Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs: what you should know

Petplan’s veterinary expert Brian Faulkner answers some of the most commonly asked questions about dementia in dogs.

Rather like us, our dogs can experience changes to their brain function, memory and awareness as they age. This condition is known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs, and can be similar in its effects to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Here, we look at how to spot CDS in dogs and help manage the condition – and what you can do to provide extra care for a pet experiencing ‘doggy dementia’.

Many dogs experience behaviour changes in later life, and the early symptoms of CDS in dogs are not always obvious. Here’s a checklist of some of the most common signs to watch out for: 

Confusion and disorientation

Your dog may seem lost in places they know well, or stare blankly into space. They may become forgetful about regular routines, activities or commands.

Social changes

You may notice your dog interacts less with family members and other dogs. They may seem more withdrawn, or even depressed.

Anxiety and neediness

Your dog may become more fearful, when once they were confident. Are they more upset than they used to be at being separated from you? Do they howl and bark for no apparent reason?

Appetite loss/increase

A dog with CDS may go off their food – although this can obviously be a sign of other health issues. Alternatively, they may seem to forget when they’ve eaten and keep going back to their bowl, expecting to be fed.

Toileting accidents

Peeing or pooing in inappropriate places can sometimes be a symptom of CDS in dogs.

Sleep alterations

Your dog may sleep more during the day, and become more wakeful and noisy at night, perhaps pacing around with no purpose.

CDS in dogs can be difficult to spot, and it’s easy to misread these signs. A dog’s sleep cycle changes throughout their life. For instance: arthritis can make your dog more reluctant to move; disorientation may be due to failing eyesight or hearing loss; toileting problems could also signal a urinary infection or age-related incontinence. As ever, if you’re worried about any symptoms or behaviour changes in your dog, always talk to your vet.

Canine dementia can develop in dogs as young as eight or nine, but is more common in later life. The majority of cases go undiagnosed until the symptoms become more pronounced. Research suggests that around a quarter of dogs aged 11 to 12 may show at least one sign of the condition, and two-thirds of dogs aged 15 to 16.

Diagnosing CDS in dogs is often a process of elimination, so start by consulting your vet. It may be helpful to take along notes about your dog’s recent behaviour patterns. The vet may carry out diagnostic tests to rule out other health problems first before a diagnosis of CDS can be reached.

Although it’s not clear exactly what triggers CDS, we know that it is linked to a breakdown of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain which carry messages around the brain and body. In a dog with CDS, normal behaviour and responses can become scrambled and erratic.

CDS affects all breeds. Some research suggests that CDS affects smaller dogs more frequently – but this may be because smaller breeds often live longer than bigger breeds, so are more likely to reach an advanced age and develop the condition.

While there’s no cure for CDS, thankfully, it doesn’t shorten a dog’s life expectancy. Your vet will be able to advise you on a broad management plan to help slow the progress of the condition and allow your dog to get the best out of their days.

If appropriate, your vet may prescribe the drug selegiline hydrochloride, which increases antioxidant activity and has been shown to benefit dogs’ sleep cycles, toilet habits, activity levels and mood.

There are also supplements or formulated diets available that are designed to help maintain healthy brain function in ageing dogs. These typically include omega oils to improve antioxidant levels.

Seeing signs of confusion or distress in an ageing pet can be heartbreaking – but there are a number of ways to help keep a dog with CDS as calm and contented as possible:

  • Make sure home is a safe, happy place. Try not to carry out any major rearrangements around the house, unless an object has become a hazard for your dog. Keeping everything in its usual spot will help them feel confident in their surroundings.
  • Keep your dog mentally stimulated – puzzle games, regular exercise and fun training activities will all keep those neurones firing. As long as it doesn’t distress your dog, ensure they get plenty of social interaction with their favourite human and four-legged pals.
  • Stick to simple commands, and practise their basic training regularly – with treats – to refresh skills like recall.
  • Wherever possible, keep walking an older dog to maintain their overall health – but if they’re prone to becoming disorientated, keep them close by or on a long lead. This is also a sensible precaution in case your dog becomes confused or fearful around other dogs and gets into confrontations.
  • If your dog’s sleeping habits are changing or they’re howling at night, adapt your home and routine to help them cope.
  • Don’t get cross about confused behaviour or toilet mishaps – remember, your dog is doing the best they can. Your patience and support can help them enjoy a healthy and comfortable old age.

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