Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Most people are familiar with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, in older humans. It is a progressive condition that affects a person’s ability to form and recall memories, as well as other mental functions. Pet owners may also see these changes in their geriatric pets. That’s because their brains can undergo a similar process as they age. In our older dogs, this condition is called Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). Similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, the underlying cause and why some dogs are affected sooner or more severely than others are not clearly understood. Researchers have devoted a great deal of research to how the disease works and treatments that can slow the progression of symptoms.

A diagnosis of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can be difficult to make but there is a specific set of clinical signs that are associated with CDS.

Ø  Disorientation

o   Dogs may stare blankly at walls or get lost and confused in their home

Ø  Interaction changes

o   Dogs may become less interested in petting or playing with family members

Ø  Sleep changes

o   Dogs may start sleeping more during the day and/or become restless at night

Ø  Housetraining, learning, memory

o   Dogs may begin having accidents in the house or are slower to learn new tricks

Ø  Activity level changes

o   Dogs may start wandering or show a decreased interest in walks or exploring

Ø  Anxiety

o   Dogs may show increased anxiety when left alone or become fearful of new places or people.

Many of these symptoms are associated with other diseases seen in older animals, such as kidney disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, etc. It is important that owners work with their veterinarian to rule out other possible causes that can be treated medically. Many owners fail to report these changes to their veterinarian and simply chalk it up to “aging”.

But there are things you can do to help maintain your dog’s cognition and slow down the progression of their clinical signs.


Scientific studies have found that specific diets made for geriatric canines can improve their cognition. Some of these diets have additional antioxidants. Other diets use a different form of nutritional energy that is used more efficiently by an older dog’s brain.

-       Purina ProPlan Bright Minds

-       Hills Science Diet b/d

-       Purina Veterinary Diet NC

Antioxidant Supplements

As dogs’ brains age, they can suffer from increased oxidative damage. There are a variety of supplements available to help remove these harmful oxidants and help with cognitive function.

-       SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) is an essential amino acid supplement that is commonly used in human and veterinary medicine. SAMe has traditionally been used as an antioxidant in veterinary liver disease but it has the potential to slow the progression of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

-       There are several antioxidant combination supplements available on the market. Vetriscience Cell Advance and Ceva’s Senilife are just 2 examples.


There is one FDA approved medication available for canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. It’s called Selegiline and is also used in humans to treat Parkinson’s disease. This medication works by increasing levels of dopamine within the brain and stimulating the brain. It can interact with other medications so talk to your veterinarian before starting this medication.


Just as humans are encouraged to exercise their mind through puzzles and problem solving, we recommend the same in our older dogs.

-       Puzzle feeders: Instead of feeding out of a basic dog bowl, these feeders offer basic puzzles for your dog to solve to get the reward (their food). It’s a way to motivate and work your pet without them even realizing it.

-       Basic Obedience: Dogs with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome often have a hard time learning simple tasks. Retraining or reviewing basic obedience commands (sit, stay, roll over) will help keep their mind sharp and keep their bodies moving.

-       Physiotherapy: Basic physical therapy exercises can also provide your pet a mental and physical challenge. Talk to your veterinarian or look for a veterinary rehabilitation professional in your area that can develop a plan customized to your pet’s needs.

Behavioral Changes

This symptom is usually the most recognized by owners. Dogs may start to show increased anxiety or aggression with CDS. It may be related to specific events, such as visitors in the house or thunderstorms, or it may be a new onset of separation anxiety.

-       Medications: There are a variety of behavior modifying medications your vet may prescribe. Some are short-acting for predictable, high-stress situations while others are longer acting to address daily or unpredictable anxiety.

-       Pheromones: Pheromones are chemical signals that are released by mother dogs when they give birth. Puppies remember that signal for the rest of their life. A synthetic form of this chemical is available in various forms and can provide a soothing, calming signal to your dog’s brain without the side effects of medications.

-       White-noise machines: If your dog is hypervigilant or stressed by sounds outdoors, a white-noise machine can help cancel out the outside noise to help your dog relax.

Restlessness at Night

This is another symptom that owners will notice. Dogs may wake up and pace, whine or pant in the middle of the night. In some cases, dogs may have an increased need to be let out, such as urinary tract infections, colitis or steroid medications, but it can also be related to cognitive decline. 

-       Circadian Rhythm Training: Older dogs tend to nap a large amount during the day. Keep older dogs active as much as possible during the day can help ensure they sleep better at night.

-       Supplements: Melatonin can be used as a supplement in dogs. There are also supplements that contain green tea extract and other calming natural ingredients that can help dogs relax.

-       Sedatives: Your veterinarian may recommend giving a fast active, mild sedative in the evening to help your pet settle and fall asleep with greater ease.


Some dogs with CDS will begin to have accidents in the house as they age, even if they were previously housetrained. There are many possible reasons for this that should be investigated.

-       Concurrent disease: Conditions like urinary tract infections or renal disease can cause increased frequency of urination. Many medications, such as steroids and diuretics, can also cause increased urination. Your veterinarian can help you figure out if any of these may be contributing to the accidents.

-       Physical obstacles: If your dog suffers from osteoarthritis or blindness, it may be difficult to navigate a doggie door or get down a set of stairs. Ramps, carpets and additional lighting can help increase your dog’s confidence.

-       Changing your routine: You dog may benefit from taking more frequent short trips outside instead of one or two long walks. For some owners, the use of potty pads provide an acceptable place for the pet to use the bathroom if they don’t have the ability to get outside.

-       Retraining: Most dogs are housebroken as puppies. Dogs with CDS may require a refresher training period, particularly after medical conditions where they had decreased mobility, such as surgery.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome can be very trying and frustrating for owners and their pets. There is not a single, fix-all pill for this condition but a dog’s quality of life can be greatly improved using a multi-modal approach to their individual needs.