The Aging Mind: Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome


Dr. Popkowski’s dog, Maxio!


Although an emotionally difficult topic for me personally, I want to create awareness of this condition as my 19 year old dog, Maxio, has been struggling with this progressive disease. Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is a chronic, progressive collection of various clinical signs that we notice in our aging pets because of degenerative changes to the nervous system. It is analogous, but not identical, to Alzheimer’s disease in people. Unfortunately, it is not something that can be completely cured. Many research articles indicate that the prevalence of this disease is high, with approximately 50% of cats and 68% of dogs aged 15-16 years and older affected. Research shows that some pets can even be as young as 6-8 years when they first start showing signs! On average, cats and dogs tend to be 10 years or older.

Some of the most common signs of age related cognitive dysfunction include:

  1. Disorientation, confusion, anxiety
  2. Social interaction changes
  3. Sleep-wake cycle variations
  4. A break in house-training in pets that have previously been house-trained
  5. Changes in general activity levels, whether it be an increase or a decrease


How do we as veterinarians diagnose such a chronic, progressive disease?

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is a challenging medical condition to diagnose as it is a disease that can only be diagnosed based on the exclusion of all other illnesses that can cause the same clinical signs (a diagnosis of exclusion). We begin screening pets at the Worth Street Veterinary Center starting at about 8 years of age by doing thorough diagnostic tests to rule out all other potential underlying causes for the reported clinical signs, and by obtaining a very thorough behavioral history. Sometimes we even request clients to video tape their pets so we can evaluate more thoroughly! Based on the clinical signs and preliminary tests, further diagnostics may be recommended, such as advanced imaging of the central nervous system.

What can we do to make affected pets more comfortable?

Treatment can be challenging for veterinarians. The main goal with therapy is to help pets and their owners maintain comfort and a healthy quality of life as there unfortunately is no cure. Here are a few things that are done to help our pets:

Environmental and Behavioral Enrichment

  • Providing mental and physical stimulation is important as this helps keep the mind and body active and promotes cognitive health. However, it is important to note that these enrichment techniques should be structured, scheduled, and routine to help decrease stress to your pet.
  • Due to the changes that occur with this syndrome, we always recommend that owners provide more frequent opportunities for their pet to go to the bathroom. You may need to create alternative bathroom opportunities as well, such as introducing low-sided litter boxes for cats, or more frequent walks and/or creating designated elimination areas in your home for dogs.

Nutritional Support

  • Veterinarians frequently recommend dietary modifications and may add certain supplements so that important fatty acids and antioxidants are included.


  • There are medications available that can help slow the progression of this disease and may improve cognitive function. However, it is important to note that they are not guaranteed to make a difference. Please speak to your veterinarian if you are interested in learning more.
  • Anti-anxiety medications are given to pets that need to be treated for anxiety.
  • Medications to help reset the sleep-wake cycle in order to provide both the pet and owner with better rest.


Fundamentally, Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is a set of clinical signs that are recognized in our aging population of pets that cannot be explained by other types of illness. Working together with your veterinarian will ensure that your pets are safe, comfortable, and continue to live happy, healthy lives.


Dr. Iwona Popkowski

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