Recognising and Living with Dementia in Cats and Dogs.

Dementia isn’t a condition that solely affects humans; it is recognised in many animal species too. In dogs, dementia is actually so similar to Alzheimer’s in humans that those canines suffering with it are used as reliable representatives in studies of early stage Alzheimer’s.

As veterinary medicine improvements mirror human medicine improvements, more of our pets are living to an older age and therefore symptoms of cognitive dysfunction are becoming more common.

As your pet ages, there are changes occurring within their brain that can cause its degeneration and affect your furry family members’ thinking, learning, memory and recall capabilities. Impaired blood flow, loss of neurons (nerve cells), bleeding within the brain, and brain atrophy are just some of the disease processes that happen and contribute to dementia in your pet.

There are several different names that dog and cat dementia is also called: Canine Cognitive Syndrome, Dog/Cat Alzheimer’s, and Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome; they all mean the same thing though. If you suspect that your pet may have dementia, there is a handy acronym you can use:

DISH. DISH stands for D-isorientation, I-nteraction, S-leep and Activity and H-ouse Training; those with cats can add an extra A too = Anxiety.

Even if your fur-baby exhibits one, or more, of these signs, it doesn’t automatically mean that they have dementia. Older pets may simply have hearing or sight loss that is reducing their level of interaction, and many infections (especially urinary tract ones) can cause confusion and/or altered behaviour. Diabetes Mellitus can lead to your cat or dog soiling in the house before being diagnosed and treated, too.

Currently dementia is still under-diagnosed in younger animals, despite research showing that it could be present in dogs aged just six years old. Approximately 14% of dogs aged 8-plus are thought to have the condition, with that percentage rising sharply as age increases. The reason that dementia in felines and canines can go undiagnosed is that when it first presents, it can look very similar to other conditions, so we Veterinarians have to gradually eliminate possible culprits one by one.

At Saint Leonard Veterinary Centre we would take blood and urine samples to rule out impaired Liver and Kidney, Diabetes, and under-active Thyroid, and a referral to a behavioural specialist may be needed too in order to get a firm diagnosis. We would then prescribe drugs to prevent further nerve damage in the brain and we would also suggest changing your pets’ diet as another way to protect the brains cells.

Dementia can be insidious in your beloved pet at home, revealing itself over a long period of time before you realise that something is amiss with Fido or Kitty. One common sign of dementia in dogs is them waking in the night; something that obviously gets missed easily because we’re busy getting our quota of shut-eye (Jesse permitting, in our house currently!). Quite often, pain can be a contributing factor when animals are unable to settle, particularly at night; if you think your pet may be in pain then please come and see us here at SLVC – prescribed veterinary pain relief will make a significant difference to your fur-baby’s comfort levels.

If you happen to have a particularly vocal fur-baby, another sign that gets missed at first is vocalising; for those of you whose pets tend to be quieter and more reserved, you’ll notice this more.

However, one of the signs of dementia that’s impossible to not notice is toileting/soiling in the house. Kitty may no longer know what their litter tray is for, and Fido may squat or cock a leg against anything appealing at that moment!

Your furry companion may have periods where they’re disconnected with life around them and stare vacantly into space in an awful ‘lights-on-but-no-one-at-home’ scenario. Alternatively, they may pace around or wander aimlessly, and even get stuck behind furniture and not “know” how to get themselves out.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking thing of dementia though is when your fur-baby ceases to recognise you – this doesn’t happen in every case though. You may not be the source of comfort to them that you once were, and they may not be as keen to snuggle up, or have fuss, as they used to be. I think that this is the hardest part of pet ownership; when you have to “hold it together” for them as you see their personality and joy gradually fade.

BUT…. it isn’t all doom and gloom, so don’t despair; there are things that you can do to make their lives better.

Keep a good routine going; familiarity lessens confusion and disorientation, so don’t move things from room to room if possible. Audio cues (TV or Radio) in rooms they spend a lot of time in can prompt your beloved pets to remember where they are.

As frustrating as house soiling and night-time vocalising can be, try to empathise with your fur-baby and not get cross with them. It won’t change anything and you’ll only upset yourself and them. Keeping them stimulated can help stave off a rapid decline in their quality of life, and it also means that you spend quality time with your treasured pet. The key is to be guided by them; sometimes they may be up for a spot of re-learning forgotten skills, other times they may not want to bother at all.

Remember though that, as always, the team at SLVC are just at the end of a phone for advice or to make an appointment. Don’t forget that you can also book appointments via our new online system too.

Until next time; stay safe, stay well and be happy 🙂