Cognitive Dysfunction


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A good number of my clients are surprised to hear when I say that dogs and cats can suffer from cognitive dysfunction or cognitive decline syndromes. Often times, owners attribute perceived changes as a part of aging— they think Penny is “just growing old.” While this may certainly be true, veterinarians are increasingly recognizing that some of these changes (e.g., sensory loss, accidents in the house, altered behaviors) may be signs of a syndrome known as cognitive dysfunction. So what does cognitive dysfunction mean?

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome refers to a collective disease of neurologic decline and deterioration in both dogs and cats. Using humans as a comparison, it is helpful to think of Alzheimer’s or dementia as similar types of disease. So like us, cats and dogs can suffer from neurologic dysfunction impairing their senses, memory, behavior, etc. Similarly, although there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, therapies do exist that can help delay the progression of disease. Hence the importance of early detection, diagnosis and treatment. The goals of this article are to outline (1) recognition of cognitive dysfunction, (2) diagnosis of the disease, and (3) treatment options that exist. Of course, as with any disease, especially in aging pets, I also engage my clients in having a discussion on assessing the patient’s overall quality of life.


So what types of signs might alert you as an owner that your pet may have cognitive dysfunction? And how can you distinguish them from signs simply related to aging? It is not always easy. Fortunately, veterinarians have made various acronyms to encompass the changes that are often associated with canine and feline neurologic decline. One more commonly used acronym is “D.I.S.H.A.A.L.” Dogs and cats with cognitive dysfunction often display Disorientation; they have changes to their social Interactions with owners or other animals; they can have disruption to their Sleep/Wake cycles often waking owners repeatedly throughout the night; a previously litter-box trained cat or house-broken dog may start having repeated House-soiling accidents; their normal or typical daily Activity may become altered; they may show signs of Anxiety; finally cats and dogs with cognitive dysfunction will likely have reduction in their Learning and memory unable to respond to previously trained cues or commands. The more of the following changes your pet displays and the more severe the signs, the higher likelihood that Fido or Mittens has some degree of cognitive decline:

■ Disorientation

■ Interactions

■ Sleep/wake cycle

■ House-soiling

■ Activity

■ Anxiety

■ Learning and memory


If you have come to the conclusion that your dog or cat may have cognitive dysfunction, what is the next step? Talk to your veterinarian! (And I don’t just say this because I’m a vet.) The reasons you should consider a discussion with your pet’s veterinarian are two-fold. There are multiple medical conditions aside from cognitive dysfunction that can cause similar neurologic signs. Hence the importance of further diagnostics such as bloodwork, urinalysis, possibly X-rays and further tests to rule out diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease, endocrine disorders, cancer and many others. Your veterinarian may also have questionnaires or handouts with further detailed information on cognitive dysfunction. And of course, he or she will be able to help determine which therapies may best benefit the patient.


To date, therapy for cognitive dysfunction is limited. There are few drugs available that have definitively been shown to address the cognitive decline in our pets. However, there is one drug available in the U. S. called “selegiline.” This drug has effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, primarily dopamine, and works to increase its availability in the brain, thereby promoting improved brain function. It is one of the few drugs that has been shown in research to delay the progression of cognitive decline in our pets. Interestingly, it is also a drug that has been used to some extent in human patients suffering from Parkinson’s.

In addition to drug therapy, there exist a number of supplements and diets that may be used in treatment for cognitive dysfunction. The main principle behind either supplementation or diet is the addition of various anti-oxidants, medium chain triglycerides and vitamins that are thought to help counteract damage from free-radicals and other damaging molecules in the body. I would recommend having a discussion with your veterinarian, who can help with choosing a prescription diet or supplements.

Lastly, an often overlooked aspect of treatment includes behavioral enrichment at home. Patients with cognitive dysfunction often show marked improvement in their signs when committed owners make a few small changes in the household. Such changes include a structured daily routine (which will help a pet with memory decline and to reduce anxiety), daily short training sessions or multiple walks throughout the day for mental stimulation, a variety of interactive toys, and many other creative ways to engage your dog or cat. I recommend looking online for videos of other innovative owners who have taken steps to keep their older pets active and mentally healthy.


So, if you think your beloved furry friend may be showing signs of cognitive dysfunction— don’t despair! Remember, the sooner we recognize, diagnose and treat the disease, the more positive the outcome. There are many steps you can take to slow and even prevent the progression of the disease. Contact your veterinarian, who should be more than happy to have a discussion with you regarding your senior fur baby’s cognitive function to ensure they have a comfortable and positive quality of life, long into their golden years.

VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital located at 71-075 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA. (760) 346-6103. Visit

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