With the experience of watching both of my parents and a few older relatives slip into what we used to call “senility”, I’ve often wondered if the same sort of cognitive issue could happen to my cats and other animals.
Today we call this “dementia” though “cognitive dysfunction” is a more complete term. The effects can range from barely discernible, like occasionally forgetting something familiar, to effects on even physical activity, and can result from a list of sources such as acute or chronic physical conditions or diseases, certain medications or treatments, organ malfunctions or imbalances in the body, even lack of sleep. But our pets really can suffer from the same cognitive dysfunction we humans can, unrelated to treatable conditions because it’s a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
Stanley, above, lived to be 25, and while he was sharp and clear for most of those years there were times in his last year when he stood and meowed in some random spot until he saw me and his expression changed from round frightened or confused eyes to a clear focus as he recognized me and it seemed my presence clarified things for him.
Many animals, dogs, cats and other pets and domestic animals, can show symptoms of confusion or physical debility, but it’s not a good idea to just chalk it up to old age without looking into the cause—as it is for any time your pet starts acting out of character. Unlike people we can’t really perform cognitive testing on our pets to find out for certain, but even with people sometimes a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction is a process of ruling out other causes for the symptoms. For instance, an electrolyte imbalance can put those affected into a stupor that has both cognitive and physical effects. Urinary tract infections are common in older bodies and cause pain while a related fever causes lethargy. Both are relatively easily diagnosed and treated, usually with a full recovery, where guessing your pet was senile would have had them suffering, possibly leading to death, without visiting your veterinarian.
The best place to start is a round of testing for common conditions, then pursuing more complicated conditions if those don’t turn up a likely cause. Your best route is to start taking notes on your observations, what you see, when it happens, how long it extends, any details that you can tell your veterinarian. This is a good practice at any time, but especially when you have some vague symptoms and the diagnosis may be a long and expensive process.
Often people object to the time and effort and money, and even think their vet is just trying to make money on them. No, that’s what it really takes to get to a diagnosis, and you can always discuss with your veterinarian what your budget is and what will find the most information. As I researched this topic I found an article on Critical Care DVM, written by a veterinarian, that outlines the whole process so completely that I will just link it here. Read Cognitive Dysfunction – When Your Pet Becomes Senile.
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