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How to Help Your Senior Dog With Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

You look so familiar...I wish I could remember who you are.

You look so familiar...I wish I could remember who you are.

The Aging Canine

One of the changes you may notice as your senior dog ages is that he or she is not as alert. In fact, you may find your best friend standing still in the middle of a room or circling around the yard as if puzzled by his or her surroundings. Even worse, he or she may act as though they have no idea who you are.

While you will want to have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out any other health issues, he or she may be suffering from cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Dr. Cathy Alinovi, veterinarian and pet parent, talks about symptoms, treatment, and other issues that dogs suffering from CDS may experience.

Q1: What is cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (which is also referred to as CDS) is known as doggie Alzheimer’s. With our pets, the warning signs are similar to those manifested by aged humans who start to lose their short-term memory and then eventually receive a diagnosis of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s.

Q2: What causes a dog to develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: As with humans, the lack of mental exercise combined with poor quality food leads to build-up of a protein in the brain that interferes with brain function.

Q3: What symptoms would alert pet owners to their pet's problem?

Dr. Cathy: Any behavior changes can be a warning sign of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, and these changes can be subtle, or they can be obvious—for instance, standing in the corner, walking in circles, wandering aimlessly, or inappropriate potty accidents.

Signs of Aging: Graying Muzzles and Fur

Graying muzzles and moving slower are part of the aging process; CDS is not.

Graying muzzles and moving slower are part of the aging process; CDS is not.

Q4: Is developing cognitive dysfunction syndrome a part of the normal aging process in dogs?

Dr. Cathy: Neither cognitive dysfunction syndrome nor Alzheimer’s are normal. Normal aging means a little slowing down, it does not mean dementia. Aging means developing a bit gray on the muzzle, not standing in the corner confused and disoriented, or walking aimlessly in circles as if searching for something or someone.

Q5: Could these symptoms be a sign of other medical problems?

Dr. Cathy: The most common cause of behavior change in an older dog is a bladder infection. Older dogs have weaker immune systems and don’t always know that they have a bladder infection.

What Does Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Look Like?

Common Symptoms of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome


Changes in appetite


Inappropriate urination or defecation

Increased barking

Increased painfulness

Sleep cycle disturbances

Q6: How do vets diagnose cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: The diagnosis is usually made by exclusion. In other words, once all the other health issues are ruled out, and if the dog is over 11 years old, then cognitive dysfunction syndrome is often the diagnosis.

Some typical symptoms would be aggression in a normally easy-going, friendly dog, disorientation, or inappropriate accidents from an otherwise well-housetrained pet (See the table for a more comprehensive list of possible symptoms).

Your vet may want to do an MRI, which is diagnostic; however, without the MRI, the more symptoms the older dog has, the more likely the diagnosis will be cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

If you have been faithful in taking your pet in for regular checkups, and if you have your vet do a wellness consultation as your dog enters his senior years, you'll be providing your vet with solid baseline data that will help them make the best diagnosis for your pet about health issues such as CDS.

Old Age and Quality of Life Issues

As dogs age, they need regular veterinary evaluations to ensure their health and well being.

As dogs age, they need regular veterinary evaluations to ensure their health and well being.

Q7: Are there non-drug treatments for cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: Absolutely! Anything that stimulates the brain slows or prevents the development of cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Brain exercises, chiropractic treatments, exercise such as walking, and sniff games all stimulate the brain.

Q8: What medical treatments or interventions are used for treating it?

Dr. Cathy: Anipryl (selegiline) is the most commonly prescribed Western medication for cognitive dysfunction syndrome patients. Some patients improve with melatonin, valerian, ginkgo biloba, and/or liver detoxification. Many owners find hiding treats and working on sniff games can help brain function.

Q9: How does diet play a role in treating dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: Feeding your pet a great diet, and by a great diet, I mean real food, not commercially prepared dog food, reduces inflammation and decreases the risk of protein deposits in the brain.

The more inflammatory the food is because of toxic ingredients such as corn-based ingredients, by-products, dyes, and so on, the more damage is done to the brain.

Real food—in other words, the same foods you would eat—is the least inflammatory, (think meat and veggies). Feeding no grain is best, because grain is inflammatory.

Anti-oxidants added to the food help quite a bit. Vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene, and L-carnitine are all good choices for dietary supplementation.

Cognitive Dysfunction in Senior Dogs

Q10: How valuable is exercise in treating these dogs?

Dr. Cathy: Exercise is crucial. The more your dog moves, the more your dog’s brain is stimulated. Movement can also help reduce pain. Aging dogs are more likely to have arthritis, so if these dogs don’t move as much as they should, the pain will reduce brain function. Moving reduces pain and sends great signals to the brain for better overall function.

Q11: What is the prognosis for dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: Sadly, cognitive dysfunction syndrome occurs in a dog’s golden years. Because they are the golden years, there is less time ahead than time behind. If a dog truly has cognitive dysfunction, things slowly decline. For dogs that have a reason for the mental decline, like a bladder infection, it is a reprieve. Geriatric dogs deserve a great quality of life for as long as possible, so anything that helps the brain work better buys more time for your precious pet.

Q12: What tips do you have for helping pet parents cope with their dog's cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: Just because your dog is getting old and may have mental decline does not mean you have to leave your dog alone. It means the more you interact with your pet, the more quality of life your dog has. The more you are involved in your aging dog’s life, the more he or she will feel your love, which results in giving both of you a quality relationship until the end.

When your dog no longer wants to do his favorite things, it is time to consider how good his quality of life is. There are many health problems you can expect as your senior dog ages such as suffering from cognitive dysfunction syndrome, congestive heart failure, or diabetes. As long as he or she is enjoying life and not suffering, it is easy to make the decision to keep enjoying life with your beloved pet. However, once the quality of life diminishes, you may have to face an end-of-life decision.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Donna Cosmato