If you know someone who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you likely understand how cognitive disorders can be debilitating. As dogs and cats age, they can suffer from similar impairments, often marked by a series of behavior and neurologic changes. While we don’t fully understand the cause of cognitive dysfunction in pets, the similarities to Alzheimer’s disease are striking. Learn how to recognize signs of this challenging disorder, and support your pets as they age. 

Identifying signs of cognitive dysfunction in pets

As our pets age, we can easily chalk up their behavior changes to “old age.” Some pets stop greeting their owners at the door when they return home, while others may simply show less interest in exercise or play. These seemingly minor changes can easily go unnoticed, but they are important to note, and you should use a checklist to keep track of your pet’s subtle behavior changes. Look for signs that suggest your pet is confused or disoriented, such as standing in corners, staring at walls, or reacting abnormally to familiar people or surroundings. Some pets will have difficulty learning new commands, or remembering ones they once excelled at. Changes in the sleep-wake cycle or having accidents in the house could also indicate a cognitive disorder. 

Diagnosing cognitive dysfunction in pets

Since signs of cognitive decline in pets can be variable, and no specific test for the disease exists, veterinarians must first rule out other conditions. Additionally, many diseases of aging pets can cause similar signs. For example, pets with arthritis may not be as willing to go for a long walk because they are painful. Pets with kidney or bladder problems may have frequent urinary accidents. Pets with severe dental disease may not be eager to finish their breakfast. Depending on your pet’s signs, our University Veterinary Hospital team may recommend a series of tests such as blood work, urine testing, or imaging to look for evidence that could explain your pet’s behavior. 

Treating cognitive dysfunction in pets

While we cannot reverse age-associated cognitive impairment, we can introduce supplements, diets, and medications to help care for our pets. Since the brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage, antioxidant supplementation is a treatment mainstay. Our veterinarian may recommend an omega-3-fatty acid supplement, or a prescription diet rich in antioxidants, to help stave off brain-damaging free-radicals. Some pets may be good candidates for pharmaceutical therapy, especially if debilitating signs or anxiety are present.

Supporting pets with cognitive dysfunction

Caring for a pet with dementia signs requires patience and lots of tender, loving care. Since changes in the environment and daily routine can induce confusion, keeping home life predictable and consistent is important. For instance, consider refraining from rearranging large furniture pieces, and ensure feeding times stay regular. Now is not the time to move homes, or adopt a new puppy or kitten, if at all possible. Keeping additional litter boxes spread around the home and installing a doggy door may help with inappropriate elimination, and placing carpets, rugs, or other grippable surfaces on hardwood floors can help support your aging pet.

In addition to environmental accommodations, pets with cognitive impairment benefit greatly from physical and mental stimulation. Regular physical exercise is important for overall well-being, while mental exercises help keep us alert and sharp—an especially important concept in pets with cognitive decline. Here are some ways you can exercise your pet’s body and brain: 

  • Teach — Schedule time each day to review commands with your pet, or attempt to teach a few new tricks.
  • Hide —Hide hollow toys or balls with small treats, and leave them around the home for your pet to scavenge. 
  • Bag it — Provide cats with paper bags or empty cardboard boxes for play. 
  • Play — Play calming nature sounds or soft music when your pet is home alone. 
  • Socialize — Provide plenty of opportunities for open, social play with other animals, but never force this type of interaction. 

For further ideas on how to support your pet via environmental enrichment, check out The Ohio State Indoor Pet Initiative.

If you are concerned your pet is showing signs of cognitive dysfunction, contact our University Veterinary Hospital team, to set up a consultation.