If your pet has cognitive dysfunction—canine or feline dementia—you may have noticed that he seems to be more anxious than in the past. That’s a common side effect of the condition, but there are ways to manage it.
Aging dogs and cats have problems similar to those of elderly humans, and not just physical ones: changes in the brain can lead to something very much like human dementia. A pet with what’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome can have signs such as disorientation, sleep disturbance, forgetting housetraining, and changes in how they interact with family members. They may get lost in their own home or go out in the backyard and seem to forget why they’re there; they may become more aloof or more needy than when they were younger.
Along with all these changes can come increased anxiety, not only for affected animals but also for their humans, because this change in life can be upsetting to watch. The good news is that you don’t have to stand helplessly by–there are things you can do to help.
Rule Out Other Causes
Your vet will diagnose CDS by ruling out possible physical explanations for the signs, some of which can be caused by other age-related conditions. Behaviorally, make sure you’re addressing other issues common to older pets. For instance, if your dog isn’t responding to cues that you’re sure he knows, he could be losing sight or hearing.
You can teach new hand signals to a dog who’s losing hearing or even use tactile cues, says Debbie Martin, Fear Free certified veterinary technician specialist in behavior. “A touch on the shoulder can be a cue for them to do something or a touch on the collar means move toward me and you get a treat.”
Appearing not to understand a known cue may also be a sign of pain. One of Martin’s old dogs who has orthopedic problems stopped responding to “sit.”
“She looks at me like ‘I heard what you said,’ but you see the hesitation, and her sit looks different now,” she says. “So I just don’t ask for that anymore–we do things that look more comfortable.” Undiagnosed pain is also common in older cats and may be a reason for litter box problems, so make sure the box is easy for them to get into.
Dealing with Disorientation
For pets who get lost in the house, you may want to restrict wandering by using baby gates or closing doors to rooms where they tend to get stuck. Make sure this doesn’t increase their anxiety—often indicated by whining and pacing at that door—and give them comfortable alternatives such as more beds in rooms where they have access. For cats, provide more litter boxes so they don’t have to search as hard if they seem to be forgetting where the box is.
Sleep disturbance can be disruptive for both pet and owner—everyone is more stressed when they don’t get enough sleep. This can also be a result of pain, but once that’s addressed there’s more you can do. One thing for any older pet is to provide a warm area to sleep. “They tend to be more sensitive to temperature just like people are when they get older,” says Martin. Electric bed warming pads designed for pets and microwavable warmers can help.
Making sure their minds are stimulated during the day will also help with sleep, and with cognition in general. Your dog still needs to get tired to sleep well, so now that he’s not physically up to a lot of exercise, that means getting him mentally tired. Veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta, DVM, says there’s good research proving that mental enrichment works to improve cognition, and there’s plenty you can do even if your older dog has physical limitations. One of her clients has a large pit bull who can’t go for walks anymore. “He puts him in a wagon and pulls him down the street,” she says. “He’s out, he sees the birds, he smells different smells. Every sense that is stimulated is enrichment.”
Scent enrichment is an especially low-impact idea that we often don’t think of because we’re less oriented to smell than our dogs. Martin brings back handfuls of mulch, an idea she got from a friend with a senior dog: “Anything that her other dog spent a lot of time sniffing, she’d take some of the grass or whatever it was and put it in a baggie and bring it back to the dog who can’t walk.”
It’s also important for them to keep learning. You can teach old dogs new tricks, even if they have cognitive dysfunction. Be patient, and be positive, says Martin, “Be okay with the fact that if the dog doesn’t respond it’s not the end of the world.”
Radosta suggests teaching your dog one new behavior each month. Keep training sessions short, just five minutes a couple times a day. You may also want to consider a fun, not too physically demanding class such as tricks or nosework. “Your dog just needs to learn something; it could be super simple,” she says. “Don’t get on his case if he can’t learn it fast; it’s just that you’re stimulating him to think.”
Along with these management and training ideas, your vet may be able to help with medication. Radosta says it’s important to make sure your pet first has a thorough exam, including bloodwork, thyroid test, and blood pressure measurement, to make sure any medications used for anxiety are safe for her. A drug called selegiline (Anipryl) can be prescribed for pets with CDS (it’s used off label in cats). It isn’t effective for all animals, but a significant percentage of those who take it experience improvement. Be aware that it can take up to 12 weeks to see results, and alert your veterinarian to any medications or supplements your pet takes to avoid undesirable drug interactions.
Radosta also says certain supplements have good research behind them showing effectiveness in improving cognitive function. They include a product called Senilife, and Denamarin and Denosyl, which contain a substance called SAM-e. Purina and Hill’s make diets for cognitive health whose benefit has been shown in clinical trials. She also says you should consider these products for all older dogs, even if they’re not exhibiting signs, since studies show that subtle signs of cognitive dysfunction can be found in dogs as young as 8: “If your pet dog is 10 or older, you should be supporting his brain health.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.