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What Is Cognitive Dysfunction?

If you have ever had a senior pet, you may have noticed that as they age their behavior can change. Just like people, cats and dogs can get behavioral changes that can look a lot like changes we see in elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Cognitive dysfunction usually presents itself later in a pet’s life. It usually has a slow and gradual onset. Just like the rest of the body, the brain begins to deteriorate as our pets age. In some cases, the deterioration causes changes in the physical and chemical makeup of the brain resulting in a decrease in your pet’s cognitive function.

All senior pets are at risk. One study that was done on 180 dogs between 11-16 years of age showed that 28% of 11 to 12-year-old dogs and 68% of 15 to 16-year-old dogs had at least one sign of cognitive dysfunction. Clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction that may be seen include loss of interest in food, altered sleep/wake patterns, difficulty being able to move around, disorientation, staring into space, yowling or barking at nothing, reduced hearing, and eyesight, anxiety, restlessness, loss of housebreaking skills, and obsessive behaviors (i.e. excessive barking, licking, etc.).

There is no specific diagnostic test for cognitive dysfunction. If you notice any of the clinical signs mentioned above, you should speak with your veterinarian. A good physical exam and neurological exam may be needed to rule out other possible underlying issues. Blood work may also be recommended to rule out other potential causes for some of the behaviors listed above.

Old dog with treat

Treatments To Help With Cognitive Dysfunction

Once a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction has been made, a plan should be formulated on how to best manage the signs that you are seeing. There is no way to prevent cognitive dysfunction and there is no cure for it. There are treatments to help with some of the behaviors that may be seen, and there are supplements available that may help slow the progression of the disorder and support brain function, but there is still no cure.

A diet by Purina was developed for dogs a couple of years ago called Bright Minds. The diet is rich in brain-boosting supplements that help the brain get more glucose which in turn helps with memory function. Purina did studies with the Bright Mind diet and they showed that the diet did help improve cognitive function.

There are supplements that may help brain health such as L-deprenyl and SAM-e. There are very few studies on these two supplements, but the studies that did take place were promising. For animals that develop sleep disturbances, supplements such as melatonin can help normalize an animal’s sleep pattern. Before using any supplement, make sure that you consult your veterinarian for the proper dose and to make sure that the supplement will not interfere with the medication your pet is already on. Remember, cats and dogs are not small humans, and they metabolize medicine and supplements differently than people do.

Environmental enrichment can also really help keep an older pet’s brain sharp. Teach them new tricks, find problem-solving toys and games to play. Keep their minds engaged! One of my favorite things is puzzle balls which make the pet work for their treats or meal. It gives them exercise and helps keep their mind engaged.

Dog with sad eyes waiting for feeding. Old labrador retriever lying near empty bowl in home kitchen.

Watching your pet get old can be frustrating and heartbreaking. I watched my Labrador Lily pace through the house at night when she was still alive. Sometimes she would get stuck in a corner and couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. You would have to go over to her and turn her around. Now I have a cat that will randomly walk through the house at night yowling.

Animals with cognitive dysfunction can still have great lives. Hopefully, as research progresses on the human side, we will see new treatments become available for our pets.


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