By Matthew Kearns, DVM
People often ask me of their aging pets, “do dogs and cats get Alzheimer’s disease or dementia?” The answer is both no and yes. Although the terms Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are not used in veterinary medicine, pets can have behavioral changes similar to that as their brain ages.
MRI’s on aging pets have revealed that the brains of dogs and cats both decrease in size and develop pathologic changes. Pathologists have also evaluated the brain tissue on deceased pets and found changes within the tissue itself such as a degeneration of cells and buildup of something called amyloid plaques. The disorder is called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CDS for short.
The behavioral changes associated with CDS can be summarized in the acronym DISHA: Disorientation, Altered Interactions with people or other pets, Altered Sleep-wake cycles, House-soiling, and Altered activity levels. Other behavioral changes could also include a decrease in sensitivity to any stimuli and an increase in agitation or anxiety.
Impairment in memory or learning is not as affected in pets as compared to humans with cognitive decline but the ability to adapt to change may be more pronounced in these pets. The symptoms of other diseases such as brain tumors, infections, glandular disease, organ dysfunction, etc. can mimic CDS so testing is as important as a thorough patient history and physical exam.
The gold standard of diagnosing CDS is using an MRI but most people just are not able to pursue an MRI (MRI’s are both expensive, as well as only available at referral hospitals). However, I recommend some basic diagnostics such as bloodwork, possible X-rays or ultrasound is recommended to rule out underlying diseases before starting treatment.
Treatment includes both cognitive enrichment, as well as medications and diet/supplements. It has been found that training, play and exercise play a key role in slowing the decline of aging pets. Certain medications that increase dopamine levels and/or increase bloodflow to the brain have been found helpful in slowing cognitive decline. Diets that are high in both antioxidants and certain fatty acids also slow the progression of CDS.
If you feel you pet is developing a cognitive decline and are concerned about it make sure to check with your veterinarian.
Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.