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Forgetful Furry Friend? Senility Strikes Pets Too

Coping with cognitive dysfunction syndrome in your aging dog or cat.

Editor's note: This is the second in a trio of columns about issues faced by aging pets.

Is your dog or cat increasingly forgetful, getting “lost” in the corner of a room or seemingly forgetting where the litter box or dog door is? Does Max or Fireball sleep more heavily during the day, then wander aimlessly at night, sometimes yowling or howling? Does the beloved food bowl now hold little interest for a former chowhound or tubby tabby?

If a visit to the veterinarian rules out organic reasons such as an ulcer or cancer for the unusual behavior, your pet may be diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction syndrome—what in humans is called senility or Alzheimer’s disease.

Thanks to improved nutrition, veterinary care and home environments, dogs and cats are living longer, and that means they are developing old-age problems that in the past were rarely seen. The good news is that diet and medication, as well as control of underlying conditions that contribute to CDS, may help slow the progression of CDS and improve your pet’s quality of life.

Signs of Senility

As pets reach extreme old age, 15 plus for dogs and cats, it’s likely you’ll see at least one sign of cognitive dysfunction. The acronym DISH spells out the behaviors that usually signify the condition:

  • Disorientation, such as walking aimlessly, staring at walls, getting “stuck” in corners, or losing balance and falling.
  • Interactions change. For instance, your formerly sociable pet may no longer greet you at the door or may no longer solicit petting.
  • Sleep habits change. Dogs and cats that once slept soundly through the night now move aimlessly through the house, often vocalizing their distress, and then nap during the day.
  • Housetraining becomes hit or miss—more often miss.

Contributing Factors

Some of these changes can be chalked up to cognitive misfires, but others can be dealt with through simple environmental changes or medication. For instance, loss of housetraining may be due more to aching joints than senility. A dog with arthritic hips may come to dread the bang of the pet door on his rear end as he goes through it, and an arthritic cat may find it painful to get in and out of the litter box.

An underlying urinary tract infection can also contribute to loss of housetraining. A urinary tract infection is easy to miss unless the veterinarian takes a sterile sample from the bladder and cultures it, especially in pets with kidney disease or diabetes. The right antibiotic can make a world of difference.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is another factor that can contribute to CDS. It’s common in senior pets, especially if they also have kidney disease or Cushing’s disease. That’s because hypertension affects blood vessels in the brain. Medication—just like Granny Lucille’s—can help lower blood pressure to safer levels.

Helping Pets with CDS

First, rule out other health problems. Some very treatable conditions can masquerade as senility.

If CDS is indeed diagnosed, treatment depends on the signs. Your veterinarian may recommend a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants, or a drug called selegiline (Anipryl), which affects attentiveness and the sleep-wake cycle. Medications and nutraceuticals that offer pain relief from arthritis are also available. Give medication time to work. You may not see improvements until the fifth or sixth week of treatment.

Easy environmental changes can bring about improvement, too.

  • Maintain a routine so your pet eats or goes for walks at the same time every day.
  • Add more litter boxes, especially if you live in a multi-story home. Steps, a ramp or a cut-out can make it easier for your cat to enter and exit the litter box.
  • Feed a diet that contains high levels of antioxidants, which have been demonstrated to enhance brain health.
  • Keep your pet’s brain sharp with play and training. In one study, dogs with CDS that received an antioxidant-fortified diet plus obedience training progressed much more slowly than dogs that received neither.

Most important, be aware of changes in behavior that may signal the onset of CDS. The earlier you intervene, the more chance you have of staving off the signs and welcoming back a pet who once again enjoys going for walks or playing with her favorite feather toy.

Pet of the Week

Looking for a new pet? This week’s featured pet, available for adoption at Orange County Animal Care and pictured to the right of this story, is Lilo. The seven-month-old male Chinese Sharpei mix is a happy pup whose "energy is infectious," according to the shelter. He is active and fun-loving and he is looking for a family to that he can play with. He loves to go on walks and he would make an ideal running partner. He is strong and well-behaved, but he would probably thrive with some basic obedience training. His Pet ID is A1194550.

Rio, last week's Pet of the Week, is still up for adoption.

thejellyfish September 03, 2012 at 03:17 AM
If I do all this nutritional stuff for my dog, does that mean every year on his birthday instead of multiplying by 7 to get his human years, I could maybe multiply by 5. Five is easier for me to multiply by to get the correct number of human years candles for his birthday each year.
Doug Pemberton September 03, 2012 at 04:00 PM
I am reluctantly happy to see that we are not alone with our pets. We have had 5 American Eskimos and right at the 14-15 year mark they all started doing this very thing or things. It makes me very sad to see my little girl "Kita" start exhibiting these signs as her Father, Mother and Brother all did as well. My Kita has always been very active and as she for the most part still is at 14½, she does wander throughout the night and nap much more during the day. However She is still the chowhound. Even though most of her teeth have been extracted. We love our pets as much if not more than family members. Since our pets always are happy to see us and never argue. I really really appreciate this article.. Doug Pemberton
Jim Gardner September 04, 2012 at 11:48 PM
Hi, Wanted to leave some tips that have worked well for my aging cats. When we lived in Newport/Costa Mesa they were inside/outside cats, and when we moved here they continue to like to be outside, which worries us in Lake Forest due to the coyotes. Nonetheless the cats are inside/outside, so... 1. Leave the outside light on so that the cats can see better at night. 2. Provide a night-time "treat" and "play time" so that the cats want to hang around. 3. Be more vocal with them and also use more body language so they have multiple signals. 4. Provide pet beds all through the house so they can flop down wherever they want. You'd be surprised how many different places they use in a day. 5. We go out of our way to give them extra physical contact, and talk to them when we do it. Hope these tips help.

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