More and more dogs and cats are living well into their elder years. This means that, like grandma and grandpa, pets are more likely to suffer from a kind of dementia called cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS.
“CDS is a progressive disease of the brain in older dogs and cats,” says William Fortney, DVM, assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University. “Impairment in [pets’] memory, learning, perception, or awareness is common.”
What symptoms (called “signs” in animals) suggest that your older pet might have CDS? According to Julie K. Byron, DVM, MS, DACVIM, a clinical assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois, “There’s actually an acronym for the signs of cognitive dysfunction: DISHA.” DISHA stands for:
- Interactions with humans and other pets have changed
- Sleep-wake cycle changes
- House soiling
- Altered activity levels
“Basically, [owners should look for] things like increased anxiety, loss of previously learned skills such as housetraining, nocturnal anxiety, altered appetite, changes in grooming (usually a decrease), and decreased responses to stimuli,” she says.
Fortney adds that cats may also display a desire for more attention, become more jealous, be more irritable, be less mentally alert, and have altered sleep cycles.
“In felines, the disease starts at a much later time frame [than in dogs],” Fortney says. “Dogs may exhibit symptoms at age seven, while cats typically do not until 12-15 years of age.”
If your pet exhibits one or more of these signs, talk to your veterinarian. Your pet could have CDS or another ailment.
“If an older pet is experiencing behavior changes [like those described in this article], the owner should seek the opinion of a licensed veterinarian,” Byron says. “There are a number of diseases such as organ disease, endocrine problems, hyperthyroidism, and other brain diseases that can [also] lead to these signs.”
CDS is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that your veterinarian will have to rule out other diseases first. Be prepared to have your pet tested for other ailments (including arthritis) before coming to the conclusion that the animal has CDS.
“Because other disease processes may be present, those need to be addressed first (especially those that are painful), and then you can see if the signs improve. If not, then the pet may have CDS,” Byron says.
There is no cure for CDS. But there are treatments. New drugs and new uses for existing drugs evolve rapidly. Ask your veterinarian about the best treatment for your pet.
In addition, some veterinarians recommend supplements in the diet, such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and other antioxidants. However, there has been little or no research conducted to support that these products actually work.
Your veterinarian may also recommend that you take your pet to a veterinary behavior specialist or a neurologist. One of the easiest things you can do to help your older pet is to continue to play with it and keep it active, says Byron.
“Environmental enrichment [such as] exercise and toys and retraining for lost behaviors like house-training [are important]. Just as in humans, the ‘use it or lose it’ theory applies to pets,” she says.