Dementia in pets: What are the symptoms?

Just as in humans, dementia in pets is now commonly diagnosed in older dogs and cats and owners have to learn how to live with it…

What is Pet Dementia?

Cognitive dysfunction is also known as…

  • Feline or Canine Alzheimers  (or sometimes Kitty Alzheimers)
  • Feline or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Disorder
  • Feline or Canine Dementia.

Our pets live longer these days due to improvements in lifestyle and health care. Just as with humans, age brings its own set of problems. One of these is cognitive dysfunction.

Symptoms are many and varied including:

  • Disorientation
  • Decreased activity or playfulness
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Increased irritability or aggressiveness
  • Hypervocalisation
  • Other changes to normal behaviour

Diagnosis depends on ruling out other medical conditions that may cause the same symptoms and obviously the pet’s age. Cats and dogs are generally considered senior after 7 years of age and geriatric around 12 years. Just as the body deteriorates with age, so does the mind.

Veterinary medication may help in pet dementia, so talk to your vet about your pet as they get older.


Case studies
Here are a couple of questions that Dr Jo has been asked by owners of older pets…

Q. Hi Dr Joanne,
My cat Sharni is 17 years old & in great health. I have just had her to the vet for a check up, vaccination & dental descaling.
Approx 6 month’s ago she started howling at night. I tried having her in with me but then she want’s to wake me when she get’s up to eat during the night. I tried putting her under the house (Queenslander) with a bed food, litter water etc & she howls out the side of the garage which is under my window. I also have tried leaving her outside but she bang’s on the screen door & howls aswell.
She doesn’t seem to be suffering with anxiety or anything similar & is in perfect health also with her sight & hearing. I can’t ignore her as she wakes up the neighbourhood with her howling.
I’ve tried giving her attention before she goes to bed amongst other things but nothing works. As soon as she sees me she purrs away & is happy. So I sit with her or bring her in for 10 mins then she goes out again. She seems to just want attention but 2 times a night every night is taking it’s toll on me! I’m exhausted. I am out of ideas & saw your website so thought I’d try asking. My vet said it’s purely behavioural but everything he suggested hasn’t changed anything with her. Is there anything you can suggest me doing to try & stop her?

Dear Dr Jo,
My 15 year old Poodle cross Maxie sometimes has an unusual habit of staring at walls. He is fine one minute and then starts pacing around the edges of the room, usually in the evenings and eventually stops and stares at the wall. His eyesight is fine so I don’t understand this. Can you help?

A. With both of these cases, some of the following behavioural solutions may help:

  • Secure your pet overnight in an area that they feel safe and secure. Remember to give cats (and dogs too, if required) access to a toilet and food if this is likely to settle them.
  • If your pet sleeps with you, restrict their access to the rest of the house, if they are likely to go wandering aimlessly around your home.
  • Keep a night light on in the area that your pet sleeps.
  • If you need to respond to your pet, do so when they are quiet and still. Giving them attention while they are vocalising or pacing will only reinforce this behaviour.

Remember to get your pet checked out by your vet. Cognitive Dysfunction is not the only cause of these symptoms.

More reading:
Care and advice for senior pets
Caring for your feline senior citizen
What you need to know about insurance for older pets

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