Is your dog acting differently or showing signs of “getting old and forgetful”? If so, they may have doggy dementia, more accurately known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). This degenerative disorder typically affects older dogs and cats, and has been compared to Alzheimer’s disease in people.
While this may sound scary for your beloved senior dog, take heart: progression of cognitive dysfunction is very gradual with the signs often mistaken for “normal ageing changes.” Studies have shown that more than 28% of 11-year-old dogs and 68% of 15-year-old dogs showed one or more signs of diminished cognitive function.
What’s happening to my dog’s brain?
In a healthy dog, neurons (brain cells) store and transfer information within the brain and from the brain to the rest of the body. Research has shown that dogs with CDS have fewer neurons in their brain, and that their brains have atrophied or shrunk, especially the cortical part of the brain that’s important for learning and understanding. There are also protein accumulations (β-amyloid plaques) that disrupt neuron function. As well, reduced blood flow throughout the brain contributes to further neuron dysfunction and loss.
Signs of cognitive dysfunction include:
- Disorientation/confusion such as staring into space or not recognizing familiar people.
- Interactions are altered with the dog becoming either clingier or disinterested in their owner.
- Sleep disturbances
- Waking at the wrong time
- Sleeping unusually deeply
- Night pacing or restlessness
- House soiling
- Loss of learnt behaviours like house training
- Activity changes
- Decreased interest in play/exercise
- Restlessness, inability to settle
- Anxiety (new or worsening)
- More reactive to stimuli
- Increased anxiety in new places or outside
- Obsessive licking
- Newly developed or worsening aggressive behaviour
Veterinary behaviourists have developed a tool based on the anacronym above (DISHAA) to help owners and veterinarians assess cognition changes in senior dogs. Completing the form found at the link above before his examination can help your veterinarian guide you on how to help your older dog thrive.
How is cognitive dysfunction diagnosed?
CDS is most often a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning other medical conditions need to be ruled out first. Medical conditions that can mimic or worsen signs of CDS include:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Hormonal incontinence
- Chronic pain from arthritis, dental disease or neurologic conditions
Our veterinarians will discuss your pet’s behaviours and perform a thorough physical exam and assess their neurologic functions. Lab work will be recommended to screen for underlying medical conditions.
How is cognitive dysfunction treated?
Unfortunately, this disorder can’t be cured, but we can slow CDS progression and improve your pet’s mental health and quality of life.
- Nutrition high in vital nutrients, including antioxidants and essential fatty acids, may improve cognitive function and delay cognitive decline. Three examples that have been studied are Royal Canin Mature Consult, Hills b/d (brain diet) and Proplan Neurocare. Studies evaluating Hills b/d resulted in improved performance of cognitive tasks in as early as two to eight weeks.
- Anipryl (selegiline hydrochloride) helps prolong the activity of the brain chemical dopamine (usually broken down quickly in a brain affected by cognitive dysfunction) and reduce the number of free radicals that damage the brain. One study showed about 76% of pets with CDS showed improvement with this medication after one month of therapy. Some dogs improved in the first few days while others didn’t show improvement until the second month. If no improvement is seen in the first month, your veterinarian may recommend doubling the dose in the second month. Anipryl can have side effects if given with other drugs so please let us know all medications and supplements your dog is taking.
- SAM-e is an important substance made by the body that is often supplemented with a synthetic form to support dogs with liver problems. It has been shown to reduce the signs of cognitive dysfunction and also has potential anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects. SAM-e is found in products such as Zentonil, Denosyl and Novifit.
- Senilife is a supplement blend of anti-oxidants that may reduce the effects of the damaging free radicals in the brain.
- Pain control is important as chronic pain can mimic or worsen cognitive dysfunction. We can assess your dog and recommend medication, supplements or physical treatments like chiropractic care that can help your dog manage chronic pain.
An old dog can learn new tricks
Environmental enrichment is just as important, if not more important, than supplements, diets and medications. Just as there has been a huge upswing in “brain games” for elderly people, your dog needs to exercise his/her brain as well. If your pet’s vision is still good, teach signals. These will help if their hearing fails. In fact, signals are a more natural language for dogs than words! If your dog has trouble sitting, train “stand” or “look” commands.
Make time every day to play with them. Bring out special toys to encourage brain involvement. If your pet is food motivated, use treat puzzle toys to engage their problem-solving skills. Play hide and seek by working with a friend. Stand at opposite ends of your home and take turns calling your pet. Reward them with a treat when they find you, then change positions in the house while your friend calls your pet back to them.
If your pet has an abnormal sleep/wake cycle, increase their exercise during the day and reduce any stimulation at night (sounds, lights etc)..
Remember old age isn’t a disease! Keep your pets younger and healthier by exercising their body and mind daily!