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Senior Dogs: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome


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Scientists use dogs as models to study Alzheimer’s Disease in people because there are so many similarities on so many levels. Neurochemistry in dog brains is shockingly identical to people. For thousands of years dogs have lived side by side with humans and share our same environments.

What makes this research possible in the first place is that dogs may suffer an Alzheimer’s-like disease called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. The amyloid plaque in the brain in these older dogs looks very similar to people. Also, canine cognitive dysfunction in dogs is increasingly common, likely because dogs are living longer. It’s also diagnosed more with increased awareness.

So how do veterinarians diagnose canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome? Well, there is no simple blood test, and brain imaging for dogs is expensive and not always the right option anyway.  Also, memory testing and problem solving tests haven’t been developed for dogs.

Interestingly in humans, considerations include:

  •  Reflexes
  • Muscle tone and strength
  • Ability to get up from a chair and walk across the room
  • Sense of sight and hearing
  • Coordination
  • Balance

No doubt other medical factors play a role in these bullet points, still some of these factors veterinarians may begin to consider.

Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Currently, for dogs, if two of the following four factors are confirmed as a problem, veterinary professionals may diagnose canine cognitive dysfunction.

  • Disorientation: Periodically the dog appears confused, perhaps trying to enter a room on the wrong side of a door or forgetting why he or she walked into a room in the first place. A dog who appears to have forgotten cues, like “sit.”
  • Interaction changes: Dogs who once greeted family members are now ambivalent; dogs who barked at the door but now no longer care or the other way around. Or, a dog who didn’t much care for a family member now loving on that person. These are changes in interpersonal interactions.
  • Sleep/wake cycle changes: Of course, older dogs sleep more, but not necessarily wake up in the middle of the night randomly barking or pacing. Or, a dog that did snooze a lot during the day (normal for elderly dogs), now hardly sleeps and seems agitated.
  • House training: A dog you know is house trained but has “forgotten.”
  • Activity disappears: Of course, older dogs do less, but when a dog appears no longer interested in life, or the family or other pets. The personality of the dog seems to be changing.

Of course, changes are also impacted by changing senses, such as declines in vision and/or hearing, which may also play a role in the above signs. Various medical conditions or medications may also contribute, which is why your veterinarian must sift through the information.

What Can Be Done to Help

Here’s what veterinarians can do to slow the progression of cognitive dysfunction syndrome. While there is no magic pill to stop canine cognitive dysfunction in its tracks; the idea is to catch it as early as possible to make it possible to slow that progression:

*Changes in diet such as adding  medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in the diet, which have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older pets. Another benefit may be support for weight loss (which researchers indicate may be associated with cognitive decline). Purina Pro NC NeuroCare offers MCT’s, which interestingly may also reduce seizures in dogs.  Being a balance diet, for many dogs, there’s no downside to begin this diet in an older animal before signs of brain decline occur (except for the cost of the diet).

*Senilife, a nutraceutical with phosphatidylserine, which is part of a cell membrane that has been used to treat humans with Alzheimer’s disease. The components of Senilife work synergistically and have a specific neuroprotective action to help protect your dog from the brain-aging-related behaviors.

*Neutricks, a nutraceutical, contains apoaequorin, a substance derived from jellyfish. Studies indicated that dogs (and people) taking apoaequorin experience enhanced learning and attention tasks, and a possible slowing of cognitive decline.

*Omega 3 Fatty Acid supplements, such as Wellactin. These offer the same benefits for dogs as they do for people: brain health, skin/coat care, support for kidneys, vision, and immune system.

*Anipryl: This drug, selegeline hydrocloride, can help some dogs. It seems the earlier the drug is introduced, the more effective it may be.

*CBD: Anecdotally, yes, there is evidence from pet parents suggesting this can help. However, there’s no science (yet) to show this. Also, beware, not all CBD products are created equal.

What Pet Parents Can Proactively Do

In addition, we know the following will help people and exceedingly likely dogs delay the onset or slow the onset of canine cognitive dysfunction.

Exercise: Of course, older dogs aren’t running marathons, but a daily walk, even a short one, does a lot of good. Sniffing the grass and flowers is enriching, even exhilarating, for dogs. Also, just as has repeatedly been demonstrated in people, exercise promotes brain health (aside from a myriad other benefits).

Learning: Continued learning throughout life is absolutely beneficial. While physical exercise is valuable, mental exercise may prove even more beneficial.

Enriched environments: A boring and static environment does nothing to stimulate the brain; however, periodically hiding treats or providing interesting smells and rotating toys is enriching and therefore exceedingly beneficial.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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