Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
When a dog’s brain ages, a condition called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) can occur, which can lead to changes in awareness, deficits in learning and memory, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli. This syndrome, which is also referred to as canine dementia or doggy dementia, can start with mild signs that worsen over time, also known as “Cognitive Decline.” 33% of all dogs over 11 years of age have CCD, and almost all 16-year-old dogs have at least one of the clinical signs of this syndrome.
Causes of Canine Dementia
A dog’s brain atrophies as they age – which means it gets smaller as cells die. These changes can affect brain function, as well as cause small strokes (that owners may not notice) and other accumulation of damage that may also have a role in Canine Cognitive Decline. It is unknown what the exact causes are, however, they are likely the same as in humans.
For example, just like people with Alzheimer’s, dogs with CCD have amyloid plaques/deposits in the front part of the brain, and this is associated with memory and learning problems, as well as the ability to voluntarily control urinating and defecating. With time, the plaques progress to other brain structures which may lead to problems with spatial disorientation, wandering, and decreased vision and hearing capabilities.
Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
- Disorientation and confusion
- Anxiety and restlessness
- Extreme irritability
- Decreased desire to play
- Excessive licking
- Urinating or defecating in the house, or otherwise “forgetting” previous trainings
- Slow to learn new tasks
- Inability to follow familiar routes, seeming not to know where they are, seeming not to recognize their surroundings
- Excessive barking
- Lack of self-grooming
- Fecal and urinary incontinence
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in sleep cycle (e.g., night waking, sleeping during the day). This is often accompanied by restless pacing, panting, and/or barking at night despite activity and exercise during the day)
Diagnosis of Canine Dementia
A full physical exam and a neurologic exam should be performed by a veterinarian. Bloodwork, x-rays, ultrasounds and other diagnostics can help diagnose CCD, mainly by ruling out other causes of the presenting clinical signs. This is known as a “diagnosis of exclusion.” But this is a condition where the owner’s thorough history of the dog’s behavior is of the utmost importance in helping to diagnose their condition.
Treatment for Dogs with Dementia
There is no cure for CCD, but there are supportive measures you can take to care for your senior/geriatric canine companion. Some things that can help are a prescription diet for CCD, medications to help regulate their circadian rhythms to get them on a more normal sleeping schedule, comfortable orthopedic beds lined with puppy pee pads (to easily clean up after them if they’re incontinent or “forgot” that they’re housebroken), replacing stairs/jumps with ramps, and helping them down when jumping out of cars/off beds and couches, etc. Supplements such as antioxidants, vitamin E and C, selenium, flavonoids, beta carotene, carotenoids, omega-3, and carnitine are helpful, and are often already in the prescription diets for CCD. Keeping your dog’s mind fresh with new tricks, daily interaction, exercise and stimulation have been shown to help.
Prevention of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
There is no way to prevent CCD from developing. If you notice that your aging dog has changed their usual behaviors, patterns, or schedule, have them seen by a vet. Senior dogs should be examined, and bloodwork should be checked at least annually to monitor internal organ function. If your dog is on any medications for CCD, your vet may want to check bloodwork every 6 months.
When should I contact a vet?
If you notice a change in your senior/geriatric’s dog behavior, such as any of the clinical signs listed above, see a veterinarian. Sadly, some dogs may have other conditions such as brain tumors, acute onset of blindness due to glaucoma, and other serious illnesses that can mimic CCD. It’s important to figure out the cause of the behavior changes before assuming that it’s dementia.
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