The Omlet Blog

Dementia in Pets

Dementia is not a uniquely human condition. Many older pets suffer the condition known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), and the effects are often subtle. 

Photo by Pacto Visual on Unsplash

The problem first becomes noticeable when pets’ behaviour changes. For example, a dog may not respond to your voice, or will stand with its tail down, looking anxious. Cats may ‘disappear’ for several hours, or even days, and any affected pet may seem suddenly uncertain of its surroundings, sometimes cringing, sometimes running away.

What is pet dementia?

As with human patients, dementia in pets results in memory problems, leading to confusion, disorientation and anxiety. The causes for this are the same as those responsible for Alzheimer’s and other types of human dementia. Destructive proteins may build up in the brain, and these cause individual brain connections to stop working. Plaque build up is another cause, as is a build-up of phosphorus.

Which pets can get dementia?

Two pups bolster

Cats and dogs are the most common victims of CDS, although other mammals such as rabbits, Guinea 

pigs and ferrets may show similar symptoms. Shorter-lived mammals such as hamsters and gerbils are not affected by dementia.

Long-lived birds such as parrots, intriguingly, do not usually show dementia symptoms. Research has shown that they lack a dementia-linked variant of a gene known as GSK, something found in most animals (and even plants). This gene causes the build-up of phosphorous in the brain, and this impacts a protein called tau, which in turn triggers Dementia symptoms.

What are the signs of dementia in pets?

Most animals are very stoical and do not like to let you know when they are in pain. CDS is a different matter, though, as it causes your pet’s natural defences to go down, and you can often spot the tell-tale signs. 

These are some of the signs of dementia in pets.

  • Confusion. In the middle of everyday activity such as a walk or a trip from one room to another, your pet will become indecisive or may bolt for a safe spot for no apparent reason. Other symptoms include growling, raising the hackles, or shaking.
  • Disorientation. Your cat or dog might become anxious, or stop in its tracks, in a familiar place – even indoors where they spend most of their time. Temporarily forgetting where they are, they may feel trapped, and their panicky or fearful body language – or sounds – will make this clear.
  • ‘Accidents’ indoors. Pets with CDS may suddenly forget that they’re not supposed to relieve themselves indoors. This is often linked to disorientation and confusion rather than loss of bodily control. They may wake up in the night, thinking it’s time for the morning routine of nipping outdoors for a morning trip to the pet bathroom. Cats might forget the location of the litter tray or cat flap.
  • Odd sleeping patterns. A change in sleeping patterns can be a sign of CDS. Dogs may become restless at night, or sleep away from their usual beds or baskets. Outdoor cats may decide to sleep rather than heading out for their usual night on the tiles, or may be restless during parts of the day when they would usually be curled up and asleep.
  • Change in personality. Any big change in behaviour in an older pet could be an early sign of CDS. An outgoing pet might become withdrawn, and a quiet pet might be grumpy or aggressive.  Affected pets might temporarily forget who certain family members are, or might suddenly treat fellow pets with suspicion.
  • Memory loss. This classic symptom of dementia is often the first sign of CDS in a pet. They will stop responding to commands or may struggle with things they have managed for years, such as stairs and the quickest route home on a walk. 
  • Loss of energy. Although there can be physical sources of sudden ‘laziness’, it is also one of the symptoms of dementia. In addition to not being as active as usual, an affected pet might pace up and down like a caged animal, or stand on the spot gazing around in apparent confusion.
  • Changes to vocalising. A quiet pet might start making a lot of noise, or an inveterate ‘woofer’ might fall quiet. There might be an increase in barking or meowing at night.
  • Change in appetite. This goes both ways – a pet with CDS might become a glutton (forgetting that they’ve already eaten), or might not want to eat at the usual time at all.
Dog exercise

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

How can I treat dementia?

There is currently no cure for pet dementia, but there are medicines available to help reduce the symptoms and even slow down the progression of the illness as your pet ages. These treatments are only available from vets, so that’s the place to go as soon as you suspect CDS in your pet.

As ever, prevention is an even better cure, and by keeping your pet active and fit through exercise and games, you can help their bodies and brains alike. Diet plays as big a part in this as exercise, so keep the healthy food coming and go easy on the unhealthy snacks. A supplement that includes omega-3 fish oils is very beneficial, too.

Once the CDS has begun to manifest daily, there are still things you can do to make life easier for the afflicted pet.

  • Don’t make unnecessary changes in the environment in which the pet spends most of its time. Keep furniture where it is, and don’t make changes to the beds or baskets.
  • Remain calm and don’t change your behaviour. If you shout at a cat or dog because it’s soiled the floor, it will only add to the problem and cause your pet’s anxiety levels to rocket.
  • ‘Lead the way’ if disorientation sets in, encouraging your pet to follow you into a room, or back to the house. With dogs, a lead should always be taken when you are on a walk. 
  • Don’t stop family members from interacting with the pet, even if it seems to have temporarily forgotten them. 
  • Play games that help keep the pet’s brain active, like training (if they can manage it) or puzzle games.
  • Try retraining your dog to sit, stay and come when you call – and retrain those toilet skills too, if possible!

If the vet prescribes medication and a change in diet, make sure you stick to the new regime. Interventions that support brain function, including medicines and food supplements, can make a big difference. Although dementia changes a pet’s life, it does not automatically mean that they will stop enjoying life. Think of it as eccentricity rather than a disaster, and you’ll all continue to enjoy a wonderful pet/owner relationship.

This entry was posted in Pets