When a Pet Has Alzheimer's Disease
Older pets often need help for "neurocognitive impairment", just like humans.
Posted November 30, 2020
Let me start this post with two clarifications. First, I want to clarify what I mean by the term “Alzheimer’s Disease”. Alzheimer’s Disease is a specific neurological disorder that involves significant changes in memory, understanding, communication and/or complex thinking. It is a specific type of neurological condition that falls under the general category of medical diagnoses called “dementia”. What makes Alzheimer’s different from other types of dementia is the specific neurological problems that are involved. Humans and animals both can have the negative neurological changes associated with dementia but it is harder to tell if the specific neurological changes for animals are exactly the same as Alzheimer’ Disease for humans (Majdic & Mihevc, 2019). What all this means is that we can say that animals and humans can both have dementia (also called “neurocognitive impairment”) but it is not always clear if it exactly the same condition as Alzheimer’s Disease. It may have been more accurate for me to call this post “What to do when a pet develops dementia (or neurocognitive impairment)” but I was concerned many people would not be familiar with those terms.
And, second, I wanted to clarify that dementia in animals primarily occurs in domesticated animals (in other words, “pets”). This is because significant changes in cognitive abilities, like memory and understanding, are not likely to last long for animals out in the wild. Animals that have to depend on their abilities to find food and otherwise survive are not likely to do well if they develop memory problems. They are either likely to starve, get killed or wander off into unfamiliar territory without anyone to assist them. So it is not that we know for sure that animals out in the wild cannot develop dementia but, rather, that they are not likely to survive very long if and when they develop dementia. Pets who have someone to take care of them are more likely to have some way of surviving even if their abilities change in major ways.
When it comes to dementia in humans and animals, one of the most noticeable changes is in the individual’s ability to recall important information. Dogs with neurocognitive impairment might forget where their food bowls are and cats might forget where to find their favorite sleeping spots. What can be most upsetting for pet owners is that animals with dementia can also forget who their owners are. They may show no recognition of the people they have lived with their whole lives. This is similar to the very emotionally distressing time for familiar members of human patients with dementia who forget who they are and why they live with them.
Dementia often brings with it considerable negative changes in how a person or animal communicates. In humans this is often seen with the person talking about things that make no sense. They may be expressing concern about problems that have not existed for decades or may not have every resisted. Humans with dementia will often get very upset about things that make no sense to another person. And then it is often the very fact that they are confusing the other person that can make the person with dementia even more upset. In this way, the words the person uses are primarily a way of the person expressing emotional distress and trying to get across just how upset they are. What they are saying is upsetting them is not as meaningful as their expressing just how upset they are.
Animals with neurocognitive impairment often change how they communicate as well. This is seen most clearly in dogs and how they bark. Their barking may seem more random and not clearly related to any one thing. And that is a reflection of what is actually happening. Humans who suffer dementia and animals both suffer from conditions where their communication becomes less purposeful. They are letting others know they are distressed and upset without really aiming at getting any one thing addressed. Dementia leads to them being upset and distressed about everything so it can be difficult to see their communication pointing to any one thing.
You can even see some more severe behaviors in pets with dementia that are similar to those in humans with dementia. Many animals and humans with dementia may have some form of hallucinations or delusions. They may act as if they see or hear things that are not really there. Anger and related aggression can also be more of a problem with animals and humans who are suffering the effects of dementia. And since dementia is typically associated with old age in both animals and humans there often are physical changes, including hearing loss and/or loss of smell that can make dealing with the cognitive changes even more difficult.
Taking care of a pet with dementia can be heartbreaking. Pets are often members of the family and seeing them suffer can be just as emotionally trying as seeing human members of the family suffer. Owners will want to do what they can to help a pet who is suffering the perils of neurocognitive impairment. And, just like with humans suffering dementia, there may not be much you can do to treat the dementia. But you can do things to help lessen the suffering. Pet owners can make life more comfortable for their family members and help the animals deal better with the troubles they face.
Keeping your pet’s environment and schedule the same each day can be helpful. Much like with humans, predictability helps a lot in lessening confusion and its related emotional distress. Keep important things, like food bowls and favorite toys, in the same place every day. And take your pet for walks at the same time every day. Life can less stressful for a confused pet if they know what to expect and when to expect it every day. Even if it takes your pet more time to learn the schedule than it did before the predictability and lessened stress can make the work worthwhile.
People and animals both want to be heard. And barking from a confused pet is similar to the yelling and arguing from a confused human family member. Both represent distress and both come about because they want to be heard and want their stress lessened. Taking extra time to soothe your pet when this is happening, as a way of showing them that everything is OK and that you hear them, can be helpful. You want to let your animal family member know, much as you would a human family member in distress, that they are safe and that you are concerned and are looking out for them.
Although there are only a few potential medical treatment for dementia in pets, some research suggests that physical exercise and socialization can help improve cognitive functioning and possibly slow the dementia process (Chapagain, Range, Huber & Virányi, 2018). Even if you can only get your pet out for brief walks, any degree of physical activity is likely to be helpful. Keep in mind that a healthy diet is even more important for an older pet with neurocognitive problems than a younger pet.
Working to lessen stressors in a pet’s environment can be even more important for older pets than younger pets, especially if those pets are suffering some form of cognitive impairment. You may need to talk your pet for more walks or give them more places where they can go to the bathroom when needed. This may include things like having more litter boxes around the house for a cat. Keeping loud and unexpected noises to a minimum can be important. Taking steps to lessen how often the pet has to be around young children, who can often be both loud and unpredictable, can be important.
Helping a pet with dementia involves showing love and support, keeping consistency and predictability to a maximum and keeping loud noises and stressors to a minimum. This is also very similar to approaches that are important for helping a human adult who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. Both involve loved ones who are suffering major changes in their lives and need to know they are safe and that people are looking out for them.
Chapagain, D., Range, F., Huber, L., & Virányi, Z. (2018). Cognitive aging in dogs. Gerontology, 64(2), 165-171.
Majdic, G., & Prpar Mihevc, S. (2019). Canine Cognitive Dysfunction and Alzheimer’s Disease–Two Facets of the Same Disease?. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 604-612.