Many pet owners wish that their dog could stay a puppy forever. However, just like humans, they inevitably will age and eventually slow down. While natural signs of aging are nothing to be alarmed about, if your dog’s personality or behaviors change, it might be something a bit more serious than just getting old. Your dog may be dealing with a disease called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, or CCD.
What is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is caused by physical changes to an aging dog’s brain. The condition will lead to changes in a dog’s awareness, memory, and ability to learn, which will cause his behavior to change. CCD most closely resembles dementia or Alzheimer’s in humans.
Initial symptoms of CCD are often mild, but they will gradually worsen over time, a condition called “cognitive decline.” Most dogs over the age of 10 will show symptoms of CCD. In fact, 50 percent of dogs over the age of 11 show signs of the disease, with the figure rising to 68 percent in dogs over the age of 15. Cognitive decline has been seen in dogs as young as six, so symptoms in a younger dog should not be ignored.
Signs of Dementia in Dogs
There are several symptoms that might be associated with cognitive decline in your dog. However, many of them can also be attributed to other medical conditions, so it is always best to see your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.
That being said, here are some of the common dog dementia symptoms:
- Pacing back and forth or in circles (often turning consistently in one direction)
- Getting lost in familiar places, particularly in your own home or yard
- Staring into space or walls
- Walking into corners or other tight spaces and remaining there
- Appearing lost or confused
- Waiting on the wrong side of the door to go out
- Failing to get out of the way when someone opens a door
- Failing to remember routines, or starting them and only getting part of the way through
- Barking for no apparent reason and/or for long periods
- Ceasing to bark when she used to be very noisy
- Forgetting cues and trained behaviors she once knew
- Exhibiting motor difficulties like difficulty backing up
- Startling easily
- Getting less enthusiastic about toys or stopping playing altogether
- Showing an unwillingness to go outside or for a walk
- Performing repetitive behaviors
- Having trouble with eating or drinking, including difficulty finding their bowls, aiming their mouth, and keeping food in their mouth
- Losing appetite
- Failing to respond to her name
- Gets startled by lighting or the television
- Having difficulty getting all the way into bed
- Trembling for seemingly no reason
- Falling off of things
- Getting trapped under or behind furniture
- Sleeping more during the day and less at night
- Forgetting house training, despite how often it goes outside
- Having difficulty learning new tasks, commands or routines
- Seeking attention less; growing withdrawn
- Acting frightened of familiar people
- Having trouble with stairs
- Getting generally more fearful and anxious
One of the most common signs of CCD is when a dog seems to be getting lost in corners or behind furniture and starts waiting on the wrong side of the door. They will stand helplessly, seemingly unable to figure out the next step. Another is when dogs pace and wander around the house anxiously for no reason.
Your normally friendly dog may also suddenly stop seeking human companionship, or stop greeting family members as they used to. They will even walk away while being petted, generally a pretty alarming sign. Others may reverse their sleep patterns and sleep in the day and wander around awake and confused at night. They may also just sleep more overall.
Several potential symptoms are also associated with a wide variety of other conditions.
One particularly troublesome sign is when a dog seems to forget to eat, or have a general disinterest in their food. This can be connected to several other conditions, but is of concern because senior dogs do not have much reserves to live off of. You should see your vet immediately if your dog is not eating.
A frustrating sign of CCD is if your dog stops responding to commands like he used to. In this case, hearing loss needs to be ruled out before anything else. Hearing loss is quite common in senior dogs. If a dog is suffering from CCD, he will not be able to process the command and act on it as he used to. He may even be confused when name is called.
A loss of house training is a very common symptom. Senior dogs with CCD may forget to go outside to go to the bathroom as they had for years. Sometimes, your dog may not even be aware that they are leaking. In other cases, they may purposely seek out places to go in the house, not realizing they are doing anything wrong. With this issue, a urinary tract infection or gastrointestinal issue must be ruled out before a behavioral problem can be pointed to.
What Causes Cognitive Dysfunction in Dogs?
While the exact cause of CCD is currently unknown, some genetic factors may predispose a dog to develop the condition. There are also a few factors that can cause changes in an aging brain, resulting in a gradual impairment in a dog’s cognitive function. These include oxidative stress from free radical damage, the formation of lesions on the brain, and alterations in a dog’s oxygen and energy availability.
