Old age isn’t a disease, but it can come with some physical and mental challenges for senior pets. Can medication and supplements make the difference for cats and dogs suffering from the condition known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome, or CDS?
In many cases, yes, said board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg at the 2016 NAVC Veterinary Conference. First, however, he reviewed the signs of cognitive problems in dogs and cats, some of which may surprise their owners.
The signs of CDS are known by the acronym DISHA, for:
- Altered social interactions
- Altered sleep-wake cycles
- Altered activity levels
“These signs primarily arise from altered responses to stimuli, an increase in fear, anxiety and irritability, and deficits in learning and memory associated with cognitive decline,” he said. Other signs include clinginess, circling, pacing, wandering, forgetting obedience commands they once knew, lack of interest in walks, staring blankly, nighttime meowing or barking, and difficult finding their food or water. (Many of those may also be signs of physical illness.)
Unsurprisingly, CDS is more common with age, and its symptoms worsen over time. In one study, 50 percent of cats over the age of 15 showed signs of cognitive decline. In a 2010 survey, 41 percent of dogs over 14 showed signs.
The problem is more common than most pet owners realize, and causes a number of symptoms most won’t associate with cognitive decline. But what can they do about it?
“When cognition is impaired, diet, drugs, or supplements might be useful in improving signs and slowing the progress of CDS,” Dr. Landsberg noted. “Canine studies have demonstrated that mental stimulation in the form of training, play, exercise, and manipulation toys can help to maintain quality of life as well as cognitive function.”
Prescription medications that might help with CDS and its effect on the brain include:
- Selegiline. This monoamine oxidase B inhibitor has shown efficacy in improving cognitive signs in the dog. It is not licensed for use in cats, but some reports indicate it helps them as well.
- Memantine. This drug is a NMDA receptor antagonist used to treat Alzheimer’s in humans.
- Propentofylline. This medication xanthine-derivative is not licensed for dogs in North America but is used in Europe and Australia. It may be useful for cats, too.
These medications need to be prescribed by a veterinarian, and may require a consultation with a behavioral specialist, as they’re not in common use in veterinary practice.
What about supplements? “A primary therapeutic strategy for cognitive dysfunction in dogs, cats, and humans is to reduce the risk factors that contribute to cognitive decline,” said Dr. Landsberg. “It is likely that an integrative approach is required such as with a Mediterranean diet or a diet fortified with antioxidants and polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
Supplements he reviewed included:
- Senilife. This supplement contains phosphatidylserine, Gingko biloba, vitamins E and B6, and resveratrol.
- Activait. Phosphatidylserine is also included in this supplement, along with, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins E and C, l-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q, and selenium.
- S-adenosyl-l-methionine. Commonly known as SAM-E, this supplement has shown effectiveness in a placebo-controlled trial for both dogs and cats.
- Apoaequorin. Derived from jellyfish, this protein may provide neuroprotection against aging and an improvement in attention and learning in dogs.
Medications may also help with the symptoms of CDS, such as anxiety. However, they can cause interactions with other drugs used for CDS or for other age-related conditions. A careful exploration of drug interactions and side effects is essential if multiple medications are used to treat symptoms of CDS.