the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.

Helping an old dog or cat maintain his tricks: Nutritional management of Cognitive Dysfunction

Helping an old dog or cat maintain his tricks: Nutritional management of Cognitive Dysfunction
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As our pets live longer lives, we face new medical challenges in maintaining them with a high quality of life. One condition that can have an adverse effect on senior pets is Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) in pets is similar to dementia in people. Affected pets may have altered sleep-wake cycles, “lose” their housetraining or litterbox training, seem disoriented, and have altered social relationships with people and other pets in the home. All of these changes can reduce the pet’s quality of life and potentially strain the human-animal bond.

CDS is likely underdiagnosed, with many pet owners just assuming that these changes are “normal” aspects of aging. It is estimated to affect up to a third of dogs over age 8 and may affect as many as 50% of cats in their mid to late teens. There are many other health concerns that can potentially result in similar clinical signs and there is no one test that can be used to diagnose it. If you notice behavioral changes in your pets as they age, it is important to discuss them with your veterinarian to rule out other causes. Treatment of CDS often involves a combination of approaches – environmental adjustments, nutritional modifications, and sometimes medications may all be used together.

Nutritional modifications

There has been quite a bit of research into nutritional approaches to treating CDS, especially for dogs, which could be a useful model for Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia in humans. Most of this research has focused on combinations of antioxidants (cell damage is thought to be a critical part of the aging process) and changes in omega-3 fatty acids and medium chain triglycerides, both specific types of fats. Most of the published studies have used multiple nutrient modifications at the same time, making it hard to determine which specific nutrients were most effective. Overall, though, diets with increased concentrations of fish oil, B vitamins, arginine, antioxidants from fruit and vegetables as well as vitamin E and C, and medium chain triglycerides have been demonstrated to improve cognitive function in aged dogs and cats. 1-4 There has also been some research investigating dietary supplements such as S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and phosphatidylserine. 5,6

The amount and exact form of each nutrient in the food is likely to be important, so merely looking for a diet that lists similar ingredients or adding supplements on top of a standard diet will not necessarily produce the desired effects. It is best to stick with products that have been evaluated in controlled studies and are known to also provide overall good nutrition with excellent quality control. There are several therapeutic diet options available for dogs that are designed to address CDS and these products are supported by research data. There are also a few dietary supplements and over-the-counter diets that have also been demonstrated to have benefits for dogs with CDS.

While there is some research showing similar benefits in cats, there are currently no therapeutic diets available for feline CDS. However, some of the published research has been integrated into over-the-counter diets and supplements such as SAMe are available, although dietary supplements may not be as effective as the tested diets. If you choose to try a supplement, it’s critical to select one with excellent quality control. Your veterinarian can help you find products that have data to support them.

While CDS can’t be reversed, with a combination of treatments including diet changes, you may be able to improve the quality of life of the affected pet. As research is on-going, there is hope that the future will provide additional options for both prevention and treatment.


  1. Pan Y, Kennedy AD, Jonsson TJ, et al. Cognitive enhancement in old dogs from dietary supplementation with a nutrient blend containing arginine, antioxidants, B vitamins and fish oil. British Journal of Nutrition 2018:1-10.
  2. Pan Y, Landsberg G, Mougeot I, et al. Efficacy of a therapeutic diet on dogs with signs of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS): A prospective double blinded placebo controlled clinical study. Frontiers in nutrition 2018;5:127.
  3. Pan Y, Larson B, Araujo JA, et al. Dietary supplementation with medium-chain TAG has long-lasting cognition-enhancing effects in aged dogs. British Journal of Nutrition 2010;103:1746-1754.
  4. Pan Y, Araujo JA, Burrows J, et al. Cognitive enhancement in middle-aged and old cats with dietary supplementation with a nutrient blend containing fish oil, B vitamins, antioxidants and arginine. British Journal of Nutrition 2013;110:40-49.
  5. Osella MC, Re G, Badino P, et al. Phosphatidylserine (PS) as a potential nutraceutical for canine brain aging: A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2008;3:41-51.
  6. Araujo JA, Landsberg GM, Milgram NW, et al. Improvement of short-term memory performance in aged beagles by a nutraceutical supplement containing phosphatidylserine, Ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, and pyridoxine. The Canadian veterinary journal La revue veterinaire canadienne 2008;49:379-385.

Image by Marilou Burleson from Pixabay


Dr. Cailin Heinze is a Board-certified Veterinary Nutritionist® and the Executive Director and Chief Academic Officer of the Mark Morris Institute, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote optimal companion animal health by providing educational opportunities for veterinary students and veterinarians in clinical nutrition. She has also done some consulting work for Balance IT, a company that makes software and supplements for home-cooked pet diets. She is an expert in home-cooked diet formulation and general pet nutrition and has a special interest in feeding pets with kidney disease and cancer.

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