Oxidative stress is defined as “physiological stress on the body that is caused by the cumulative damage done by free radicals inadequately neutralized by antioxidants and that is held to be associated with aging.”
Free radicals are unstable molecules with an uneven number of electrons that travel around your dog’s body looking to bond with stable molecules in an effort to steal an electron and stabilize themselves. If successful, they will create new unstable molecules with uneven numbers of electrons. The result of this process is oxidative stress.
Damage caused by oxidative stress can cause cognitive decline in your dog. Aging dogs also accumulate beta amyloid deposits on their brains. The deposits have nerve-damaging proteins that form a “senile” plaque, that interferes with the transmission of signals from the brain.
How is Canine Dementia Diagnosed?
As with many other conditions, what you report to your veterinarian will be very important to make a proper diagnosis. This includes your dog’s health history and the onset and nature of his symptoms. Also make note of any possible incidents that might have caused the behaviors your dog is experiencing.
From there, your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination to evaluate your dog’s overall health and cognitive function. Other tests, such as routine blood tests, ultrasounds, and X-rays will also be conducted to rule out other conditions that may lead to the behavioral changes seen in your dog. From there, they can make a proper diagnosis of CCD.
Treatment for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dogs with CCD. But there are plenty of things you can do as their owner in tandem with your veterinarian to help extend their lives. They will require support for the rest of their lives once their minds start to go, but you can still improve or at least stabilize their cognitive functions. Again, it won’t cure your dog, but will help slow the progression of decline.
Your veterinarian may prescribe medication for your dog. One such medication is an oral medication known as deprenyl (Anipryl). Deprenyl treats the associated signs of CCD and increases the level of dopamine in your dog’s brain. Once the drug has been administered, some dogs will show a marked improvement in as little as two to three weeks while others will not respond at all.
Your veterinarian may suggest implementing a new, special diet to help improve your dog’s cognitive function. The diet will be loaded with antioxidants, vitamins E and C, flavonoids, Omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients considered excellent for boosting brain power. Additional supplements may be suggested as well.
In addition to medication and diet, there are several things you can do to help your dog cope with his cognitive decline. Recent studies have even found that moderate physical activity, mental stimulation, and a diet rich in antioxidants may help maintain your aging dog’s mental health.
There are several other strategies you can implement in and around your home. Avoid rearranging or even refurbishing furniture to keep your dog’s environment consistent. Also try to eliminate clutter and create wide pathways throughout your home. If your dog is having difficulty with stairs, consider building or purchasing a ramp.
You can encourage short play sessions with your dog if you feel he is healthy enough. Just make sure you know your dog’s limits, especially when introducing new toys. This goes for new people, other animals, and food as well. With regard to training, try to keep your commands short and simple, and don’t get frustrated if they don’t react.
Dogs with CCD will often display some degree of stress, so do what you can to manage your dog’s anxiety. You can even try out things like soothing music and aromatherapy. It’s also a good idea to keep your dog on a strict schedule for feeding, walking, and bedtime. This can help with confused, older dogs. There are even veterinary behaviorists who specialize in re-orienting stressed out and confused older pets.
Preventing Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise throughout your dog’s life is the best course of action to help stave off CCD. Of course, it may still happen no matter what you do, but there are several strategies you can implement that give your dog the best chance possible.
A diet high in antioxidants is best for dogs early in their lives. Antioxidants help destroy free radicals before they can cause harm to your dog’s brain. Mental stimulation is also a great tool when combined with physical exercise. Active dogs will maintain sharp cognitive function longer than those who don’t exercise.
Crate training early in a dog’s life can help with nighttime wandering in his later years. Sometimes, it can cause further stress, but if he is comfortable with the crate, this can sometimes be a good option.
Maintaining your dog’s dental health throughout his life can also help prevent issues from developing. Anything in the head area can lead to other problems, like CCD. And no matter your dog’s age or health condition, make sure you continue to regularly take him to the vet, and pay attention to any changes in his physical condition or behavior. This will put you in the best position to catch anything early on, which will give your dog the best chances of a longer, happier life.
What is the prognosis for dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction?
Your dog’s prognosis will depend on how early the disease is caught. Your dog will respond better to treatment if his cognitive function has not already deteriorated too far. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is not usually a crisis situation, but your dog will decline steadily until you have to make the difficult decision to put him down, even if his body still functions well. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and implementing a strict treatment program can slow the decline and extend your dog’s life.