Understanding animal dementia
Dementia affects around 850,000 people in the UK and animal experts believe it can affect our pets, too. Vet Brian Faulkner explains the signs and what owners can do to help
Does dementia exist in animals?
In a nutshell, yes. It’s usually known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in animals, and vets are seeing more cases among cats and dogs as pets live longer. Rabbits could potentially suffer, too, but their shorter lifespan means we’re less likely to notice the symptoms of senility. Generally, if your pet is doing normal things (such as eating and toileting) but more slowly, it’s probably just old age. But if your pet has lost normal functions and routines, CDS could be the reason.
It sounds tough...
It can be upsetting for owners to see a pet’s behaviour change, but CDS doesn’t cause any pain. And unlike human dementia patients, who often find it hard to lose their independence, our pets already rely on us for things like food, routine and comfort (dogs in particular).
Will keeping my pet mentally alert prevent CDS?
Games and exercise can definitely help to keep it at bay. For dogs, that could include some gentle, positive reinforcement-based training (sit, stay, heel, etc), simple food puzzle toys, and nose-work (hiding treats for your dog to find by scent). Cats can also be encouraged to play with toys and chase feathers. I believe anything that makes an animal think and react is more likely to work the brain muscle.
At what age do pets get CDS?
The clinical signs can be seen in half of all dogs over the age of 11. By the age of 15, as many as 68 per cent will display at least one symptom. CDS also seems to occur earlier, and accelerate faster, in large dog breeds. There are now more than two million elderly cats in the UK, and studies suggest that as many as 28 per cent of them aged 11 to 14 develop at least one old-age-related behaviour problem. This increases to over 50 per cent among cats aged 15 and over. If your pet is regularly showing some of the signs listed below, have a word with your vet.
But can my vet help my pet?
Although there’s no single test for CDS, your vet can rule out other conditions that could cause the same symptoms – such as brain tumours or high blood pressure – and then work out a plan of action. There’s no cure for CDS, but nutritional supplements can help, including antioxidants, coconut oil and omega-3 fatty acids. Your vet can also prescribe medicines to either slow down progression of CDS, or treat individual symptoms such as anxiety and sleeplessness.
Is there anything I can do?
Yes – owners can do a great deal to help their pets cope with CDS. Keep daily routines familiar, and avoid moving furniture around. Try not to startle your pet, and minimise stressful situations such as visiting unfamiliar places and meeting strangers. Make it as easy as possible for your pet to go to the toilet and be patient if accidents do happen. Above all, show your pet plenty of affection and compassion.
Common behavioural signs of CDS
- Randomly calling out, especially during the night
- Doing the same things over and over again – such as pacing back and forth
- Forgetting routines, cues or trained behaviours, such as house-training
- Not responding when called by their name
- Looking lost or confused, or staring into space
- Going into tight spaces and staying there, or getting trapped under furniture
- Being startled easily or showing signs of anxiety
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Trembling for no apparent reason
- Having trouble finding the food bowl, or showing a loss of appetite
- Falling off things, or finding stairs tricky to manage
- Sleeping more in the daytime, and less at night
- Finding it hard to learn new things
- Losing interest in games and play