May 15, 2024 | Dog

A guide to cognitive function in dogs

What is cognitive function in dogs?

Cognitive function refers to an individual’s ability to process thoughts. It is defined as “the ability of an individual to perform the various mental activities most closely associated with learning and problem-solving”. Whilst in people, cognition mainly refers to things like speech and memory, in dogs, cognitive function refers to things like understanding human gestures, reading intentions and being sensitive to human attentional and emotional states.

The Importance Of Canine Cognitive Style

Knowing your dog’s “cognitive style” will help you understand what drives them, how they learn, and what they need from you to make their learning experiences easier. Cognition celebrates many types of intelligence, and if a dog is slower to pick up commands etc, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are of low intelligence; instead, they may learn in a different way or require a different environment to learn in.

Are older dogs more likely to experience canine cognitive dysfunction?

Just like humans, older dogs can experience a decline in their cognitive processes which can impact their daily lives. Just as the body physically slows down, senior dogs can also experience behavioural changes which may seem “out of character” for them and could be the result of cognitive decline. This condition has been termed “Cognitive dysfunction syndrome” (CDS) and causes deterioration similar to that seen with Alzheimer’s disease in people.

Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs

Dogs may start to develop CDS from around nine years of age and the condition may be underdiagnosed as the behavioural changes slowly progress. Owners may assume that this is just part of the normal ageing process.

Early intervention with environmental enrichment, diet and medical management can improve the quality of life for dogs affected by CDS.

What causes CDS in dogs?

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is caused by gradual and degenerative changes in the brain.

Neurons are cells in the brain which play a crucial role in the transmission of “information” throughout the body, helping to regulate mental as well as physical interactions. As a dog starts to age, the cells in their brains, including neurons, start to waste away.

A build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid occurs creating toxic conditions for the neurons. As the neurons stop functioning properly, or die off, the brain loses its capacity for processing “information” and it is this breakdown of internal signals which leads to the physical and behavioural changes that owners observe.

What are the clinical signs of CDS?

CDS may manifest as just one clinical sign which progresses over time, or have several different signs, the most commonly observed ones being:

  • Disorientation - Getting “lost” in familiar places, staring into space (“star-gazing”), or getting stuck in corners.

  • Sleep pattern changes - Sleeping more during the day and wandering about at night

  • House-soiling - Urinating and/or defecating indoors when they have always been toilet-trained.

  • Interaction changes - Suddenly becoming clingy, or not recognising familiar people.

  • Change in activity levels - Decreased interest in playing and other activities, pacing, restlessness.

  • Anxiety - New phobias, irritability, aggression, anxiousness.

  • Learning changes - No longer responding to old, familiar commands.

Diagnosis of CDS is based on the appearance (and possibly progression) of clinical signs, once other possible causes of such signs have been ruled out, such as seizures, hearing or sight loss, and pain. MRIs can also be performed to rule out brain tumours or other conditions. 

What is the treatment for CDS?

Unfortunately, as with dementia in humans, there is no cure or one treatment currently available, although there is extensive ongoing research in this area. Controlling any concurrent health issues such as obesity or arthritis is important, and treatment usually consists of a combination of:

  • Diet - Certain prescription diets are available such as Hill’s B/D or Royal Canin Mature Consult which are rich in antioxidants, fatty acids and other important nutrients which support brain function.

  • Enrichment - Regular interaction with your dog through play or interactive toys/games and regular exercise can help stimulate their brain.

  • Medications - Certain medications have been shown to help reduce anxiety, such as Zylkene Capsules or Zylkene Chews. Similarly, the use of pheromone devices such as an Adaptil Calm Collar can help reduce anxiety. Other drugs can help to improve the circulation of blood to the brain such as Propentofylline (licensed for use in dogs as Vitoffylin). Certain supplements may also help such as Aktivait.

In summary, canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome is more recognised now than ever before, as dogs continue to live longer thanks to good nutrition, proactive and judicious use of veterinary medication and treatments, and a heightened acceptance of the importance of quality of life.

Dr Rachel Louise Keane BVSc BSc MRCVS believes that early intervention is key to slowing the progress of CDS.

“Although there is no cure for the condition currently, early intervention can help to slow down the inevitable progression of the disease, and as new treatments and ideas come into practice for similar conditions in people, these will eventually filter through into the veterinary world and should be supported wholeheartedly.”

Medically reviewed by:


Cognitive dysfunction syndrome | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Management of Dogs and Cats With Cognitive Dysfunction | Today's Veterinary Practice (

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome in dogs | Purina Institute

Dementia in Dogs: Cognitive Dysfunction - PDSA

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs | Petplan