You may expect that when your dog reaches their senior years they won't be as energetic, but if you notice changes in personality or your dog appears confused, it may be more than normal aging. Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome is the term for “dementia” as dogs experience it, and there is evidence that it is similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans.
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction are often disoriented, less friendly, and have sleeping problems, but these issues are not due to other health problems such as hearing loss. Dog dementia is a fairly common problem for senior dogs, with over half showing some symptoms, but there are treatments and ways to cope that can make life better for you and your dog.
Causes of Dog Dementia
The disorder is at least partially hereditary, and similar to human Alzheimer's disease. Many studies have found that dogs with dementia have lesions on their brains and/or smaller than average brains. The build-up of proteins that kill brain cells and reduce oxygen to the brain could be involved in damaging the brain.
This damage hampers the creation of new memories and thinking, affecting overall brain function as the dog encounters people and situations throughout the day. Usually, the condition is progressive, starting with mild symptoms and then becoming worse over time as brain function declines.
The effects of cognitive dysfunction syndrome can be seen through the symptoms listed below, but these can also be signs of other diseases that may require different treatment. When veterinarians diagnose cognitive dysfunction syndrome, they eliminate the possibility of other causes, such as tumors or hearing deficits. The following symptoms are not seen in all dogs, but showing several of them increases the likelihood of a dementia diagnosis.
- Confusion and disorientation: Dogs with cognitive dysfunction can appear confused or disoriented, even at home. They may get stuck in corners or behind doors and may also appear anxious about being lost. Sometimes they fail to recognize familiar people or bark at unusual times. Hearing or vision problems can cause similar behaviors, so your vet will check for these before making a diagnosis.
- Anxiety: Dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome tend to pace anxiously, especially at night, and may develop separation anxiety. They can also become irritable and mean with other animals or humans.
- Sleep cycle disturbance: Many dogs experience some change in their sleep cycle, either sleeping during the day and staying awake all night, or sleeping more in general. Older dogs sometimes have bladder problems or joint pain that keeps them awake at night, so these should be ruled out as possible causes of insomnia.
- Loss of Housetraining: This can be one of the most frustrating symptoms for pet parents, when a once well-trained dog starts going inside the house or forgets to go while outside. Bladder problems should be investigated, and older dogs may naturally need to go more frequently, but eliminating inside the house when there are opportunities to go out is often a sign of cognitive dysfunction.
- Less Interest in People: Often dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome will be less interested in their family, no longer greeting them at the door or looking for attention. They may become uninterested in playing, and lack excitement even at feeding time.
Treatment and Coping with Dog Dementia
If your dog is experiencing several of these symptoms, you should have your vet check for cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or any of the conditions that could cause similar behaviors. After eliminating other possible causes, your vet may prescribe selegiline, which is used in humans to treat Parkinson's disease. The drug has been shown to improve dogs' mental functioning and quality of life. Sometimes anti-anxiety medications are also prescribed for restless dogs.
Additionally, there are diet and lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce mental decline from cognitive dysfunction syndrome. A diet high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and other vitamins can improve mental function. You can also help you dog with daily play, training for new tricks, and exercise to keep their mind and body active.
These treatments should make the symptoms less severe, but coping can still be hard for families. You'll need patience and understanding now that your dog's behaviors have changed. Find ways to reduce stress by providing more opportunities for your dog to go out during the day and night, or providing an indoor litterbox. Avoid introducing new pets or provide your dog their own space away from other pets to avoid conflict. Finding new ways to play and train your dog will help you both enjoy time together.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.