4 Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Senior Bulldog

Does your old dog seem to be increasingly forgetful? Does he come into a room and then act as though he doesn’t know why he’s there? Or, worse, has he started having accidents in the house, as though he has forgotten that he has a dog door to the yard? If your veterinarian can find no organic reason for your dog’s behavior, such as vision loss or a urinary tract infection, he may have cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) — what most of us refer to as senility.

Our dogs and cats are living a lot longer than they used to, so it’s not surprising that we are starting to see them develop old-age problems such as CDS. It’s not too unusual these days for a dog to reach extreme old age — 14 years or more — and still be in relatively good physical condition, but sometimes the mind can get a little cloudy. Many dogs 15 or older show at least one sign of CDS.

Can you and your dog still have a quality relationship if he has CDS? The good news is that the answer is yes.

Diagnosing CDS

The acronym DISH spells out the behaviors often seen in dogs with CDS and cats with CDS

Disorientation is common, such as walking aimlessly, staring at walls, getting “stuck” in corners or losing balance and falling.

Interactions with people change. The dog who once greeted you at the door and loved getting a head scratch now ignores you or hides in the closet.

Sleep patterns alter. Dogs who once snored through the night may pace relentlessly.

Housetraining goes out the door — not literally, unfortunately. Dogs with CDS seem to forget that they are supposed to potty outdoors or how to use the pet door to go outside.

If your dog exhibits one or more of these unusual behaviors, the first step is to take him to the veterinarian. Some highly treatable health problems can cause similar behaviors.

For instance, high blood pressure (or hypertension) is common in senior pets, especially if they have conditions such as Cushing’s disease. Hypertension takes a toll on blood vessels in the brain, so chronic high blood pressure might be causing some of his cognitive misfires. A dog with achy hips might be reluctant to go through a dog door if he knows it’s going to bang against his butt and cause pain. An underlying urinary tract infection (UTI) can also lead to loss of housetraining. Urine can be difficult to analyze under a microscope, so unless a cystocentesis sample — acquired by drawing urine directly out of the bladder via a fine needle — is obtained and then cultured, a UTI could be missed.

If your veterinarian rules out a medical cause, you can take steps to lessen the signs of CDS. Diet and medication, as well as control of underlying conditions that contribute to CDS, can often help slow the progress of CDS and improve your dog's quality of life.


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