Written By: Erica Sandberg, DVM,  Senior Paws

Has your senior pet been behaving differently recently? Have you found your dog stuck under the table or your cat pooping outside of the litter box? These could be signs of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), more often known as dementia. CDS is a progressive, irreversible and under-diagnosed syndrome that has some similarities to Alzheimer’s disease in people. Unlike people with Alzheimer’s, pets with advanced dementia do not ultimately lose the ability to eat and drink. It’s important to know the signs of CDS so that we can help more earlier in the process.

CDS can be evaluated by using the acronym DISHAA:

  1. Disorientation: You may see your pet getting lost in familiar environments or staring off into space. 
  2. Interactions: Your pet could have new or different reactions to their family members or other animals in their household.
  3. Sleep-Wake Pattern Disruption: Your dog or cat may be restless at night. Night waking is unfortunately very common, especially in dogs. This can be an exhausting symptom for both the pet and the family. 
  4. House Soiling, Learning and Memory: Your pet that has been house trained or litter box trained for years may be urinating and/or defecating indoors/outside of the litter box. 
  5. Activity changes: Pets may have increased or decreased activity levels. They could have increased movements such as pacing in laps around the house. Or they may have less interest in toys or playing. 
  6. Anxiety: Dogs may have increased separation anxiety when their family is not home or may be more fearful of new places or people. 

Not all dogs and cats will exhibit changes from all of the categories mentioned above. The most common signs of CDS in dogs are anxiety, night waking and repetitive or high-pitched vocalizations. The most common signs in cats are house soiling and increased vocalizations, especially deeper sounding meows. 

How can I help my pet? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Modify their environment for enrichment and interaction. Introduce new smells in the form of scented chew toys. Use a puzzle toy or Snuffle Mat for their food. If your pet likes to look out the window, open the blinds and keep a bird feeder nearby. Elevate food and water dishes for taller dogs. Lower litter boxes for older cats. 
  2. Consider diet changes, medications and supplements: Antioxidants and omega fatty acids are good for the brain as well as other areas of the body. Prescription diets such as Hill’s Prescription Diet b/d and Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind can be beneficial for brain health. Medications can be prescribed depending on your pet’s symptoms and other medical conditions.
  3. Prioritize your pet’s health. Make twice yearly veterinary appointments for senior pets to screen for common medical conditions, assess vision and hearing, and consult about behavior changes. Using the Purina Institute’s CDS Evaluation Tool, which can be found on the internet, you can assess your pet regularly and share this information with your veterinarian. As a team you can work together to provide your pet the most comfortable life at home in their senior years.