Dogs and cats are living longer than ever, thanks to advanced veterinary care, preventive medicine, and nutrition. Unfortunately, as with people, those extra years can come at a cost—and sometimes the cost is the decline of cognitive health. Senior pets have a special place in our hearts at Johnson County Animal Clinic, and we want to help owners understand cognitive dysfunction, and help ensure their pets’ golden years stay golden.

What is cognitive dysfunction in pets?

Cognitive dysfunction has many similarities to human Alzheimer’s disease. A pet with cognitive dysfunction experiences age-related destruction of neurons—the brain’s electronic messengers—and their signaling pathways, along with the simultaneous accumulation of toxic protein plaques and fibrous tangles in the brain. The result is progressive deterioration of memory, behavior, and personality.

Cognitive dysfunction affects 40 percent of pets older than 11, with signs and severity progressing as pets age. According to one study, 28 percent of cats 11 to 15 years old and dogs 11 to 12 years old demonstrated one or more signs of impairment, while 50 percent of cats and 68 percent of dogs older than 15 showed significant changes in behavior, personality, and sleep patterns.

Cognitive dysfunction warning signs

A visit to Johnson County Animal Clinic is necessary to rule out other causes for your pet’s behavior changes. Many senior pet diseases, including kidney and cardiac disease, brain tumors, diabetes, and cataracts, can resemble cognitive dysfunction. In addition to a physical examination and lab work, our veterinarian will ask about your pet’s different behaviors, including any common signs of cognitive dysfunction. The questions will likely include:

  • Is your senior pet having accidents in the house? Accidents are not always a break in your pet’s house training. When senior pets begin eliminating in the house, a medical issue may be indicated. Dogs with cognitive dysfunction may simply forget to urinate or defecate while they are outside, and have an accident soon after returning inside. Senior cats may eliminate along the path to the litter box, but note that they may also avoid using the litter box because of urinary health issues, or arthritic pain when stepping into a high-sided box. 

Supervise your senior dog outdoors, and confine them to a small space or provide potty pads if you suspect they may have accidents in the house. Provide low-sided litter boxes for cats in accessible locations.

  • Does your senior pet get lost in familiar places? Memory decline can cause senior pets to forget familiar things, such as their home layout. Your pet may be confused, appear lost in the corner of a room, or wait at the wrong side of the door. Dogs may forget their route on their daily walk. Senior pets also may wander out of their yard, become disoriented, and be unable to find their way home.

Never leave a senior pet outside unattended, and use barriers, such as doors and gates, to prevent escape. Ensure your pet is microchipped and wears a collar with updated contact information at all times.

  • Is your senior pet’s internal clock all wrong?Aging pets with cognitive decline often sleep during the day and are more active at night, which can disrupt your household. The cause of this sleep-wakefulness reversal, known as “sundowning” in people, is not entirely understood. This behavior also can be unsafe for your pet, so restrict their access to stairs, doggy doors, and tall beds, to prevent injury, or confine them to a crate or room at night. 
  • Has your pet’s personality changed? By the time their pets reach their senior years, devoted owners know all their traits and quirks, and seeing unrecognizable behaviors such as anxiety and aggression in a previously calm, affable pet can be alarming. Changes may include:
    • Energy level Senior pets may become lethargic and disinterested, or more active, hypersensitive, and anxious.
    • Social behavior Pets may seek less or more social interaction with family. Pets who previously sought their owner’s constant company may start hiding. Cats with cognitive dysfunction commonly vocalize more.
    • Defensive behavior Fear, confusion, and diminished vision can cause a pet to react defensively, and growl, hiss, swat, or bite a perceived threat.
    • Obsessive-compulsive habits Repetitive behaviors, such as licking, circling, pacing, or air-snapping, are common in senior pets with cognitive dysfunction.
  • Does your senior pet fail to recognize you or other family members? Once recognizable faces of family and friends may blur. Pets with impaired memory may hesitate to greet their owners, shy away from being petted, or be fearful and wary of approaching family members. This can be an especially emotional challenge for pet owners, and can strain formerly strong bonds. The lack of recognition may also lead a pet to react defensively, and retreat, vocalize, swat, or bite.

How is a pet diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction?

A cognitive dysfunction diagnosis cannot be confirmed while a pet is alive, so the diagnosis has to be one of exclusion. All other medical conditions must be ruled out before presuming a cognitive dysfunction diagnosis. 

At Johnson County Animal Clinic, we strongly recommend that you seek veterinary attention at the first indication of change in your senior pet. While cognitive dysfunction cannot be cured, early diagnosis offers a chance of slowing disease progression. Contact  our clinic and let us help your senior pet enjoy as many of their grey muzzle years as possible.