Cognitive Dysfunction - Senility in Geriatric Pets
As our pets age, our bond with them grows deeper and more intense. We’ve grown to love them more over the years and they are more dependent on our understanding and kindness as they deal with the challenges that the elderly face.
One of the issues described commonly in geriatric pets is “senility” (our medical-ese for this is “cognitive dysfunction”).
The old dog that walks out to the yard and stops, staring into space. He doesn’t appear to remember why he’s there. (Or perhaps he does this in the middle of the livingroom.) He only stares off and stands there a while.
Some old dogs get stuck in a corner or behind the couch and seem to be incapable of getting out of their simple predicament.
There is also the old dog who is agitated and restless in the middle of the night - waking to ask to go outside or just waking – pacing, panting and appearing anxious.
And there are many an elderly cat that yowls in the night. This nocturnal vocalization sounds alarming, but there is nothing that seems to be wrong. (Is she hallucinating? Is she dreaming?) Sometimes she has an old sock or something that she’s carrying around while she makes that mournful sound.
If you have a pet like this, you are not alone. In one way, you’re fortunate to have a pet that has grown with you this long to get to this age, but on the other hand, it can sometimes be very difficult to deal with.
A general health examination is a first step to see if there is anything that is treatable. Bloodwork and urinalysis can point to (or rule out) abnormalities in organ function that could cause behavioral changes in an elderly pet. Examples are: diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome, kidney disease, bladder infections, hyperthyroidism in old kitties, and many other possibilities.
Hearing loss is very common in this age group. It can explain a lot of the geriatric patient’s seeming lack of awareness. Vision loss sometimes plays a role in this as well. Rarely are these conditions treatable, but getting a checkup will determine if anything can be done. Sometimes an eye condition can be treated and some forms of cataracts can be considered for surgical correction (if the rest of the elderly patient is doing well otherwise).
For many other age-related cognitive change examples, there is no easy fix. Aging takes its toll on the brain, just as it does on all the other major organs. But sometimes your veterinarian can have helpful suggestions at this intensely emotional part of your pet’s life.
Anti-inflammatories can be discussed in cases that may have behaviors related to pain. And we don’t often know for sure that the pet is in pain – but a trial of pain medication can sometimes answer that question. WARNING: Don’t try these medications without veterinary consultation regarding your pet’s specific case, which product is applicable and the dosage.
Decreasing stress in elderly pets is helpful too. Keeping schedules consistent and having predictable pattern of feedings, outings, and bedtimes can help the old dog or cat minimize the things they have to adapt to. Sometimes this isn’t easy as our families evolve and “life happens”. There are some products available – involving specialized pheromones in a spray or diffuser form – that can have a de-stressing effect on anxious dogs & cats. If it sounds like a reasonable thing to try, your vet may be able to suggest a trial with this type of product.
Free radical scavenging supplements may help the brain deal with some of the inflammatory chemicals and free radicals liberated over time. These products can help to soothe some of the effects of aging at the cellular level.
Casein-containing supplements or foods may be helpful. This milk protein is known to have a calming effect on the brain. Also, there’s an amino acid supplement that has been found to influence and decrease stress signals in the brain.
Sedatives can be used intermittently – and in more severe cases, they are sometimes required ongoing.
Mainly, we want the best quality of life for our aging pets. They are so special to us throughout their lives, but seem to need us so much more at this time. Your veterinarian doesn’t want to talk you into any treatment that you’re not comfortable with. We only want to offer what’s reasonable for you and your pet – and for the both of you to enjoy your precious time together.