Canine and feline cognitive dysfunction (dementia – similar to Alzheimer’s in people) is usually diagnosed in dogs over 10 years of age and cats over 12 years. It is a disease recognized by an onset of behaviour changes in a geriatric pet which cannot be attributed to any other medical conditions. It is a gradually progressive disease in which older animals show more clinical signs.
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction display signs in five categories:
Disorientation – stares into space at ceiling or wall, barks at the ceiling, gets stuck in corners, wanders aimlessly, confused, doesn’t recognize family members or commands
Interactions – apathetic, indifferent, doesn’t participate in activities they used to enjoy
Sleep/wake cycle – keeps owner up at night and sleeps all day, howls or barks at night, sleeps more in a 24 hour period
House Training – Walks outside and seems confused, then urinates or defecates inside, no longer signals to go outside
Activity/anxiety/aggression – plays less, increased anxiety or aggression
Cats with cognitive dysfunction generally show signs associated with:
House Soiling, excessive vocalization – especially at night, apathy, less play and change in aggression.
If your older pet is experiencing any of these signs it is essential that your veterinarian is consulted to rule-out any underlying medical condition which may be an underlying cause (ex. arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, seizures, cancer, hearing or vision problems….) In most cases a thorough physical exam and some diagnostic tests (blood work, urinalysis, radiographs..) can rule out a medical problem so that treatment for cognitive dysfunction can begin.
Treatment for cognitive dysfunction is similar to other behavioural problems and includes behaviour modification, enrichment, safety recommendations and medication as needed. In dogs, Anipryl (selegiline) is an approved drug for cognitive dysfunction and can help restore the sleep/wake cycle and slow the progression of the disease. Nutritional therapy and some nutraceuticals (SAME) have been shown to be helpful in treatment of cognitive dysfunction in cats and dogs with limited to no side effects. Environmental enrichment tools (ex. variety of toys..), predictable routines, retraining of certain behaviours (house training) are very important in the success of any treatment plan. In geriatric cats that are no longer using the litter box, once medical issues have been ruled out, the height, size and location of the litter box should be evaluated. Often times the older cat may have difficulty with stairs, and climbing in and out of the litter box, so having one available on all floors that is large and easy to get into ( low sides) is very important.
As our pets live longer, geriatric behavioural/medical issues will become more common. Regular consultation with your veterinarian is paramount in diagnosing and treating these issues and improving the quality of your old friends golden years.
Reference – lecture OVMA conference Toronto Jan 2013 – Dr. Lisa Radosta (DACVB) Florida Veterinary Behaviour Service