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The Art of Aging Gracefully #3: Cognitive changes in the senior pet


In this edition of our Art of Aging Gracefully newsletters we’ll be discussing some of the common cognitive changes we can see in our senior pets and how to manage them. Just as in humans, dogs and cats may have certain genes known as “susceptibility genes” that can predispose them for the development of cognitive dysfunctions. Although these genes aren’t yet mapped, this may be an area of future research in veterinary medicine.


What qualifies as cognitive dysfunction?


By definition, cognitive dysfunction is know as the decline in overall behavioural condition with age, in the absence of causative physical or medical conditions. This essentially means that true cognitive dysfunction is not related to any other medical issues and can occur on it’s own no matter how healthy the pet is otherwise. In cats these changes generally don’t occur until after 10 years of age. For dogs, large breed dogs can be as early as 6 years whereas smaller breeds tend to be close to the 12 year mark. Cognitive dysfunction is also noted to often go hand-in-hand with anxiety disorders which can make them even more difficult to manage. It is also important to realize that this disease generally starts out mild and progresses overtime which can make early diagnosis quite difficult.


What should we expect?


Truthfully, there are several different presentations of cognitive dysfunction in pets. Some of the common behaviours noted are disorientation, becoming more “needy” (or becoming more aloof!), loss of housetraining (in the absence of a true urinary or bowel issue) and changes in sleep cycles. In some cases the pet will exhibit repetitive motion behaviours such as walking without purpose and even getting “stuck” in corners or against objects on their paths. Prior to diagnosis owners will often express frustration, saying things like “they were mad I left them alone so peed in the house” or that the pet is “just looking for attention and whining to annoy us”. It’s important to remember that this is a true disease characterized by the development of actual physical changes to the brain rather than something the pet can control. A better understanding of this condition can help owners to identify symptoms and bring concerns to their veterinarian prior to blaming their pets. It is also important to rule out medical causes of

changes prior to assuming it’s true cognitive dysfunction. This will often require bloodwork and perhaps xrays/ultrasound.


What can we do?


In terms of managing cognitive issues there are several approaches that can be successful. Firstly, punishment of any kind for the “wrong” behaviour should be avoided as this can quickly escalate the pet’s anxiety and render them much less capable of coping or providing the “correct” behaviour. This is especially important with the loss of housetraining as for many older dogs this can be just as distressing to them as to the owner, they simply can’t help it. Instead, during early stages the focus should be on positive reinforcement of the desired behaviours (just like when they were puppies/kittens) as well as mental games such as puzzle toys, low impact fetch, and scent exercises to provide mental stimulation that can delay the progression of the disease. It is also advisable to avoid exposure to distressing situations where possible and to provide a safe space for the pet to be placed when observation is not possible.

This can protect them from physical hazards such as stairs or slippery floors while also doubling as a low stimulus setting to lower anxiety. One example would be to place a bedded crate in a dark quiet place.


Another way to help pets with cognitive changes would be to keep their schedules as consistent as possible. This reduces anxiety and helps with keeping their sleep cycle in check to avoid restless nights for both them and their owners. Examples include feeding at the same times each days, having walks at the same time and regularly timed bathroom breaks.


Finally, in advanced cases there are several supplements and even medications that can aid in managing the symptoms of cognitive dysfunction. Diets that are rich in antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids can help protect the brain from deterioration while medications in the classes known as Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors and Benzodiazepines can be useful in decreasing anxiety, improving brain synapses and ensuring the pet stays comfortable. Conclusion Cognitive dysfunction is a complex and often distressing disease for both owners and pets alike. However, with a good understanding of expectations and how these behaviours can be managed we can maintain the emotional bonds with our pets long into their golden years. As

always, they so deserve it!


Written by Dr Emily Zakrajsek


Don’t hesitate to contact us today to book a senior behaviour consult!

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