Cognitive dysfunction syndrome

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome

Behaviour problems in senior pets

These can be due to a wide variety of medical conditions, including pain, sensory decline, or any disease that affects the nervous system. Behaviour problems may also be attributed to age-related degeneration within the brain known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or can arise from changes in the household or environment to which it may be difficult for senior pets to adapt. Early detection provides the best opportunity for resolving problems, preventing complications or slowing decline.

Prevening problems - what you can do

  • For healthy senior pets, twice-yearly physical examinations and laboratory screening tests provide an opportunity to identify emerging problems, sometimes even before there are outward signs.
  • Report any changes in health or behaviour, no matter how subtle, to your veterinary surgeon as soon as they are noticed.
  • Not only does detection provide the best opportunity to resolve or slow the progress of many diseases, but also early treatment of behaviour problems is likely to be most successful, before the problem becomes deeply ingrained.
  • If you know there are likely to be changes in your household or schedule, try to make these as gradual as possible and give your pet some time to adapt.
  • Research has shown that providing both mental and physical activity is the best way to maintain a healthy brain and body. Therefore, if your pet begins to slow down, or develops medical problems that reduce its physical activity, find new games, new toys and new ways to play, to stimulate the brain and keep the body active.

Treating problems - what you can do to help

  • If the problem is medical, your veterinary surgeon will discuss treatment options and prognosis. However, even if the medical problem can be resolved, the behaviour problems may remain, in which case you will need advice on how to treat the specific problem.
    - For example, if the pet begins to house soil due to a medical problem, the problem may persist after the medical problem has been resolved, unless you also use reinforcement to train the pet to return to the preferred locations, while preventing or supervising access to soiled areas.
  • For problems that cannot be completely resolved, you may need to make adjustments to your household or your schedule to accommodate your pet's needs.
    - For example, pets with kidney problems are likely to need to urinate more often, so you may need to take your dog outdoors more frequently or switch to paper training. For cats, more frequent litter cleaning or more boxes (trays) may be needed.
    - For pets with mobility problems, ramps may need to be installed, or lower litterbox sides may be needed to accommodate entry.

What is cognitive dysfunction?

  • Behavious changes that arise as a result of brain ageing are often referred to as congnitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).
  • In mild cases the pet may sleep more, be less responsive to stimuli, or may have more or less frequent social interactions with family members and other pets.
  • More severe signs might include repetitive behaviours such as pacing, new fears and anxieties, house soiling, waking at night, confusion or disorientation, or loss of previously learned behaviours such as name and command recognition.
  • Treatment can often improve or slow the progress of this condition, and the earlier you report these signs, the earlier the diagnosis can be made and treatment can begin.


  • Drugs, diets and supplements have been tested and show to be effective in improving the signs or slowing the progress of cognitive dysfunction.
    - Drugs are available to help increase neurotransmitter function and brain activity or act as antioxidants. Ask your veterinary surgeon about drugs that may help your pet.
    - A variety of diets and supplements contain antioxidants, fatty acids and compounds that appear to improve neurotransmission. Many natural products are touted to be effective and your veterinary surgeon will be able to advise which products are most likely to be useful.
  • Another important aspect of therapy is to maintain an enriched environment that continues to simulate you pet's brain and body. Although you should continue to provide social play, exercise and training, adjustments may have to be made for any health problems. Use your pet's food and toys to train new commands, practice previous training or play games to hide-and-find. Also provide chew toys and play toys that challenge your pet's mind (such as toys that the pet must manipulate to obtain food or treats).

The information supplied on this page was kindly provided by the BSAVA (British Small Animal Veterinary Association).

Please Note

These factsheets are provided as guidelines only. If you are at all concerned about the wellbeing of your pet then please call Hope Veterinary Surgery immediately by using our phone number 01782 657788.

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