Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Mind Melt?

Is your pet suffering from cognitive dysfunction? How to recognize and manage it

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Rose was restless and agitated around dinnertime. The 11-year-old fawn pug paced, couldn’t settle down, and growled, snarled and snapped at her companion pug. Rose was normally a sweet dog, so the behavior was uncharacteristic. Her actions were specific to that time of day and faded as the evening wore on.

Owner Linda Lombardi took Rose to the veterinarian to see if a health problem or pain might be causing the unusual behavior. Nothing stood out, and Lombardi and her veterinarian wondered if Rose’s actions might be signs of cognitive dysfunction.

With age, some dogs and cats show signs of deteriorating mental ability, much like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in humans. There’s not a specific diagnostic test for it, but it may be a possibility if other health problems are ruled out and the pet exhibits common signs such as disorientation, changes in interactions with owners or other pets, disturbances in sleep-wake times, breaking housetraining, or changes in activity. (The acronym DISHA is a handy way to remember the signs.) Rose’s actions were a classic indication of cognitive dysfunction, or CD.

“A number of studies have examined the prevalence of spontaneously reported behavioral signs in senior pets referred to behavioral specialists,” says veterinary neurologist Richard A. LeCouteur, DVM. “In two canine studies, behavioral complaints related to aggression or fear and anxiety were most prevalent.”

There’s no cure for CD, but it can be managed in several ways. Rose’s veterinarian prescribed a drug called selegiline (Anipryl). It’s thought to work by enhancing dopamine and other catecholamines (hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) in the cortex, causing an increase in cognitive functioning, says veterinary behaviorist Pamela J. Perry, DVM, Ph.D. It may also aid nervous system structure or function by reducing free radical production or increasing free radical-scavenging enzymes.

“The only way to confirm if it was CD was to try the meds, and if they helped, that was the right diagnosis,” Lombardi says. “It was a huge help. I felt like it gave me my dog back.”

The drug, which is sometimes used off-label in cats, has mixed results. It’s estimated that one-third of animals respond well, one-third have some response and one-third experience no change. It can take two to six weeks to see a benefit, and if no improvement occurs by two months, the medication probably isn’t going to help. Animals taking drugs such as tramadol, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants or tick preventives containing Amitraz should not take selegiline.

Medication isn’t the only way to help a pet with CD. Mental enrichment can help to maintain cognitive function, Dr. Perry says. That includes play, gentle exercise, food toys, short reward-based training sessions (practicing tricks or obedience skills) and fun social interactions.

Keep your pet’s routine consistent. Schedule meals, walks and other activities at the same time every day, as much as possible. If your pet is sleeping at odd hours and waking you in the middle of the night, try to provide more activity during the day and immediately before bedtime to help him sleep through the night.

Housetraining accidents may mean your dog needs extra outdoor potty trips or an indoor canine litter box. Cats may need additional litter boxes throughout the house in easily accessible areas. Choose litter boxes with low sides that are easy for the animal to get in and out of.

Any time you see changes in your pet’s behavior, bring it to your veterinarian’s attention.

“Yearly questionnaires are helpful for monitoring and assessing changes in a senior pet’s behavior,” Dr. Perry says. “Because CD is a progressive disease, it is best to instigate treatment early.”


Pet queasy in cars?

Ways to help

Q: We’re going on a road trip next month. We’d like to bring our dog, but she gets carsick. Do you have any tips to help her be more comfortable?

A: Motion sickness is no fun for anyone, including pets. It occurs when the semicircular canals and other parts of the inner ear that control balance become overstimulated. Pets with severe motion sickness can start to experience nausea just at the sight of a car.

Luckily, there are several things you can try to help ease your pet’s queasy feeling. For mild signs, offer a couple of gingersnap cookies beforehand (check the ingredient list to make sure they aren’t sweetened with xylitol). Transport the pet on an empty stomach, especially if you’ll be driving all day.

Natural supplements such as Anxitane can help relieve signs of anxiety and in turn help to relieve physical signs of motion sickness. Pets with severe motion sickness can benefit from prescription medications such as Cerenia, for nausea, and Xanax, for anxiety. Spritz the car and the carrier with canine calming pheromones, such as Adaptil.

For long-term improvement, try desensitization techniques to help her enjoy car rides. Start by doing something she likes near the car, such as playing catch or practicing tricks and getting rewarded. When she’s comfortable being near the car, put treats inside to encourage her to stick her head in or get in on her own. Give more treats and praise. Have your dog be in the car for a couple of minutes while it sits in the driveway. Repeat. When she’s OK with that, start the car, back up and then pull back into the driveway. Then go for a short ride down the street. During each step, give lots of great treats to help her associate the car with good things. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Dream on, kitty.

How, why cats nap

-- Cats sleep up to 18 hours a day. We don’t know exactly why, but it’s likely that they need to rest frequently for bursts of hunting. Among mammals, predators such as cats spend the most time in REM sleep, characterized by rapid eye movements, dreaming, rapid pulse and breathing, and body movements such as paws twitching or tail swishing. If your cat is in this phase of sleep, you may notice that it’s difficult to awaken him, but while his body may be limp, his brain is highly active. Kittens and senior cats sleep the most, but any cat enjoys a nap after play or a meal.

-- Headed to the beach? You might want to look for one with a canine “poop patrol.” A study published last month in the Journal of Environmental Quality found fewer beach closings in areas with specially trained dogs to chase away seagulls -- whose droppings are the main source of E. coli bacteria levels leading to beach closings. During the study, dogs and their handlers patrolled Lake Michigan beaches in Indiana daily for one month in 2015 and from June through September in 2016. The presence of gulls dropped by nearly 100 percent, resulting in fewer beach closings.

-- Summer is upon us, and with it comes one of the big health threats to dogs: overheating. Dogs don’t sweat the same way people do, and it’s much more difficult for them to regulate their temperature when it’s hot and humid outside. You may already know that short-snouted breeds such as bulldogs, French bulldogs, Pekingese and pugs are at high risk of heatstroke, but other dogs who can have problems from high temperatures include those with dark coats and those with coats more suited to extreme cold -- think Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes. Get your dog to the veterinarian if you notice frantic panting, glassy eyes, drooling and confusion. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.