Pet owners who notice their animals becoming forgetful and confused may be shocked to learn that the cause could be a particularly human problem.
Growing numbers of cats and dogs are suffering from dementia, with more than a million in Britain likely to have the condition.
Vets have warned that sedentary lifestyles and poor diets may be behind the rising number of dogs succumbing to the disease.
Experts have noticed that cats are also falling prey to a decline in their cognitive abilities, leading to clumsiness and other behaviour problems, such as getting lost in familiar territory.
They have warned that an estimated 1.3 million cats and dogs in Britain suffer from dementia, with a third of dogs developing some form of cognitive decline from the age of eight and two thirds of dogs experiencing similar problems from the age of 15.
Other studies, including one from the University of Edinburgh, suggest that half of all cats over the age of 15 and a third of those aged 11 to 14 suffer from dementia.
Prof Holger Volk, of the Royal Veterinary College, a leading veterinary scientist, said: “I don’t think that people really realise how serious this problem is.”
He said a lack of activity, with owners less willing to take their dogs out for long walks, plus a diet of cheap pet food might be to blame for aggravating the onset of dementia.
“We are seeing an increase in pet obesity. Just as we see health problems among people who are less active so we see the same problems with their pets eating more and getting less exercise and this may lead to an increase in dementia,” he said.
Prof Volk said there is little understanding of the problem among pet owners, leading them to miss the signs of their animals’ decline.
Sara Johnson noticed something was wrong with her cat, Emma, when it began to miaow at walls, get stuck in corners and walk around in circles. Mrs Johnson, 41, from Newbury, is a trained dementia carer and suspected her 16-year-old cat might be suffering from the same condition.
“It was very upsetting to see her like that and I suppose I was lucky in that I recognised the symptoms,” she said.
Mrs Johnson’s vet confirmed that Emma was suffering from feline dementia, or cognitive dysfunction syndrome, and recommended a supplement called Aktivait to help minimise the worst of her symptoms.
Prof Volk says the key to slowing the onset of pet dementia is for owners to ensure their animals get regular, vigorous exercise. “Neurons in the brain go into decline with dementia and the more you exercise the more they remain active,” he said.
He also recommended changing pets’ diets “so that they are eating high quality pet food containing fatty acids”.
Gudrun Ravetz, junior vice president of the British Veterinary Association, said medical problems, such as arthritis, could sometimes be mistaken for dementia, particularly in older cats and dogs, making it harder to determine the extent of the problem.
She urged owners to seek their vet’s advice so that any cognitive dysfunction can be detected and managed.
“This is an area that is quite new and its very distressing for owners when their animal begins exhibiting signs of distressed behaviour,” said Ms Ravetz.