Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

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Is your dog experiencing those odd “senior moments”; appears to be lost in plain sight, forgot to eat his dinner, didn’t greet the mailman at the door…? Then they may be suffering from an all too common condition seen in dogs called canine cognitive dysfunction. The exact process of this disorder is not certain, but it is similar in affect to human dementia, causing a gradual loss of normal thought processes and personality changes that can cause a dog to become a completely different pet through their golden years.

Since so many of the typical signs that are seen with cognitive dysfunction can overlap with other conditions it is important to note that a visit to the vet and a comprehensive set of lab work, and sometimes x-rays are often needed to ensure that things like arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease or even cancers are not the actual cause of a dog’s abnormal behavior. The clinical signs associated with cognitive dysfunction are typically grouped into five categories; disorientation, interactions, sleep-wake cycle, house soiling and activity.

Disorientation is often one of the most common signs noticed by owners (along with house soiling). It is typically noted by a dog acting lost in an all too familiar environment, trying to enter through the wrong side of the door or getting trapped in odd places (like behind the couch or in a closet). A loss of spatial awareness is prominent in the disease process causing even the most intelligent and focused dog to become a lost puppy.

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The interaction category focuses mainly on the personality changes attributed to the disease based on how the pet reacts to the other beings in their environment. Most people just explain away personality changes as, “she’s just a cranky old lady,” and part of that is the case with cognitive dysfunction. As the brain changes, personality does too, and a once happy, friendly, active dog becomes a grumpy, irritable, biting old pooch. As mentioned before however, it is imperative to rule out other causes of this behavior, pain especially can be a cause of irritability, so a good exam and pain management strategy can be employed to make sure that achy old bones are not the cause of the apparent personality change.

Sleep-wake cycle changes can often be the most frustrating issues for owners to deal with as these old dogs often stay up most of the night pacing, lost and unaware that it is actually time for them to be asleep, causing others in the house to lose sleep as well. Sleep-wake cycle disruption or complete reversal is actually the one sign that is pretty specific to a cognitive disorder, but is not always present in every dog with dysfunction.

House soiling, another very obvious change noted by owners is commonly seen with these dogs. A once perfectly house trained pet will be put outside to do their business and then after ½ hour do it in the house. This goes back to that disorientation category a bit in that, these dogs often lose that correlation to the outdoors being the place to potty and forgetfully do it wherever. It is important to try and ensure again that no other disease is the cause, arthritis, nerve disease, kidney disease and diabetes can also be a cause of inappropriate bathroom behavior.

Activity levels do typically change with age, but these dogs have a particular decrease in their drive to do anything that they would normally find pleasing. They may also switch from a quiet and low-key dog to one that barks incessantly with no obvious reason and paces around the house in a circle with no regard for any other their normal activities.

Though there are ways to try and help these old dogs feel better, there is no cure. Progression can be slowed and signs can be treated. There are a few diets that have been formulated high in anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids to promote nervous cell health and slow disease progression. Enrichment can be a very helpful way to slow the disease by providing play and puzzles to mentally stimulate an old dog and increase their activity levels. Also medications can be given to those overly anxious dogs to help them sleep and cope with some of the cognitive changes they are experiencing.

It is important to remember that these signs start gradually and may be missed early on; twice yearly exams for our old pets can help us pick up these subtle changes and intervene as soon as possible.