“He’s wandering around and panting at night. He’ll get up every 2 hours and ask to go out, then just stands there in the yard. Everyone in the house is exhausted.”
“She has definitely developed selective hearing. I know she knows her name but sometimes she is obviously ignoring me.”
“He’s started messing in the hallway. He’s never done that before! I think he’s mad at me.”
“She’ll often just stand facing a corner. I have no clue what that means.”
These are common complaints from caregivers of aging pets. What does it all mean? Are they getting lazy, stubborn, or cranky?
Maybe not. Any of the above can be signs of an underlying medical problem, including Cognitive Dysfunction (called CCD in dogs, or CD in dogs or cats). Here’s what you should know, including how to recognize signs that should prompt you to discuss CD with your veterinarian.
Cognitive Dysfunction is Vastly Underdiagnosed
In a 2011 study of 497 dogs aged 8-19 years, 14.2 percent had signs consistent with CD, but only 1.9 percent had a diagnosis on file. Why is that? Caregivers may attribute these changes to normal aging, stubbornness, or behavioral problems. Signs can be vague and often overlap with other diseases common in older pets. Awareness that CD occurs more frequently than we once thought is spreading slowly in the veterinary profession. You may need to be proactive in bringing up your concerns at the vet clinic.
When You Should Suspect Cognitive Dysfunction
A handy mnemonic has been developed for signs of CD – DISHA (yes, it used to be DISH and then they added a category!).
D – Disorientation. Pets may vocalize and be fearful, develop phobias, or hide.
I – Altered Interactions. May show indifference or aggression toward familiar humans and pets.
S – Sleep-Wake Cycle Disturbances. May pant, pace, wake frequently, have difficulty getting settled, and/or sleep all day.
H – House-Soiling. May start having accidents inside home.
A – Activity Changes or Anxiety. May lose interest in toys or playing, vocalize, develop fears and phobias.
Diagnosing CD can be trickier as other medical conditions can cause similar signs. Plus, there’s no test for CD, so it’s a diagnosis of exclusion – meaning everything else has been ruled out first!
There’s No Single Treatment for CD
Unfortunately, there’s no magical cure-all, but there are some things you can do to improve your pet’s quality of life. You’ll get the best results by utilizing strategies from each of the categories below.
- Medications may help control symptoms such as disorientation and anxiety. The best known pharmaceutical treatment is selegiline. Sedatives and antidepressants can help restore normal sleep and reduce anxious behavior. Melatonin and pheromone therapy may also be helpful.
- A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants help maintain normal brain metabolism and reduce inflammation associated with brain lesions. If changing the diet is not possible, some of these nutrients may be available as supplements. You should work closely with your veterinarian to determine the best options for your pet.
- Offering mental stimulation can help brain cells grow and survive. Physical exercise, exposure to new environments, playing games, food puzzles, games, and social interactions all improve cognitive ability. In the evening, you can create a restful environment with lavender oil, pheromones, and music.
The bottom line is that if your pet is doing things differently than they used to, it’s time to schedule a checkup and talk to their doctor. While CD can’t be cured, you can make life easier for both you and your beloved friend.
Benzal, A.S. and A.G. Rodriguez. Recent developments in canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. (2016) Pet Behavior Science, Vol 1 (pp: 47 -59). Retrieved from http://www.uco.es/ucopress/ojs/index.php/pet/article/view/3996/4053.
Yaxley, P. Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. (2016, October). Presented at the 6th Annual Conference of hte International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Tyson’s Corner, VA.
Salvin HE, et al. Under diagnosis of canine cognitive dysfunction; a cross sectional survey of older companion dogs. Vet J 2006.184:277-81.