Welcome back to Lyndale Animal Hospital’s educational blog! Today we will be discussing a topic only recently recognized in the veterinary field. Cognitive dysfunction is defined as a degenerative neurological disorder that can affect both dogs and cats. The changes seen in the brains of our pets mimic those seen in older people affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. While we do not completely understand the cause of these diseases, we do know the brains of our affected patients get smaller and do not function as effectively. This can cause a variety of changes at home. 

Both cats and dogs can be affected by cognitive dysfunction. We generally consider this disease in patients that are over the age of 9, with it becoming increasingly common with advanced age. It is estimated between 14-35% of geriatric dogs and 28-50% of geriatric cats will be affected.

Cognitive dysfunction can cause a variety of changes at home. We often use the acronym DISHAAL to remember the possible behavioral changes – disorientation, changes in social interaction, sleep/wake cycle changes, house soiling, changes in activity level, anxiety, or changes in learning and memory. For example, a dog affected with cognitive dysfunction may sleep during the day but spend the night pacing and anxious. They may also become lost in the house, stare into space, or start to urinate and defecate in the home. Cats may become more clingy or less social. They may have decreased grooming and could start to show excessive vocalization. All of these changes are possible with cognitive dysfunction, and each patient may present differently. 

If you suspect your pet may be affected by cognitive dysfunction, it is important to discuss next steps with your veterinarian. Many of the changes we can see could also be due to other medical causes, so it is important to rule these out during the diagnostic process. It can be difficult to definitively diagnose cognitive dysfunction without advanced imaging such as an MRI, and even that can be inconclusive. We often use a combination of suspicion based on clinical signs and ruling out other possible causes to come to this diagnosis. 

Unfortunately, no treatment exists to reverse or stop the progression of changes that come with cognitive dysfunction. There are some changes that can be implemented to help manage clinical signs and slow the progression of disease. Anipryl is the only FDA-approved medication for the treatment of cognitive dysfunction in dogs. Your veterinarian can help determine if this medication is the right choice for your dog. There are also multiple diets on the market that have shown promising results in supporting healthy brain function. Some enrichment activities, such as puzzle toy feeders or nose work, also seem to slow the progression of this disease. There are many supplements purported to help with cognitive dysfunction, although most have little research behind their claims. Finally, some patients benefit from general anxiety medications. Please work with your veterinarian to determine the best comprehensive treatment plan for your pet. 

While there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction in pets, with the right care many dogs and cats can live with a good quality of life for years after they start showing signs. If you are concerned your dog or cat may be showing the signs outlined above, please contact our office to set up a visit to discuss your concerns with a veterinarian.