Many people are somewhat familiar with Alzheimer's disease, but few know that dogs and cats can also suffer from a similar condition known as cognitive dysfunction.
What is Cognitive Dysfunction?
In short, cognitive dysfunction is a condition that is sometimes seen in older pets. Affected pets may become disoriented easily, even when in familiar surroundings. Their sleep cycle may be abnormal, often sleeping more during the course of the day but less as night. They may lose interest in interacting with the people around them. A previously house-trained dog or litter box-trained cat may even suddenly start having “accidents” in the home.
NOTE: Many of these symptoms can be caused by other medical diseases as well. If your pet’s behavior has changed, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian, who can help establish a firm diagnosis.
What Causes Cognitive Dysfunction?
It is believed that the cause may be multifactorial. Oxidative damage to cells within the brain is probably a major cause. We know that in many dogs affected with cognitive dysfunction, there is a specific protein (B-amyloid) that forms plaques inside the brain. These plaques likely contribute to the cell death and shrinkage of the brain that is characteristic of animals with cognitive dysfunction. In addition, many of the substances that transmit messages within the brain appear to be altered, which could also lead to abnormal behaviors.
How Does Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs and Cats Compare with Alzheimer’s Disease in People?
The two diseases are actually quite similar. The changes in behavior seen with both diseases are comparable. The changes seen in the brain appear to be quite similar as well, at least in some people with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, dogs are increasingly being used as models to study the disease in humans.
What Can You do for an Animal with Cognitive Dysfunction?
There are a number of things that can be done to help. Two specific approaches that have been found to be useful include behavioral enrichment and a diet rich in antioxidants. These two approaches, when combined, are more effective than one or the other by itself.
An antioxidant-fortified pet food may contain enriched levels of vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin E, and fatty acids such as DHA, EPA, L-carnitine, and lipoic acid. It may also contain antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, pumpkin, and/or spinach.
Behavioral enrichment can be as simple as spending more time petting and interacting with your pet. Playing with and/or walking your pet regularly is useful. Puzzles and games can also be a good form of enrichment, such as placing your pet’s food in a puzzle or hiding the food and letting your pet find it.
In my professional experience, one of the most difficult things in dealing with cognitive dysfunction is helping pet owners realize that the changes in behavior are more than just normal aging changes. Cognitive dysfunction is a medical condition and should be treated as such. The early signs are subtle and pet owners may even find them difficult to spot, or they may attribute them to other causes. Many pet owners won’t even mention the changes in their pet unless specifically asked. These owners often assume, incorrectly, that nothing can be done to help, that their pet is simply becoming old.
The best piece of advice I can give any pet owner is to consult your veterinarian if you see any change in your pet’s behavior at home, no matter how minor the alteration may seem. When there is a problem, whether it be cognitive dysfunction or another condition, early intervention is always preferable and usually provides a more successful outcome.
Dr. Lorie Huston
Source: Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study; N.W. Milgram et; Neurobiology of Aging; 26 (2005) 77–90
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