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We live in a world of amazing medical advances and technology. The combination of advances in veterinary medicine and the willingness of owners to invest in their pet’s health has allowed our companion animals to live longer and happier lives. With this longevity comes certain age related diseases, most notably, cognitive decline that resembles human dementia or Alzheimers in both pathology and progression. This change in mental function called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), can begin to effect dogs as they approach senior age and is a progressive disease.
Cognitive Changes Can Vary
CCD can effect any breed with varying symptoms that can begin as early as 5 years old in giant breeds to the teen years in others. Early signs can be subtle changes in behavior or habits that can be easy to miss. Maybe they aren’t as interested in toys like they used be to or aren’t as quick to greet you at the door. As time goes by though, it will become clear that your dog’s mind is changing.
Some of the common symptoms of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction :
Change in sleep cycles– sleeping during the day and up at night, pacing at night, sleeping more over all
Increased Anxiety- common symptoms can be pacing, vocalizing, excessive panting, and trembling,
Decreased Activity- Not interested in things that used to interest them such as playing, less willing to go for walks or play with housemates
Inappropriate Vocalization- barking, whining, howling for not apparent reason
Incontinence- urinating and defecating in the house or inappropriate places (even after just having been outside), not indicating that they need to go out for potty breaks
Increased aggression- bite first mentality,some loose the ability to communicate with other dogs leading to fights or unwanted behavior
Less Social Interactions- becoming withdrawn or isolated even with family members, loss of interest in other housemates, generally less engaged in what is going on around them
Generalized disorientation- getting lost or seeming confused in their own house or yard, getting stuck in corners or under furniture, not able to figure out how to get out of a room or back home during a walk, forgetting to go to the food and water bowls when they are thirsty or hungry, staring at the wall
Make Sure That You Are Not Dealing With Another Health Related Issue
Just as with our human family members, it is hard to watch the decline in our pets. Over time, they begin to lose their independence and require more and more care to meet their daily needs. The good thing about canine cognitive dysfunction is that is a slowly progressing disease. Some pets will demonstrate only one or two symptoms in their lifetime while others could show more. The first thing that any pet owner needs to do if they are worried about CCD is to consider what signs that they are seeing and then consult their veterinarian. Several of the symptoms that we have discussed can also be from other health issues. Sometimes dogs can be crabby and change their behavior because they are in pain from arthritis. If a pet’s vision is declining they may be less willing to participate in the usual activities or navigate a once familiar area. Once we have determined that any other medical need of an aging dog is met, then we can evaluate the best way to manage the remaining symptoms of mental decline (if there are any).
Helpful Management Strategies
Diet Changes. What your pet eats can play a significant role in delaying cognitive changes as they age. Studies have shown the having a diet rich in antioxidants, medium chained triglycerides (MCT), antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids can help to slow the progression of the disease. Companies such as Hills and Purina make specially formulated “brain” diets rich in these components. If you are interested in a more natural diet then look for one that centers around antioxidants, vitamin B, and omega 3 fatty acids. If you are cooking for your dog, make sure that the antioxidants are dog friendly like blueberries, dark green veggies, and sweet potatoes. For the MCT supplementation, coconut oil has been commonly used if the pet will tolerate it. (Any oil supplement can soften the poop and if you are already dealing with incontinence then that can be a disaster!)
Medication to Slow Progression and Reduce Anxiety.
Anipryl (selegiline) is one drug out there that is thought to reduce or slow down some of the destructive pathology in the brain. Medication that may reduce anxiety or aggression associated with the cognitive changes include fluoxitine, amitriptyline, benzodiazapines, and gabapentin. One daily supplement for anxiety that is promising is Solloquin. There are many stories out there about the use of CBD to manage anxiety in dogs but there are currently no scientific studies to support this claim. So the question is two parts: does CBD help reduce anxiety associated with canine cognitive dysfunction and if so, what would be the dosing ? The answer is that the two studies out there looking at the use of CBD products in dogs have focused on either epilepsy or pain control for arthritis so we don’t know. Also the CBD products are considered nutraceuticals and therefore are not regulated for purity and content. The biggest concern with CBD use, in my opinion, is the potential for serious issues with the quality of the product. My guess is that CBD products will eventually play a role in canine cognitive management in the future after we have worked out some of the existing issues.
Keep Them Active (both mentally and physically). Don’t treat your older dog as if they are old! Keep encouraging those walks and fun times. Make an effort to engage your senior pet with mental games like “find the toy” or offering behaviors like sit/stay/heel/giving paw for treats or rewards. Continue to make them “mind their manners” with commands and expectations if it is still within their comprehension. If your dog is showing some of the signs of CCD but still has the drive to participate in sporting events, keep going but maybe scaled back some or with more supervision in case they get confused. Give your dog a reason to get up and to get going every day. Most importantly, keeping an older dog active and awake during the day may help them hold on to their normal sleep cycle at night.
Stick to a routine. Try to have a routine feeding , walking , and bedtime schedule. Change is hard for these dogs and a source of anxiety so keeping eating, activity, and resting as routine as possible is important.
Modify the Environment. If your dog is getting stuck behind or under furniture and not able to figure how to get out, then limiting unsupervised access to parts of the house may be necessary. Baby gates and/or crating (if they were already used to a crate and accepted it as part of their routine) can keep an unsupervised disoriented pet out of trouble and safe from harm. You may need to block off stairs if your dog is unable to navigate them without the potential of falling. Harnesses and lift systems can be lifesavers if your dog needs a hand going up the stairs, in/out of the car, or even help keeping steady during potty breaks. Belly bands or doggy diapers can be very helpful in allowing a pet to remain with their family in the house and not isolated because of soiling concerns.
The Smoothing Out the Bumpy Road of Cognitive Decline
Aging is an unstoppable process that we are all going through. Some of the changes that come with the aging process are are good, some are not so good. A few of the management strategies that we have discussed are easy enough to implement earlier in life, before any signs of potential canine cognitive dysfunction even show up. Keep your dog active and stimulated while also feeding a nutrient rich diet with omega 3 fatty acids and good stuff like veggies. Easy, right? On a final note, if we can take a moment to assess the needs of our pets as they enter the later stages of their life and combine that with compassion, we certainly can smooth out the bumpy road of cognitive decline.