Both dogs and cats can suffer from cognitive dysfunction, more commonly known as dementia or senility.

As dogs and cats age, their brains are subject to various damage or injury, including inflammatory conditions, viral diseases, toxins, changes in blood flow, anesthetic agents, medications, and nutritional excesses or deficiencies.

These eventually lead to cell death within the brain and abnormal brain function. While dogs and cats can have the same changes in their brains as humans with Alzheimer's disease, it is more difficult to test for.

Clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction vary depending on the patient and the severity of the disease. They include disorientation, loss of housebreaking, decreased interaction with family and other pets, increase in thirst or panting, changes in sleep patterns, and decreased appetite.

Living with a pet suffering from cognitive dysfunction can be frustrating as many of them wake at night and pace, pant or vocalize.

Diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction is made by excluding other diseases that can mimic the signs.

Your veterinarian will perform a blood test and urinalysis along with a complete physical examination. In addition, chest X-rays and an abdominal ultrasound may be recommended. If no underlying diseases can be found, a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction can be made.

There are several treatments available and many are used in combination with one another. First, changing the environment may help. Leaving the lights on at night can help decrease nighttime disorientation. Provide plenty of exercise during the day, and give pets sensory stimulation like petting, brushing and playing with toys.

Keeping dogs and cats at their optimum weight is associated with longer life spans and less cognitive disease. If your pet is overweight, have your vet design a weight loss program for them.

There are many nutritional supplements known as nutraceuticals that are useful. These products, listed below, contain antioxidants which prevent cell death in some cases. Your veterinarian can help you select the proper dose for your pet:

  • Fish oil high in omega 3 fatty acids

  • Melatonin

  • SAMe for dogs, and Novafit for cats

  • Coconut oil

  • Nu-Cat Senior for cats

  • Cell Advance 880 for dogs

  • Neutricks

    Hills Prescription Diet b/d is a food that contains several antioxidants and is effective in improving age-related behavior changes in dogs.

    Selegeline (Anipryl) is a prescription medication which is used in human medicine for Parkinson's disease, and can be used in both dogs and cats. It can react with other medications, so it is important to discuss all medications with your veterinarian.

    All of the above therapies are more effective if started early in the disease. If you think your dog or cat may be suffering from cognitive dysfunction, see your vet.

    Ask Dr. Jill Veterinary Advice is a column written by Jill Christofferson, DVM, of the Encina Veterinary Hospital in Walnut Creek. Contact her at askthevet@encinavet.com.