Greying whiskers and aching joints are not the only indications that your pet is aging. As in humans, longevity takes its toll on the pet mind. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is a progressive age-related neural deterioration caused by plaque formations in the brain. Both dogs and cats can suffer from this irreversible dementia-like condition. CDS is often first noticed as uncharacteristic behavior and personality changes.

Do not dismiss your senior pet’s behavior as “old age” without first checking the following questionnaire, and a full veterinary examination at Somerset Animal Hospital. Answer “Yes” or “No” to these questions:

Question #1:  Have you found your pet aimlessly wandering around the house or yard?

Somerset Animal Hospital (SAH): Pets with CDS may become disoriented in familiar surroundings. Senior pets may go to the wrong side of a door to be let in, stand in a corner, or be unable to find their way out from behind furniture. They may also be coping with vision or hearing loss, so determining the primary cause can be difficult. In addition, many senile pets wander from their yards and become lost. The inability to comprehend their surroundings makes them at high risk for being hit by a car or attacked by another dog. 

Keep updated identification on all pets, especially seniors, and do not leave them unattended outside.  

Question #2: Has your senior pet lost  interest in social interactions?

SAH: Mental confusion may cause your senior pet to lose interest in social contact. They may sleep more, spend more time alone, decline petting or affection, and stop playing with toys, and engaging with other house pets. Instead of leaping up to greet you, pets with CDS may walk away, hang back in uncertainty, or not get up at all.   

Question #3: Does your senior pet stay active at night, and sleep during the day?

Senior pets suffering from cognitive decline have a deranged internal clock, making them active and agitated during the evening and night hours. Dogs commonly pace or circle at night, while cats are more likely to vocalize. This inverted schedule is similar to a condition called “sundowning” that occurs in human dementia patients. The reason for sundowning is unknown, but a lack of routine and regular exercise may worsen signs.

Question #4: Is your senior pet having urinary and fecal accidents?

Many owners first notice CDS when their pets begin having accidents in the home. They become alarmed when their pet, who always had excellent house training or litter box skills, suddenly starts urinating or defecating inappropriately. Accidents because of CDS may occur in front of the owner, signaling a pet’s lack of cognitive awareness. Dogs may no longer indicate their need to go outside. When outdoors, they may forget to eliminate. Similarly, cats may visit the litter box, but wander back out and urinate or defecate nearby.

Question #5: Has your senior pet’s activity level increased or decreased?

CDS can trigger anxiety or lethargy. Previously independent pets may become agitated, restless, and easily startled. They may follow you closely, or demonstrate repetitive behaviors, such as licking, chewing, circling, or pacing. Alternatively, pets may become inactive and sleep throughout the day. 

Question #6: Is your senior pet clingy and hypersensitive to their surroundings?

Confusion creates anxiety, and pets experiencing CDS are often frightened. Your pet may feel uneasy and constantly seek your attention and reassurance. Hypersensitive pets may overreact to ordinary distractions such as a loud noise, a dropped object, or sudden movements. Rather than recover quickly, pets with CDS may be so terrified that they flee, or react with fear-aggression (e.g., scratching, hissing, growling, or biting). 

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above six questions, schedule a senior pet examination

Any aging pet whose behavior is changing should be examined by a veterinarian. Senior pets may be coping with multiple medical conditions that significantly alter behavior and temperament, including:

  • Pain — Pain can lead to antisocial behavior, such as defensive aggression. House soiling may occur because your pet is avoiding painful postures, such as squatting to urinate or defecate.  
  • Weakness — Age or disease-related muscle loss can make pets too tired to interact, or to travel to the litter box or yard.
  • Sensory decline — Vision or hearing loss can affect a pet’s ability to self-orient. Vestibular disease, similar to an inner ear imbalance, may cause loss of coordination.
  • Endocrine disorders — Poor functioning thyroid, adrenal glands, or pancreas may alter pet behavior and personality.
  • Organ failure — Liver and kidney failure can cause a toxin buildup that changes pet behavior and urination.
  • Brain tumor — Benign or malignant tumors can impact all aspects of pet behavior.

For many medical conditions, therapeutic management can resolve the personality-changing side effects and improve your senior pet’s quality of life. CDS can be determined only by ruling out all other medical conditions. While CDS has no cure, medication, nutrition, and environmental modifications can significantly improve your pet’s comfort, and may reduce or delay disease progression.

Contact Somerset Animal Hospital to schedule an appointment if you have any concerns about your senior pet, or they are due for their regular check-up.