Just like people, Pet Dementia can develop in their later years. This is called canine cognitive dysfunction in dogs and feline cognitive dysfunction in cats. These conditions can have a big impact on the quality of life of the affected pet, and on their ability to interact with their family.
Symptoms such as confusion, anxiety and failure to settle overnight can be very distressing for all involved. Being a family member of a pet which is suffering from cognitive dysfunction can also be very challenging. It is upsetting under any circumstances to have to come to terms with a furry friend losing their personality.
This, coupled with the sleep deprivation which results from confused barking or meowing overnight and the frustrations of having to clean up after a pet which has always been perfectly toilet-trained, can be exhausting and overwhelming. Since the condition develops during their senior years, it can often occur alongside other health problems too, which can make these patients more challenging to manage.
Cognitive dysfunction tends to develop slowly and progress gradually meaning that it often goes unnoticed for some time. Sometimes, the early signs can be subtle and easily mistaken for normal aging changes. Signs include:
For example, loss of toilet training can appear similar to excessive urine production, as both can result in urination inside the house or outside of the litter tray. Also, various physical health conditions, such as kidney disease, diabetes, and Cushing’s disease (dogs) can cause excessive urine production. Urinary infections, cystitis and urinary incontinence can also lead to inappropriate urination.
Similarly, patients experiencing pain or discomfort associated with osteoarthritis, another common condition seen in older patients, may exhibit excessive vocalisation, panting or pacing. Many of these physical health problems can be treated or managed effectively, and must be ruled out before assuming that Pet Dementia is the primary cause.
Medications and lifestyle changes can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life, allowing patients to live longer, happier lives than they would otherwise. However, at some point pets affected by Pet Dementia will sadly deteriorate. Then their quality of life will eventually become poor, often resulting in the difficult decision to put them to sleep.
Making the decision to euthanase a beloved pet is never straightforward. But when a condition progresses slowly and gradually it can be more difficult to know where to draw the line. Even worse, your pet may be perfectly healthy physically, despite their mental deterioration.
It can be helpful to take a step back emotionally and think objectively about your pet’s quality of life. Consider whether they are still able to enjoy the things that made them happy before the diagnosis.
If your pet loved playing or exercising, are they still interested in their toys or able to go for walks? If food was their biggest joy in life, do they still get excited at mealtimes or when offered treats? Alternatively, if they were cuddly and affectionate, do they still seek human contact or are they spending time alone?
A pet which is no longer able to enjoy the things they always loved may not be a happy pet. Although they may not be experiencing physical pain, their overall quality of life may be suffering.
A physical health condition may become difficult to manage if your pet goes on to develop cognitive dysfunction. For example, they may become confused or distressed when you try to administer their usual medications. Depending on the type and severity of the physical health condition, it may not be possible to withdraw treatment without them becoming unwell. In these cases, euthanasia is sometimes the kindest option.
In the case of Pet Dementia, more so than with a physical medical condition, your judgements and thoughts on how your pet is feeling at home are far more important than the assessments that we can make as vets.
The original question of “When is the right time?” should always be considered on an individual basis, taking into account the impact the condition is having on both yourself and your pet. We are always here to help guide your decision, but it is likely that you will ‘just know’ when it is the right time for you and your pet. When that time comes we can help to make it as peaceful as possible for both of you.