Cognition can be described as the mental process of thinking, reasoning, or remembering. 

People and pets rely on cognition every day to get through straightforward tasks, such as heading to the eating area at mealtimes or taking a bathroom break when needed. With more difficult chores, our advanced cognitive skills help us accomplish things like problem-solving and social communication. As our pets age, we commonly witness cognitive dysfunction or decreased cognitive ability. As with other body systems, the neurologic system can experience degenerative changes, resulting in signs similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in people. Cognitive dysfunction is most common in dogs ages 11 to 16, but older cats can endure these changes, too. Following are four main signs of this condition in pets, followed by suggestions for supporting your aging pet at home. Here’s what to look for:

Confusion or disorientation in older pets

Pets with cognitive impairment may appear confused or unsure when presented with a task. The old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” may have some truth to it, since affected pets may find learning a new task difficult, or may take longer to remember a previously learned one. Pets with more advanced cognitive dysfunction may forget where their food bowl is, or how to find the door, or may stare blankly at a wall or corner as if trying to understand where they are. They also may get lost in a familiar environment or fail to recognize a known family member or pet. 

Social changes in senior pets

A pet owner can find witnessing changes in a pet’s social interactions and attitude difficult, especially when their previously happy and playful pet no longer wishes to romp in the yard or head out for a long walk. Sometimes, these signs can be attributed to normal aging, but they can also indicate something more worrisome. If your pet’s social changes are accompanied by increased aggression or irritability, decreased affection, or decreased responsiveness to family members and other pets in general, they could be experiencing cognitive dysfunction. 

Changes in pets’ sleep and wake cycles

While sleeping more during the day, or sleeping less at night, could be signs of another disorder or hormonal imbalance, these changes are also commonly seen with cognitive impairment. Other signs include nighttime vocalizing, restlessness, or wandering. 

Elimination habit changes in house-trained pets

If your previously house-trained pet is having accidents in the house or eliminating in peculiar places (e.g., in sleeping areas or on outside concrete), a veterinary exam is necessary. Abnormal elimination could be a sign of confusion consistent with cognitive dysfunction, or signify another underlying health problem.  

Of course, the spectrum of cognitive changes can vary greatly depending on severity, so subtle differences in your older pet’s behavior may also justify a visit to Groves Veterinary Clinic. After observing these changes, many pet owners wonder how they can help their pet. First consult with your Groves veterinarian, and then consider these tips to keep your pet comfortable, confident, and sharp as they grow older:

  • Play often — Set aside time every day for an activity with your pet. It doesn’t have to be overly stimulating or difficult, but should encourage your pet to move around, explore, or potentially problem solve. Fetch, hide and seek, and hiding a few treats around the home or yard for your pet to scavenge are great, simple ideas. Also, provide toys, such as puzzle feeders, paper bags, and cardboard boxes, to stimulate the senses. 
  • Encourage social interaction — Allow your pet to meet and play with other dogs, cats, and people throughout the week, such as bringing them to the dog park, heading out to the pet shop together, or scheduling a pet play date. Never force an interaction, though, and cut the session short if your pet is visibly uncomfortable. 
  • Modify the home environment as needed — Aging pets may require some modifications to help them feel comfortable and confident. These could include adding rugs or mats so pets don’t slip on hard surfaces, placing more litter boxes around the home, or installing ramps in place of stairs. 
  • Provide uninterrupted quiet time — All pets need rest and relaxation, especially as they get older. Create a comfortable space solely for your pet, complete with a therapeutic bed, in a quiet home area they can access at any time. Avoid disturbing your pet during their quiet time. 

For more tips on environmental enrichment for aging pets, check out the Ohio State University Indoor Pet Initiative.

At Groves Veterinary Clinic, we are dedicated to helping your pet live a long, fruitful life. And, while cognitive dysfunction in pets cannot be cured, you can provide them with a good quality of life. Remember, senior pets should be examined twice a year, so contact us today to schedule an appointment.