As our pets age, we typically focus on the physical changes that are likely to arise. However, we should also be aware of the possibility of changes to cognition and should be equipped to recognize, diagnose, and manage cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

What is cognitive dysfunction syndrome?

 Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is often colloquially referred to as “doggy Alzheimer’s” or “doggy dementia.” Cognitive dysfunction syndrome can impact both geriatric dogs and cats and is characterized by an age-related cognitive decline. A 2001 study showed that 68% of 15- to 16-year-old dogs and 36% of 11- to 21-year-old cats were affected by CDS. Per the Purina Institute, the condition affects 14% of dogs 8 and older.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, “an increase in a neurotoxic protein called beta-amyloid, an increase in damage due to toxic free radicals, a loss of neurons, and alterations in neurotransmitters such as dopamine may be responsible for many of the behavior changes” exhibited as part of CDS. Unfortunately, the condition is underdiagnosed by veterinary professionals. A cross-sectional survey of older companion dogs reported only 1.9% of cases were diagnosed by a veterinarian.


What are the signs?

 The signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome can be recognized through an acronym known as DISHAA.

  • Disorientation
  • Social Interactions
  • Sleep/Wake Cycles
  • Housesoiling, learning, and memory
  • Activity
  • Anxiety

CDS is often a diagnosis of exclusion, as other conditions that present similarly must be ruled out. Purina’s DISHAA assessment tool should be utilized to evaluate cognitive function. A client provided with this questionnaire will be able assess their pet’s behavior in each of the aforementioned DISHAA categories. An additional assessment tool, the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating (CCDR) Scale, can also be utilized.


 To say that CDS can be completely cured is unrealistic. There is still research to be done. However, the condition can be managed, and cognitive function can be improved. Forms of enrichment such as puzzle toys and regular exercise have been shown to slow age-related decline in cognitive function. Environmental management is also important: recommendations include more litter boxes for cats, more bathroom breaks for dogs, and alteration of the environment to minimize chances of injury to a disoriented pet.

Nutritional management through dietary therapy and supplements may also delay condition progression. These diets and supplements aim to reduce oxidative damage and improve cerebral function. Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Purina both provide options for nutritional management.

Pharmacological intervention is also possible. Selegiline hydrochloride is a monoamine oxidase B inhibitor often utilized in treatment of CDS. It works to decrease free radical damage and enhance the function of dopamine.

Ultimately, these treatments will be most effective if started as early as possible. Senior pets should be evaluated more often and clients should be made familiar with the signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome to monitor their pets at home.



Barnette, Catherine. “Diagnosing Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: Symptoms and Treatment.” Dispomed, 28 July 2020,

“Dog Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.” Purina® Canada,

Seibert, Dr. Lynne. “Management of Dogs and Cats with Cognitive Dysfunction.” Today’s Veterinary Practice. 4 Aug. 2017,