Humans aren’t the only ones who suffer memory loss and impaired brain functionas we age—it can also happen to our pets. In dogs, it’s called cognitivedysfunction syndrome, or CDS, and unfortunately, many of its symptoms arebrushed off as “normal” aging.
Of course, a significant loss of mental acuity is anything but normal. To geta better idea of how CDS presents and what treatment looks like, I interviewedDr. Elizabeth Stelow, DVM, DACVB, a veterinary behaviorist at the Universityof California, Davis who runs their veterinary teaching hospital’s BehaviorService program. This is almost everything you need to know to keep your pethealthy today, tomorrow, and for years to come.
Know the signs of cognitive dysfunction
You can’t help your pet if you don’t know what to look for, so the first stepis knowing what CDS looks like. It usually presents with similar symptoms toage-related cognitive decline in humans; the classic signs are summarized bythe acronym DISHAAL, which stands for:
- Alterations in interactions with owners, other pets, and the environment
- Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, sometimes with pacing or panting
- House soiling
- Changes in activity , either increase or decrease
- Increased anxiety
- Learning and memory changes, like failing to pick up new tricks and/or forgetting ones they once knew
The diagnostic criteria can vary from case to case, but in general, a middle-aged dog showing two or more of these symptoms indicates “a high index ofsuspicion,” Dr. Stelow explains. Some symptoms are obvious: If your dogdoesn’t seem to recognize you anymore, suddenly starts sleeping during the day(and wanders around whining at night), and seems to have forgotten trainedcommands, they’re probably experiencing cognitive dysfunction.
But Dr. Stelow tells Lifehacker that sometimes, the signs aren’t always clear.“This [sounds] so random but it’s so not: If you ever see a dog go to a closeddoor and stand at the hinge side waiting for the door to open, assume it’scanine cognitive dysfunction,” she says. “They just go to the wrong side ofthe door and they’re insistent that that’s where the door’s gonna open … Itdoesn’t happen to all dogs with cognitive dysfunction, but dogs that do [this]invariably have [it].”
Cognitive dysfunction in cats looks a little different; namely, the list ofsymptoms is much shorter. A loss of house training and increasedvocalization—“So, a cat that walks around the house crying to nobody and aboutnothing,” as Dr. Stelow puts it—are usually the only signs cat owners willget. Either of these symptoms on their own could be reason enough for acheckup, but if your cat is doing both, it’s important to ask about apotential cognitive cause.
Monitor all the symptoms
You can’t prevent or reverse CDS, but as a pet owner, there are some thingsyou can do to help. The first and most important is to know what all thesymptoms look like, not just the ones that could make your life harder. “Wetell veterinary students that the [symptoms] that bring owners screaming intoyou are the loss of house training … and change[s] in sleep/wake cycle … Thoseother things, sometimes they just shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s old age foryou,’” says Dr. Stelow.
Don’t be too quick to write off weird behavior as “just old age.” If you havea middle-aged or senior pet, don’t wait for them to start pooping on thecarpet or keeping you up all night before taking them to the vet. Those couldbe their only symptoms, but the idea is to make sure you don’t miss otherones.
Try puzzle feeders, training, and sports for a mental workout
Physical exercise is important for pet health, but when it comes to CDS, Dr.Stelow says that mental exercise is just as big of a deal. Food puzzles andtoys are some of the best tools we have for keeping our pets’ minds engaged:“Almost everybody should be feeding their pets out of food toys and puzzlesanyway—it helps stave off stagnation in the brain,” she says.
In the same vein, Dr. Stelow recommends interactive training, even (andespecially) for cats—but for fun, not obedience. Learning new skills keepsyour pet’s brain occupied and is engaging for both of you. If you’re not surewhere to start, try thinking of cute or otherwise desirable stuff your petalready does: “It’s easy to capture behaviors,” Dr. Stelow explains. “Youdon’t think about teaching cats to sit, but it’s a behavior that they engagein.” High fives, handshakes, and coming when called are all great startertricks for a cat.
Dogs can also learn new tricks, of course, but if you really want to challengethem, Dr. Stelow recommends getting involved in a sport. Your options arealmost limitless: Agility, scent tracking, musical canine freestyle (aka dogdancing), dock jumping, dog surfing, disc dog, canicross (cross-countryrunning with dogs), sled racing, and search and rescue, to name a few. Evenlower-key dog sports require enormous mental effort, which is exactly what youwant.
Training and sports are more than a mental workout—they also strengthen yourrelationship with your pet, which is hugely important to their mental andemotional well-being. They can’t get that connection from anyone else: You’retheir best buddy.
Change (or supplement) their diet
Switching up your pet’s diet to one with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) mayalso help mitigate CDS symptoms. MCTs, which are usually extracted fromcoconut oil, have been used in brain health diets for years. The theory isthat MCTs break down into ketones, which the brain can absorb and use asenergy instead of, or in addition to, glucose. Basically, MCTs (and ketones)give the brain another energy source to fuel various brain-related activities,which may be helpful for people whose brain function is impaired for onereason or another.
The same is true for dogs, at least in theory. There’s limited research tosuggest that dog food enriched with MCTs helps CDS symptoms. Dr. Stelowrecommends Purina Bright Mind because it’s available over-the-counter and is“moderately rich” in MCTs. (Higher levels are geared towards epilepsytreatment and may be overkill for CDS.) There are several MCT-enriched petdiets on the market, though, so be sure to discuss with your vet.
Supplements may help your pet, too, particularly those with antioxidants. Dr.Stelow says that Denamarin and Senalife are most commonly used for brainsupport. They won’t turn back the clock, but they fall firmly in the “can’thurt, might help” category.
The cool thing about all of these interventions, from puzzle feeders tosupplements, is that it’s never too late to start. “Once a dog or a cat hitsmiddle age, it’s perfectly appropriate for an owner to say, ‘I’m going tochange your diet to something that’s got MCTs in it, I’m going to put you onan antioxidant supplement,’” Dr. Stelow says. “But if you’re starting to seeclinical signs, you kick them into high gear.” She also points out that petowners often taper off training and high-intensity play when their companionshit middle age, right when both become extra important for cognitive health.So keep playing with your older pets: Challenge them with puzzle feeders,interactive toys, training, and even sports.
As helpful as special food and training can be, the most importantintervention is to pay attention to your pet’s behavior throughout their life.It’s the only way to tell what’s normal and what isn’t. Dr. Stelow put itbest: “Old age is not a disease,” she says. “If you’re seeing clinical signsof a disease, don’t call it old age.”
Source:By A.A. Newton
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