Cognitive Dysfunction In Dogs And Cats

Brain ageing in both humans and pets is the subject of the latest and most topical research and development. By focusing on nutritional micro-management, scientists have been able to achieve remarkable results. Cognitive dysfunction is somewhat similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people.

What age – related behavioural changes would my pet show?

Animal behaviourists identify five distinct areas of behavioural changes:

ACTIVITY Increased wandering, pacing, restlessness. Depression or apathy.
DISORIENTATION Decreased recognition of familiar people, pets or places. Getting lost in familiar locations.
INTERACTIONS CHANGES Decreased interest in interaction or play. Inappropriate vocalisation eg. barking for no apparent reason.
SLEEP PATTERN ALTERATIONS Restless sleep or waking at night. Increased daytime and total amount of sleep.
HOUSE TRAINING Indoor urination or defecation at random sites.Decreased or no signalling of wanting to toilet.Going outdoors but toileting indoors upon returning.

Humans and animals produce harmful chemicals called free radicals on a daily basis. Young healthy dogs and cats produce antioxidants which neutralise these free radicals thereby avoiding damage to brain cells. As pets age, they produce more free radicals but unfortunately their levels of antioxidants deteriorate.

This leads to an excess of free radicals, which can damage the cells of the brain.

Medication and supplements are available to help. Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive condition that will tend to get worse with time. For optimal results treatment should begin as soon as any signs of the condition are seen.


Medication enhances the quality of life in ageing pets. Certain medications increase blood flow to the internal organs, especially the brain, heart and skeletal muscles. They also have a bronchodilatory effect improving oxygen uptake helping to improve the overall demeanour in older pets.


Supplements like Aktivait are available over the counter from your vets. Aktivait combines all the nutrients necessary for sustaining optimum brain function. It helps to prevent free radical damage and improve electrical transmission between nerve cells in the brain. For optimal results supplements should be given as soon as any signs of the condition are seen. They can also be given to dogs and cats from middle age onwards to help maintain normal brain function.

Noticeable improvements have been reported as early as 3-4 weeks after the start of supplementation but this will vary by age, breed and the severity of the changes present.


Diets are available which also help support vitality and brain health.

The Senior Consult Lifestage diets made by Royal Canin, contains a selection of nutrients that help to support vital functions in ageing dogs and cats. This food should be fed as an everyday complete diet for your senior pet regardless of whether they have any ageing signs.

The diet helps:

  • support ageing cells by neutralising the free radicals
  • preserves kidney function by having a reduced level of phosphorus
  • supports brain health by containing L-tryptophan, an amino acid that plays an essential role in the regulation of anxiety, sleep and appetite
  • helps preserve muscle mass which can be lost with old age by containing a specific balanced formulation of amino acids
  • helps maintain mobility  with chondroitin, glucosamine and Green Lipped Mussel extract

What else can I do?

  • Keep your pet fit and at the correct weight by feeding an appropriate senior diet.
  • Take your dog for three or four short walks a day, rather than one long one. This will show benefits both in terms of exercise and also mental stimulation.
  • Practice simple commands such as ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ to reinforce successful responses with rewards like treat or playtime.
  • Hearing deteriorates with age in dogs, so use exaggerated hand and arm signals with your commands. Visual markers can also help combat disorientation.
  • If your dog has started house soiling, help them to relearn the rules by accompanying them outside frequently for example after eating, sleeping or playing. Warmly praise and reward them if they do toilet outside. Never punish your dog if they do house soil, this will only make matters worse.
  • Spend time every day stroking and gently grooming your pet.
  • Keep any changes in their environment to a minimum such as bowl locations or furniture.
  • Try to engage your cat in play-fishing toys and laser pointers can help to stimulate their interest.
  • Make sure your cat has easily accessible and clean litter trays provided in secluded, convenient locations.

Why not answer our Senior Pet Behaviour Checklist and feel free to contact us for more information.

Useful links:
Caring For Your Older Cat
Caring For Your Older Dog
Caring For Your Blind Cat
Caring For Your Blind Dog

Caring For Your Older Cat

You can do a lot to ensure that your cat’s senior years are also golden ones. Your cat will be classed as senior from approximately 8-10 years old.

As your cat grows older it is important to be more observant about their behaviour. Start keeping an eye on them for any indications that they are beginning to feel ready to start taking things more steadily. Age related changes can creep in stealthily and may initially be quite subtle. It can be easy to miss them when you see your cat on a daily basis. Often it is when someone who hasn’t seen your cat for a while, comments on a change in their behaviour or appearance. This often happens when your vet sees them for their annual booster appointment.

Common signs of ageing:

  • Less active
  • Sleeping longer and more deeply
  • Less enthusiastic playing games
  • Reduced or loss of hearing
  • Impaired vision or blindness
  • Coat condition deteriorates
  • Muscle loss
  • Weakness in back legs

Joint Problems

Arthritis is relatively common in older cats although they do not often show the lameness signs we associate with dogs suffering from arthritis. This is because cats are relatively small and agile and they can hide and cover up mobility difficulties caused by arthritis.
Instead, affected cats are more likely to show subtle changes in lifestyle and behaviour. It is thought 20% of the UK cat population shows signs associated with arthritis. Because you know your cat best you are well placed to keep an eye out for the signs of this painful condition.

