducing outside stressors on our pets has also been shown to be beneficial. If your pet is showing symptoms of cognitive dysfunction – then it is not ideal to make major changes in their life (such as getting a new pet or changing their environment), if possible those stressors can trigger things to get much worse for them, and more quickly.
If major stressors are inevitable, then easing them into the change may be helpful. Additionally, similar to doing crossword puzzles as a human, keeping cognitive skills fresh is important for our pets as well.
Environmental enrichment and mental stimulation is really important: ways we can work on these skills are with tools like puzzle and feeder toys, climbing and agility and general maintenance of a good activity level and ongoing task and obedience training.
If you have an older pet who is experiencing disorientation, changes in their sleep/wake cycle, loss of house training, changes in social interactions, increased agitation or anxiety and/or changes in activity level – talk to your veterinarian about looking into what underlying causes might be present and ways to help support your old friend’s brain health and comfort.