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Humans aren’t the only species that can develop dementia – a condition known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome has been reported extensively in dogs as well as cats, horses, and rabbits.

A man embraces a pet dog while a ginger cat looks on.

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is common among domestic animals, with researchers estimating it affects 36% of cats aged 11+, 28% of 11-12-year-old dogs, and a staggering 68% of dogs aged 15-16. Interestingly, the brains of dogs with CDS display similar physical changes to those of people with Alzheimer’s disease, such as the presence of certain proteins and shrinkage in similar brain regions.

However, CDS remains underdiagnosed due to lack of awareness – pet owners often assume the symptoms are a part of normal ageing, rather than dementia. Another issue with diagnosis is that many of the symptoms of CDS overlap with other conditions such as diabetes, deafness, and osteoarthritis.

How to spot CDS

As with dementia in people, the symptoms of CDS begin mild and gradually get worse over time. The first signs to look out for are changes in behaviour, being active and vocal at night, and going to the toilet around the house. It is also common for animals with CDS to walk around seemingly aimlessly and become disorientated or confused, even in settings that should be familiar to them.

Canine cognitive dysfunction – the form of CDS that affects dogs – may cause dogs to feel agitated, confused, irritable or anxious, and less motivated to play. They may also forget learned commands or routines and be slow to learn new tasks. Other symptoms can include developing new fears, staring blankly, and pacing around.

Cats with CDS may either neglect their self-grooming or experience the opposite extreme with behaviours such as excessive licking. They may either avoid social interaction or become increasingly clingy – because of the range of possible behavioural symptoms it is important to note changes in their normal behaviour. For example, if a cat has never been especially sociable, this wouldn’t be abnormal for them, but if they started to seek more attention from you, this could be a sign of CDS.

CDS has been less well researched in other domestic animals such as rabbits and horses, but there is medical evidence that these species do develop the condition. Equine veterinarians recognise behaviours such as unprovoked aggression, head-pressing, frequent yawning, and changes in eating or drinking patterns as signs of CDS in horses.

How to support pets with CDS

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia in any species – human or animal – or any medication that targets the underlying causes of the condition. However, it may be possible to treat the symptoms, depending on what they are. For example, if a dog has developed a phobia due to their CDS, an accredited behaviourist can help reduce their fear. Similarly, there are certain anti-anxiety medications that can help relieve animals’ distress.

If your pet has CDS, it is important not to make dramatic changes to their environment, such as rearranging furniture or redecorating. If changes need to be made, then it is best to introduce them slowly to allow time for your pet to adjust to them gradually. Maintaining a single area with all your pet’s belongings – e.g., their bed, food and water bowls, toys, and toilet box – can help limit confusion and distress as it makes it easier for them to find everything they need.

Creating a daily routine for a pet with CDS by feeding them at regular times each day and going to bed at a similar time can provide comfort and stability. Make time in this routine to engage with your pet to give them as much mental and physical stimulation as possible. Keeping them up during the day can also help them sleep through the night.

Enriching your pet’s diet with antioxidants designed to support brain function may help delay the progression of CDS. There is limited research on dementia in pet rabbits, but a controlled study found that rabbits fed a high-fat diet are more likely to develop symptoms of dementia. Therefore, avoiding foods high in cholesterol (a type of fat) may help to prevent or slow dementia in rabbits.

 

If you suspect an animal has CDS, it is always best to seek professional advice and support from a vet. To help advance research into CDS, you may wish to consider donating your pet’s brain to science, through initiatives such as the Companion Animal Brain Bank and the Canine Brain and Tissue Bank.