Freedom from pain can make a huge difference and this can be done using many different methods including anti inflammatories (pain relief), joint supplements, weight loss, hydrotherapy, laser therapy, acupuncture and physiotherapy.
Comfy beds are also important. Older cats tend to prefer to stretch out and may need an extra ‘step’ to help jump onto chairs or beds. They also prefer their beds to be in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of the house.

Litter trays should always be provided in the house, but an older cat may need extra trays as some control of bladder and bowel movements may be lost with age. Reduced mobility may result in a reluctance to walk too far to go to the toilet. The trays should always be large and shallow for easy access. Some have a dip at the front so cats can just walk in and out of them. Soft litter also tends to be better for older cats than wood pellets as it can be uncomfortable for cats to stand on.

Eating And Drinking

Older cats require a senior diet to help support them during their ageing process. Many cats lose weight and condition as they age. Sometimes this is due to deterioration in their sense of smell and taste but often it can be a sign of an underlying chronic disease like hyperthyroidism or kidney disease. Older cats often have increased water requirements and feeding wet food aswell as biscuits can help with this.
Fresh water should always be available. Sometimes an older cat will start to drink more than usual and in many cases this can be a symptom of kidney problems or diabetes. If you notice any of these changes you should arrange an appointment to come and see us.

Vaccination And Worming

Older cats immune systems become less efficient and weakened over time. Infections are picked up more easily and as a result, senior cats may not be able to fight off disease as well as they could when they were younger. We advise regular annual boosters in senior cats. Regular worming is also advisable, both for your cat’s health as well as your own.

Kidney Disease

Due to the ageing process important organs such as the kidneys may not function as well as they used to. It is important to detect these signs early and the warning signs are often increased thirst and urine production. Cats are three times more likely to develop kidney problems than dogs but most do not show signs of chronic kidney disease until 75% of the kidneys have been damaged. Regular check- ups by your vet along with urine and blood testing are vital to help detect the onset of kidney disease and we can help take steps to slow down the progression of the disease, allowing cats a longer and better quality of life.

Dental Disease

Dental problems are very common in older cats. Warning signs are smelly breath, reddening of the gums, salivation or chewing to one side. If left, it can lead to periodontal disease and loss of their teeth. The bacteria in plaque can even spread to other parts of the body and have been linked to heart, liver and kidney disease. If you notice any of these problems you should make an appointment to see your vet.
If severe dental disease is diagnosed, generally a general anaesthetic is required to scale and polish the teeth and remove any diseased ones. Many people worry about the risk involved with older pets having a general anaesthetic but although every anaesthetic carries a small risk, advances have been made in anaesthesia and it is now much safer. Intravenous drips and blood testing prior to anaesthesia also help. Many owners are amazed with the improvement of their cat’s quality of life once the pain of toothache has been removed.

Brain Changes

Older cats can suffer from signs of dementia and reduced brain function-cognitive dysfunction. Some of the first signs that can point towards senile changes are:

  • uncharacteristic aggression
  • confusion
  • staring into space
  • a reduced ability to cope with stress or changes in their routine
  • frequent and sometimes loud vocalisation
  • urination or defecating in inappropriate places
  • memory loss

It is thought over 50% of cats over 12 years old show signs of cognitive dysfunction.

We can support and hopefully improve the brain function by medication or dietary supplements so it is important you book an appointment to see your vet if you start to notice any of these signs.

Play should also be encouraged for an older cat as this provides exercise and mental stimulation. The games may not be quite as energetic as when they were a kitten but will be very beneficial for your cat.
Also make sure your cat is microchipped in case they become disorientated while out and about and cannot find their way home. If this is a problem consider trying to keep your cat indoors.


Regular grooming can be helpful especially if your cat suffers from arthritis as this can make it painful for them to groom themselves. It also allows you to regularly check for any lumps and bumps and seek prompt veterinary attention if you are concerned. Regularly nail trims will also be required as older cats nails tend to grow thicker and longer. They are also less able to retract their claws and therefore more likely to become stuck in carpets.

Even if your older cat seems fine it is essential to take them to the vet a minimum of twice a year, instead of just the usual annual booster check up. This will aid in the early detection of problems as a lot of changes can happen in 6 months to an older cat. Blood and urine tests will also help to check all their vital organs are functioning properly. If you do spot anything, don’t put off booking an appointment because you are worried about what the vet may find. It is important problems are detected early to aid in treatment. Constant low grade pain reduces quality of life considerably and many owners are always amazed at the improvement of their cat’s wellbeing once their problem has been alleviated or controlled.
Early warning signs of health problems:

  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urine output
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Difficulty in movement
  • Incontinence
  • Lethargy
  • Unusual lumps and bumps
  • Behavioural changes
  • Discharges
  • Unpleasant odours
  • Hairloss
  • Uncharacteristic aggression
  • Senility with associated loss of memory

Our veterinary nurses also offer senior club appointments to help ease your pets into their mature and senior years as comfortably as possible. Why not answer our Senior Pet Questionnaire and come along and see us.

Click on the videos below to find out more about Cognitive Dysfunction and Caring For Your Older Cat.

Useful links:
Feeding Your Older Cat
Cognitive Dysfunction