Cognitive Changes in Your Senior Pet

What is Cognitive Dysfunction?

Cognitive functions include the mental processes of perception, awareness, learning, and memory, which allow an individual to acquire information about the environment and decide how to act. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is a neurobehavioral disorder affecting geriatric dogs and cats that is characterized by an age-related decline in cognitive abilities sufficient to affect functioning, with behavior changes that are not attributable to other medical conditions.


  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness/wandering/circling
  • Extreme irritability
  • Decreased desire to play
  • Excessive licking
  • Seeming disregard for previously learned training or house rules
  • Slow to learn new tasks
  • Inability to follow familiar routes
  • Excessive barking or whining
  • Lack of self-grooming
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Changes in sleep cycle(e.g., night waking, sleeping during the day)


As pets age, the brain atrophies, meaning that the cells die. This likely impacts brain function. Small strokes and other accumulation of damage may also have a role in canine cognitive decline.

The exact causes are not known, but many of the same changes that cause problems as people age are likely to also cause problems as our pets age.


You will need to give a thorough history of your dog’s health to your veterinarian, including the onset and nature of the symptoms and possible incidents that might have precipitated the unusual behaviors or complications.

They will then perform a complete physical examination to evaluate your dog’s overall health status and cognitive functions.

Routine blood tests, ultrasounds and X-rays are also employed to rule out other diseases that may lead to behavioral changes associated with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.


Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome require lifelong therapy and support. However, you can make a world of difference when it comes to improving your dog’s cognitive functions.

For example, although it will not “cure” your dog, maintaining a healthy and stimulating environment will help slow the progression of cognitive decline. This typically involves imposing a daily routine of exercise, play and training (re-training).

Making your home more accessible and safer for your senior dog can also help:

Night lights can help your senior dog navigate in the dark.

Potty pads near doors give your pup a place to go if she can’t make it until you come home or wake up.

Orthopedic foam beds (with washable covers) can make sleep more comfortable.

In addition, medication and behavioral therapy can be used to help keep your dog comfortable and active.

Your veterinarian may also suggest employing a special diet to improve your dog’s cognitive function in terms of memory, learning ability, etc.  This diet is typically supplemented with antioxidants, vitamin E and C, selenium, flavonoids, beta carotene, carotenoids, omega-3, and carnitine—all considered excellent for improving a dog’s cognitive functions.

Life Expectancy?

Since canine cognitive dysfunction is a degenerative process that occurs in a dog’s senior years, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, life expectancy can be a tricky prognosis to make.  If a dog is otherwise healthy, then the dementia will eventually diminish your dog’s quality of life, but there has not been a specific timeframe established.  The best way to monitor your dog’s health and cognitive functioning is to work with your veterinarian and track your dog’s quality of life. This will help you determine when your dog is letting you know it’s time.

Vet Visits?

Your veterinarian will evaluate your dog periodically to monitor their response to therapy and the progression of symptoms.  However, if you notice any behavioral changes in your dog, notify your vet immediately.  In geriatric dogs, any change can be serious, so it’s important to talk to your veterinarian at the first sign.  If your pet is already showing some of the signs of cognitive dysfunction, make an appointment for an evaluation today.