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Natural Awakenings Northwest Florida

When Older Pets Get Quirky: Dealing With Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Dec 30, 2019 06:30AM

Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock.com

by Julie Peterson

As dogs and cats get older, they may slow down or have other physical issues. Some experience cognitive decline which resembles Alzheimer’s disease in humans. It presents differently in every pet and can include numerous symptoms that begin gradually, sometimes just seeming like quirky behavior instead of a disease.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) can affect dogs or cats, and there is currently no known cause or prevention. Progress has been made on Alzheimer’s research in humans, with neurologists discovering that plaque buildup in the brain does not cause the disease: That is the immune system’s response to the disease. Necropsies on dogs with CDS have shown similar plaque buildup in the brain.

“Unfortunately, little research has been done regarding this condition, so we can only hope to use human studies to gather information that will help our affected pets,” says Dennis W. Thomas, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in Spokane, Washington, and author of Whole-Pet Healing: A Heart-to-Heart Guide to Connecting with and Caring for Your Animal Companion.

With no test available for CDS, pets are diagnosed by excluding medical and behavioral problems that can resemble having the ailment.

Signs to Watch For


Issues that could point to CDS include:

  • Confusion or disorientation: standing in a corner, difficulty walking through doorways, walking in circles or trouble following familiar routes
  • Decreased activity: sleeping excessively, seeming withdrawn, lack of grooming, loss of interest in toys, people or food
  • Restlessness, anxiety or compulsiveness: waking often at night, whining or yowling, new fears, pacing or constantly licking
  • Attention seeking: wanting to be near humans and showing high distress when left alone
  • Incontinence: soiling the house after previously being house-trained
  • Irritability or aggression: growling/hissing or biting without cause

These troubles could also be indicative of a treatable condition, such as a urinary tract infection or an injury, so it’s essential to have the pet examined.

Caring for the Patient


While CDS will continue to alter brain and nerve function, there is some hope for pet lovers faced with the diagnosis in the early stages. Thomas recommends a natural approach that includes diet modification, filtered water, vitamin and herbal supplements, and eliminating stress. Diffusing calming essential oils can be helpful for dogs (and humans), but is not recommended for cats.

Kathryn Sarpong, DVM, a veterinarian at Metro Paws Animal Hospital, in Dallas, also recommends dietary changes to her patients. “Recent studies have shown that medium-chain triglycerides may be helpful, and they are in some senior pet foods. Supplementation of melatonin may help with sleep-wake cycles.”

Anxiety often becomes part of the animal’s new normal, but pet parents can help cats and dogs with this by keeping them as active as possible, introducing new toys and interacting. “Keep your dog’s mind active by providing games and opportunities for play. Daily walks provide not only exercise, but also mental stimulation,” says Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D., executive director of The Grey Muzzle Organization, in Washington, D.C.

Pets with anxiety or pain may benefit from cannabidiol (CBD) products. Clarissa Valdes, a homemaker in Homestead, Florida, has a 15-year-old cat with CDS. Minini would wander around in the house, looking lost. Then, the all-night howling sessions began. “We started to worry that she was in pain,” says Valdes. However, a veterinarian diagnosed CDS. “The vet suggested medication, but I wanted to go in a natural direction,” says Valdes, who started Minini on CBD oil. The cat finally slept through the night. A month in, Minini is doing better overall.

With time, CDS patients may lose hearing or sight in addition to experiencing a progression of symptoms. “Make sure your home is predictable and safe,” says Lunghofer. Use gates to close off stairs or move furniture or other items that could be hazardous.


Prevention on the Horizon


Because inflammation caused by an inappropriate diet is the underlying problem of most chronic diseases in pets, Thomas believes that prevention for CDS is possible. “Feeding a non-inflammatory, species-specific, balanced diet that is fresh and not heat-processed is critical,” he says.

In addition, he advises his patients get probiotics, digestive enzymes, omega-3s and antioxidant nutrients. Vaccinations, when necessary, should not contain heavy metal preservatives. “The goal is to keep the gut and immune systems healthy, avoid toxins that affect the nervous system and minimize environmental stress.”


Julie Peterson writes from her home in rural Wisconsin. Contact her at [email protected]
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